Whimsical sculpture, native plants at Mueller’s Southwest Greenway

Stalking the urban prairie high atop eight metal legs, her bulbous abdomen glittering with blue and green gazing balls, this 23-ft. tall Shelob-sized spider by Houston artist Dixie Friend Gay (titled ‘Arachnophilia’) is one of three larger-than-life sculptures placed amid native plants and crushed-granite jogging trails at Mueller (pronounced Miller), a New Urbanist community in east-central Austin.

A closer look at the spider’s abdomen. She appears to have been feasting in a Victorian garden full of gazing balls.

Mueller Airport closed to air traffic 10 years ago, replaced by a bigger international airport southeast of downtown. Now single-family homes on small lots, row houses, and apartments occupy land once reserved for runways, and the developers tout the community’s green-building program and water-wise landscaping. At first glance it looks like a pretty cool place to live, but Mom and I were just visiting last Friday, checking out the restored Blackland prairie and fun sculptures in the Southwest Greenway, like ‘Wigwam,’ this 17-ft. tall tower by Austin artist Chris Levack. A labyrinth of native grasses and sprawling Lindheimer senna spirals to a termination point under the tower.

Numerous kidneywood trees (Eysenhardtia texana) were in full bloom, which meant the bees were aswoon and so was I: the flowers smell absolutely delightful. I grew one of these small, airy native trees in my old garden, and I loved its citrus-scented leaves and fragrant white flower spikes that appear throughout the summer.

My nose was pressed to the flowers for a dreamy moment.

From this vantage point you can see two of Chris Levack’s sculptures at the same time. (In fact, I think they’re placed rather too close together and should have been given more prominence through separation.) The spherical sculpture next to ‘Wigwam’ tower is called ‘Pollen Grain.’ More about it in a moment.

Turning back to the plants, I noticed that some areas are planted in single-specimen arrangements: a large swath of black dalea (Dalea frutescens) here; nearby, distinct plantings of prickly pear, damianita, and a sad patch of purple coneflower that appeared not to have survived the summer. It’s a contemporary treatment, with each group of plants set off from the others by edging.

Crouching for a better look at the black dalea, I heard a steady, deep humming that told me the whole swath was alive with bees. Between the kidneywood and the dalea, the bees were very happy indeed.

Near the dalea, a tunnel of desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) shelters a curving path with benches. Lovers’ lane?

The trail winds its way through the straddling legs of Levack’s ‘Pollen Grain’, a 14-ft. tall sphere that represents a microscopic grain of pollen. I learned this from the artist’s wife, who happened to be running past, heard us talking about it, and stopped to tell us that her husband had made it. It was a fun chance encounter.

Detail of ‘Pollen Grain’

We had already exclaimed over the unique drain covers that my mom declared a snake design. Levack’s wife told us that he designed those too. I love the craftsmanship given even to such utilitarian objects.

Among the spineless prickly pear (Opuntia) one was still blooming.

A blazing sunflower caught my eye too.

Winding our way to the giant spider we admired this arrangement of softleaf yucca (Y. recurvifolia), agave, native grasses, and lantana. The spiky plants provide evergreen structure and lead the eye through the scene; the other plants provide texture and seasonal color. Deer would not favor any of these, except for the yucca blooms.

An emerging flower spike on a softleaf yucca

Seeing as the spider was either preparing to pounce or waving goodbye, we took our leave. But I’ll be back soon with my kids in tow so they too can appreciate the sights, sounds, and sweet smells of Mueller’s greenbelts.

Other bloggers’ perspectives on Mueller:
Lee visited during bluebonnet season. See The Grackle’s March post about Mueller.
Meredith recently posted about the Southwest Greenway at Great Stems and shows the early-fall scene.

All material © 2006-2009 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

22 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    Those wonderful sculptures just add the perfect element to the garden. You have such a way of capturing the scene that I want to rush out there right away. It might just be a place to visit on the Master Gardeners’ tour as one of the gardens is in that direction. Thanks for the visit. I was sad when the airport closed because it was so convenient to get to and was so small town. Austin grew up!

    After seeing Lee’s and Meredith’s posts about Mueller, I’ve been wanting to rush over there too. It’s a very fine place for a stroll on a nice day. Plus there are two other greenbelts that I didn’t have a chance to explore. —Pam

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Woooo, that spider would have many people running along those paths. What an interesting sculpture. I like the pollen too, well, they are all handsome sculptures. I could almost hear those bees humming.

    The bees were in humming ecstasy, Lisa. And yes, that spider could give some people pause, though it really looks more like a daddy longlegs than any scarier type of spider. —Pam

  3. Amazing photos of the spider and pollen grain. How creative is that?
    Thanks for sharing this Pam.

    My pleasure, Jackie. —Pam

  4. Meredith says:

    Pam, you got a much more in-depth look at the gardens than I had time for when I was there last week. Our group was only there for a few minutes, and then my family picked me up and I rushed off to Rockport. I appreciate the details of your post — and wow, I love those unique drain covers! The kidneywoods were just beautiful and so alive with pollinators. It’s one of the things I love about kidneywood — it’s as if the plant is buzzing, there are so many bees. The dalea was so beautiful that I’m determined to find a spot in my yard for some. And congratulations on your Blotanical nominations, Pam. Your blog is so fantastic — there’s so many other awards you deserve, too! Thanks again for catching what I missed last week — I’m going to have to take my family back to Mueller for a visit soon (they weren’t on the tour). They’ll love that spider!

    Thanks for your kind words, Meredith, and congrats to you on your Blotanical nominations as well. Like you, I’ll be back at Mueller with my family soon. The kids will love the spider, the labyrinth, and the beautiful pond, which I neglected to get pictures of—drat. —Pam

  5. wiseace says:

    Now that’s a spider I’d love looming over my garden.

    She’s pretty cool, isn’t she? —Pam

  6. Gail says:

    Pam, What a fantastic resource for Austin~~this may be the best greenway I’ve seen. The contemporary, yet native plantings are incredibly attractive~~a good marriage! Your wonderful shot of “Pollen Grain” behind “The Tower” looks like shimmering glass… Do you have the dalea in your garden? gail

    I had black dalea in my old garden, Gail, but I neglected to give it enough room to spread, and I eventually replaced it with something less rangy. It is lovely in bloom though. —Pam

  7. Those sculptures are great, and I love the planning that went into this living space. But I really adored the manhole covers most of all. I think that’s why I gravitate so much toward old things anymore… it used to be that utilitarian things were crafted with so much love, and sometimes aesthetic considerations as well. Simply because we didn’t HAVE all of the crap that we are able to buy today. (Give me more things like handmade, handsome heating vent covers… and less $5 knicknacks from Target!)

    Kim, you’re right—even humble things can be beautiful. But I think Target actually understands that very well, which accounts for its success. Still, I know what you mean. It’s the idea behind the Not-So-Big house & garden books, right? Quality over quantity. —Pam

  8. Iris says:

    Thank you so much for this fantastic tour, Pam! I had no idea such cool sculptures and plantings were happening at Mueller. Once I make a dent in extracting the evil nutgrass in my front yard garden, I’m heading over to check it out myself!

    I’m waging war on nutgrass myself, Iris. To battle! —Pam

  9. Jenny B says:

    It’s hard to believe it has been 10 years since they closed that airport! I love the spider–it looks like one of our famed tarantulas! The kidneywood looks beautiful. Do the hummingbirds like it?

    Hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a hummingbird at a kidneywood flower before. Local readers, have you? —Pam

  10. Great post and great place, thanks for including the back-story on the community too. I love the spider but completely agree with you on the other two pieces being too close together. I thought maybe it was just the angle of the photo but since you mentioned it too I guess not.

    Do you happen to know the name of the blue agave that is close to the spider in the first picture and behind the blooming yucca in one of the last? It looks to be the same as a couple I’ve been given by my in-laws, that I’ve never got a good ID on. I was going to post asking for help on this later in the week.

    Loree, I assume it is plain old Agave americana, which is regularly used all over town. But if anyone reading this knows definitively, I’d welcome a correction. —Pam

  11. Les says:

    I like the whole idea of re-purposing an airport into well managed land use, particularly when it is surrounded by green belts, gardens and such cool sculpture. Perhaps the spider was full of blue eggs.

    Erm, so there may be a clutch of elephant-sized baby spiders running around Austin soon? Frightening! —Pam

  12. Jane says:

    I love this post!

    What a nice intro to unused airport land, and in a city I know nothing about but can enjoy coming to know. The larger-than-life sculpture is great! I bet your children will love them.

    Thanks for visiting, Jane. Yes, Mueller seems to be a good in-fill project with some nice amenities. And it’s great that non-residents like myself can enjoy the trails and art as well. —Pam

  13. Red Studio says:

    What beautiful photos and amazing sculpture. As a rule I run screaming (hands in the air) at the sight of spiders and snakes. But these I love. I want one.

    I know what you mean. Wouldn’t it be something to see this spider peeking over a neighbor’s garden fence? —Pam

  14. Amy Emerick says:

    Hi, Pam — I will have to check this out and thanks for sharing. I didn’t even know this existed in Austin. I must venture out :).

    It’s a nice place to visit especially now that the weather is cooling off, Amy. —Pam

  15. Wow, that playfulness looks very Austin, doesn’t it, Pam!
    My first experience of Austin was landing at the old Mueller Airport before heading out to look at houses. That was right before the switch, so a month later we ended up at the new ABIA. What a change in 10 years. Thanks for showing us another place to take out-of-town visitors- glad you had a chance to visit it with your family.

    Because most of the established parts of Austin are dense with old tree growth, it’s especially interesting to see these sculptures sited in an open urban area with the prairie plants. The kidneywood and dalea look wonderful where they can expand in every direction.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Good point, Annie, about seeing these two native plants in an open, sunny location versus under the cover of trees. They definitely look best where they can spread out. —Pam

  16. Lola says:

    Awesome Pam. I’ve never seen anything like those sculptures. The spider is something else.
    I saw the blooms on some of the cacti when I was there & they are really pretty.

    I think cactus flowers are exquisite. Isn’t it interesting that such prickly plants can flower so magnificently? —Pam

  17. Mamaholt says:

    Great pictures, Pam. I just love the Mueller complex. I have a 5-year-old and the whole park is endlessly fascinating for both of us. What a great, GREAT job they’ve done. Oh, I had no idea it was pronounced Miller! Thanks for that tip. PS The pool is open to the public most days and is way cool too.

    I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get over there, Mamaholt. I saw the pool, which looked like it was drained for winter, and I still have much else to explore. I’m looking forward to my next visit. —Pam

  18. That spider is so cool. I love garden art. Thanks for the post!

    Thanks for stopping by, Joel. —Pam

  19. […] On the patio, people were enjoying the beautiful weather. In hotter months these unique metal-and-wood trellises would provide welcome shade. The artist who constructed them is the same Chris Levack who created some of the sculptures at Mueller’s Southwest Greenway. […]

  20. Keith Brown says:

    Great Blog! I really enjoyed looking around. You have a lot of fun pics.

  21. […] to our climate, with the plant-rich Blackland prairie of east Austin offering one model (see the Mueller neighborhood’s green spaces) and the short, clumping grasses of the arid Hill Country to our west offering another […]

  22. […] pine, an embracing, textural sculpture by local artist Chris Levack, who is known for his popular Mueller neighborhood sculptures. It makes an intriguing gate to pass through going in or out of the […]