Look at a satellite view of Ithaca, and there is one landmark that is hard to miss – a large, concrete turtle toward Cass Park, just off Taughannock Boulevard. Many know it as simply “the giant turtle,” but those who know it well know that turtle is Gaia (Guy-ah) – the mascot and centerpiece of the Ithaca Children’s Garden.
Gaia has been delighting kids and families for 15 years, and for the first time since her original construction, she has gotten a facelift so she can continue to be a mainstay for the garden and the rest of Ithaca for years to come.
Gaia is the brainchild of an innovative team including the three founders of the garden and artists Robert “Bo” Atkinson and Victoria “Victrola” Romanoff. The founders wanted a structure that would stand out and reflect the story of the Native American land on which the garden was built. Atkinson was the sculptor, Romanoff was the designer, and together, they helped turn an original sketch of a flat turtle into a 3-D, realistic structure.
“[Bo is] a master craftsmen, and we enjoy each other’s company and each other’s work,” Romanoff said.
Atkinson, too, was happy to be hired for the project. He said the turtle speaks to something deeper than just being a place to play.
“It was the best thing I was allowed to help with,” he said. “Culturally, I think, it’s making a statement for our civilization that we want to inspire kids with something on the creative side. It’s practical. It’s strong.”
Gaia was so extensive and intricate that she won the American Concrete Institute Central New York Chapter’s Excellence in Concrete Design and Installation gold award in 2005. Her main body, head and legs are made of concrete, with her shell segments filled with vegetation and the outside rim adorned with mosaics depicting lunar positions.
Jean Gerow, facilities manager at Ithaca Children’s Garden, said she has seen how Gaia helped spark the growth of the children’s garden as a lively place for children and families to connect with nature, and the turtle continues to be a fan favorite for visitors.
“It’s the centerpiece of the garden,” Gerow said. “It’s an iconic, visual feature. It’s supposed to be what greets people as they come in.”
Though, as Romanoff put it, Gaia gets old just like people do, and Gaia was due for some repairs. Fifteen years of weathering and being a constant playground for children has deteriorated the concrete, resulting in crumbling and cracking, and Gerow said the garden could not let its mascot stay like that.
“She’s the main jewel or the main thing that you see when you come into the Children’s Garden, so, if she deteriorates, it’s just not a good thing visually,” Gerow said. “She’s got to look good.”
For the renovations completed last week, Atkinson was hired back to marry new concrete to the old, patch Gaia up and bring her to her original glory. This time, unlike 15 years ago, Atkinson had more than just a few hands to help him out; dozens of volunteers showed up to help give new life to a structure many had grown up seeing or playing on.
“It’s been a pleasure working with volunteers,” Atkinson said. “I like doing a lot of things at once, so it’s really fun working with a lot of people.”
Among those volunteers were members of CrossFit Pallas, a fitness facility in Ithaca. Janessa Ciaschi, general manager and coach at Pallas, said she and Pallas got involved about a month before the project began, and she and other members were eager to help.
“Our goal is to help and support our community in which we live,” she said. “Why not use the woman and manpower that we have at the gym to help support the effort and help support our own community?”
Ciaschi, a teacher by trade, has a personal connection to the garden, with two of her kids being avid visitors. This helped her connect with the mission of the renovation and the rest of the garden.
“It was also really important for me to be able to support these efforts to reskin Gaia so that I can take my own kids there to enjoy that space and enjoy the garden overall,” Ciaschi said.
Brett Williams and Laura O’Brien, environmental studies majors at Ithaca College and summer horticultural interns at the garden, also volunteered for the Gaia project, and they said they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Neither had any experience with sculpting or concrete work, but Atkins made it easy to learn, they said.
“It hasn’t been as taxing as we thought it would be, but definitely all the hands we’ve been getting have been great,” Williams said.
O’Brien said the renovation has helped her to meet new people and do work to support a great place and a personal passion.
“It’s interesting that so many different people from the community are coming to help put Gaia back together,” she said. “It’s really cool working with Bo, too, because he gives us really great direction but also a lot of leeway.”
The rest of the volunteers seemed to get a lot out of the experience too, O’Brien said. She saw some who were children when Gaia was first built come back to give the turtle a facelift and loved seeing how much the garden has grown.
“[Gaia is] just a really good, tangible bond, for the community, for families, for kids, a good grounding spot,” O’Brien said.
Volunteers helped with practically every step of the project, including laying leaves on the concrete to keep it moist and making patterns in the wet concrete. This added a personal touch to the structure that had already inspired many.
On Aug. 1, a crew of founders, artists and others connected to the garden and the original Gaia project 15 years ago joined Gerow and Atkinson in a celebration for the wonderful work that will help Gaia continue to stand strong.
The garden celebrates Gaia every year in a Tough Turtle 5k obstacle race along the Cayuga Waterfront and Black Diamond Trails that raises critical funds for the Garden. Registration for this year’s Tough Turtle on Sept. 21 is at www.toughturtleithaca.com/register.
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