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Paludarium gifts brighten, enlighten biology’s nooks

May 11, 2005 By Terry Devitt

Room 118 of the old Genetics Building is a portal to Wisconsin biology education. As the home of the Institute for Cross-College Biology Education, it is a place where prospective and current students are counseled, and academic pathways in the life sciences are routinely explored and mapped.

It is only fitting, then, that John Glaeser’s “jungle paradise” takes center stage there. A retired artist and designer, Glaeser is constructing his own 20-cubic-foot version of Eden in a paludarium, a hybrid aquarium-terrarium complete with tropical plants, fish and waterfalls.

“It’s living art,” Glaeser explains to a visitor as he steps around plants, gravel and volcanic rock arrayed in the foyer of the institute. “It becomes an art piece that is very analogous to a garden.”

The paludarium is centered on large chunks of red volcanic rock which, in the fashion of a coral island, rises from the water and provides pocks and holes for tropical plants. Glaeser says the work is intended as a refuge for busy minds. With tiny waterfalls and a fogger to generate mist, the effect will be of a tropical island, the perfect escape for winter-weary staff, students and faculty.

“It provides a break, an opportunity to take a walk in your imagination,” says Glaeser. “It gives a sense of discovery to the mind’s eye.”

The large paludarium Glaeser is constructing is the second paludarium he has built on the Madison campus. The other is in Science House. On the second floor of Noland Hall, Glaeser has created a 75-gallon aquascape. He also has built and maintained a 150-gallon aquarium stocked, fittingly, with aquatic plants in the cavernous lobby of Birge Hall, the building that houses the university’s botany department.

All of Glaeser’s glass-encased artwork has been donated. His only request is that the recipients care properly for his creations.

“He asks that we do routine maintenance, but that’s a way to get others involved as much as anything,” says Tom Sharkey, a professor of botany and the director of the Institute for Cross-College Biology Education.

Sharkey, who met Glaeser in passing as he tended his aquarium in Birge Hall, is delighted to have Glaeser’s living art decorate the entry point to Wisconsin biology education. “Having that paludarium here is incredibly appropriate. It’s a centerpiece for biology,” Sharkey says.

Glaeser, who retired from Wisconsin Public Television in 1998 after working almost 40 years as a scenic designer, has been building customized aquariums and terrariums for almost 20 years. In recent years he has expanded his portfolio to paludariums. He is a founder and president of the Madison Aquarium Gardeners Club, which formed in 2000 as a hobbyist gateway to planted aquaria. The group meets regularly at Science House on campus.

In addition to his donations to UW–Madison, Glaeser has built, planted and tended aquaria at Edgewood College’s new Sonderegger Science Center and Madison’s West High School.

“So I have my weekly aquarium service route,” says Glaeser. “Gardens need tending. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this art form with others.”

For Sharkey, the nascent paludarium being built for the Genetics Building is
inspirational. “It is artistic. It is an expression of what is attractive about biology.”

For Glaeser, the living artwork that he seeds in campus learning environments is a way to give something back to UW–Madison “for the difference it has made in my life.”

What’s more, it is a chance to engage others in an art form whose practice engenders a greater appreciation of the wonders of biology and life.