When botany and mechanical engineering meet, the result can be frightfully amusing.
This is the case for a new, rare and exotic plant species officially named Audreyosa napana var. mastergardeneria (Oz) Rasmussen, or simply Audrey III.
This animated plant of a unique origin was the brainchild of Jane Callier, U.C. Master Gardener and Yvonne Rasmussen, Napa County Master Gardener coordinator. But it took the ingenious mind of Yvonne’s father, Don Rasmussen, to bring the money eater to life in time for the Master Gardener’s first Fall Faire.
Having been in hibernation for a year, Audrey III is hungry and looking forward to you feeding her at the 2019 festival coming up on Saturday, Oct. 5, noon to 4 p.m. at the river-side park behind the Master Gardener’s office, at 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa.
“We came up with the idea of her as a fun way to encourage the Fall Faire attendees to make donations” to help fund the Master Gardeners’ community education programs, Yvonne said.
“That idea was the easy part. My next step was to convince my dad to make her. But, surprisingly, it didn’t take much because, I think, my dad liked the idea and the challenge.”
Don Rasmussen, a Caltech graduate who worked on electro-mechanical devices professionally, has designed and built other animated, large-scale animals, including a five-foot long alligator and a large winged bat. “They both sit out on my porch at Halloween,” he said.
Don spent month in his laboratory, AKA garage, creating Audrey III. Set on a plywood base, Audrey’s frame consists of a “stem” supported by her “roots,” leafy arms, an oversized head and numerous decorative pieces.
“She needed to be lightweight and portable,” he said. “She was designed with detachable arms for ease of transportation. PVC irrigation pipe was perfect for her skeleton as it is lightweight but strong and durable.
“But I had to figure out how to be able to bend the PVC to create her form. I used a heat gun to soften the pipe so I could manipulate it into her stem, roots and large head.”
Another material solution for her large side leaves, or Audrey’s arms, came by way of a catered Master Gardeners’ luncheon. Don explained, “I used the heavy gauge foil pans to make the leaves. But I needed a smooth surface to make those leaves. So I used a wooden spoon to flatten out the pans.” That smoothed foil was transformed into a pair of two-and-one-half foot leaves for Audrey’s arms and two other one-foot leaves.
With her framework completed, Don applied his mechanical engineering experience to animate Audrey’s jaw, which is about two feet deep. He said, “I used a shaft motor just like I had used for the alligator and bat.”
It took some trial and error before he had the correct shaft size and motor speed. “The first motor was too fast. Audrey opened and closed her mouth very rapidly and hard. We didn’t want anyone to be hurt,” Yvonne said.
The shape of Audrey III became more evident with the first layer of papier mache. She looked a bit ghostly at that point. Unfortunately, the papier mache paste generated a problem. Yvonne said, “One evening when we were inspecting her progress, my dad noticed all these little bits of paper all around her base. We realized the flour in the paste had attracted mice. So, we had to move her into the house.”
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By that time, Audrey had been “planted” into her big plastic pot. Fortunately, Don had also placed Audrey, pot and all, onto a plant container caddie with wheels. That addition saved their backs as Audrey weighs about 50 pounds.
Creating Audrey’s skin required even more patience as each layer of papier mache needed to dry thoroughly. But, there were more layers to follow. Don said, “To make a tough and durable top coat, I applied layers of cloth mache using strips of torn up sheets soaked in a white glue and water solution. Although it took awhile to complete and air dry each layer, the white glue dried to a smooth and tough finish. I used about three-quarters of a large jug of white glue for the cloth mache.”
During this entire process, the Rasmussens turned to their television for help and assistance. “We must have watched the movie ‘Little Shop of Horrors at least 20 times,” Yvonne said. “My dad would go back to specific scenes for Audrey’s details, especially when he started to paint her.”
Her color palette included shades of greens, yellows, reds, purples, blues and blacks. “I used about 15, or more, tones of paints.” Her teeth were sculpted of modeling clay,” Don said.
“We kept testing them with Audrey’s mouth in motion to make sure her teeth weren’t too sharp to avoid causing any injuries,” Yvonne added.
The creation of Audrey III was also an example of recycling. The Rasmussens had most of her building materials on hand, such as the drip irrigation line used for her thin, twining tendrils. Also, her container was a cracked pot destined for the recycle bin.
“That pot worked out great as the crack was in the prefect place for the extension cord,” Yvonne said. Most of the paint was either leftovers in their garage, cast off paint store samples or from the Napa Recycling store. “As a result, we didn’t spend that much to make her,” Yvonne said.
Regarding his experience of creating the money-eating “plant,” Don said, “Actually, I enjoyed it and had a lot of fun bringing Audrey III to life.”
As with last year, Audrey III will stand near the entrance of the Master Gardeners’ Fall Faire. Seated close by, but out of view, Mark Callier, Jane’s husband, will supply Audrey’s voice.
“As people walk by he, Audrey, will greet them,” Yvonne said. “Last year, some of the younger children weren’t too sure about her so they had their parents help feed Audrey the money, just in case. One little boy just tossed coins into her mouth because he didn’t want to get too close to her big mouth.”
As a fundraiser, Audrey gobbled up over $200 last year.
Audrey III draws a lot of attention, but she also encourages everyone to visit the entire Fall Faire. This year, there will be something for all ages and interests, such as children’s games, learning about real carnivores plants or how-to plant flowering bulbs, take-home, hands-on projects, including making mushroom kits, floral garlands and bouquet garni.
Also, a food truck will be available, and the local band, Not Dead Yet! will provide musical entertainment from noon to 2 p.m.
“But please, keep Audrey III happy and feed her, too!” Yvonne said.