Every November, there is as much hustle and bustle in Bob McComb’s shed as Santa’s workshop. But, instead of toys, McComb is creating “Lights in Bloom” at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens for the nice boys and girls of Sarasota.
“Lights in Bloom” is a holiday light display set to a botanical theme that decks the grounds of Selby Gardens with lights: Trees are illuminated with dozens of blinking snowflakes; the banyans branches are filled with colorfully lit butterflies; the succulent garden has green light-up cacti; rope lights outline the pathways; and illuminated heliconia and ivy drape from the natural canopies.
Before the creation is installed, all of the elements that make up Lights in Bloom — each butterfly, flower and power cord — are in their designated places on carefully labeled shelves in McComb’s shed. But, by the first week of December, snowflakes and pieces of Santa’s sleigh are overflowing out the door among oversized alphabet blocks and archways — and, of course, there are strands of lights everywhere.
The windows of the shed are blacked out so he can see what the lights will look like. During this time of year, McComb puts in 11-hour days, but he continues to work four hours a day after “Lights in Bloom” is taken down to prepare the shed, shop for more lights and design the following year’s display. It’s a year-long job.
“I’m thinking about it constantly,” he says of each year. “I already know what I’m going to do next year, but I can’t tell!”
Nine years ago, McComb ran Selby’s stores and admissions. He thought Selby could feature an inexpensive yet impressive holiday display of lights, so he made a presentation to the board.
“I told them we should take it to its roots,” McComb says. “I wanted to take (the holiday display) back to the gardens … and bring it back to nature.”
He was thinking of a natural spin on normal holiday lights. So, in 2003, he pitched the idea of flowers, heliconias and vine lights.
Before Selby, McComb had a long career as a graphic designer but had no prior lighting experience. He doesn’t even decorate his own home at Christmas (his daughter does that for him).
“The first year was hard,” he says. “We had to create everything from scratch.”
For McComb, it isn’t a matter of hanging a few lights and calling it quits — there’s meticulous detail that goes into making Selby glow for the holiday season. Some strands have textured plastic cut to look like leaves attached to the front of each bulb. Intricate, painted wooden ornamental façade pieces frame The Payne House, to make it resemble a storybook home. Wooden ivy segments and heliconias are cut out and painted, then corresponding colored lights are attached. There are hundreds of these wooden forms all over the grounds. It’s a workload meant for an army but accomplished by McComb and about 30 volunteers.
He made about 50 butterfly and dragonfly forms the first year — an element he continues to use. Since the first year, he’s designed and conceived a total of six “Lights in Bloom” displays.
After the first year, McComb completed two more holiday seasons designing the light display before retiring. After three years, Selby asked him to return. He gladly accepted. The project couldn’t be done without “Mr. Illuminator,” a nickname the staff gave him. The display continues to evolve.
“I think of it as a living process,” he says. “The gardens are living and so is this — things are changing all the time and things get bigger.”
McComb has to adapt his lights every year. Bamboo shoots that started as sprouts are 15 feet tall now — and each is covered in lights. And his six grandchildren, who are involved in “Lights in Bloom” every year, are also growing.
“My grandsons were the elves, but now they are each 6 feet tall, so my granddaughter is going to be an elf,” he says.
New light displays are planned for this year’s “Lights in Bloom,” which starts Dec. 15. There will be a water feature with glowing egrets taking flight from man-made driftwood; interactive light boards on which attendees can change the color of the displays; and an 18-foot Bavarian-style tree representing the 12 days of Christmas.
“There’s a lot to do still,” he says after pointing out where lights will eventually hang. Smiling, he says, “I haven’t even told you everything.”
But the “oohs” and “ahhs” of guests make the tedious yearlong planning process and three weeks of installation worth it, he says.
IF YOU GO:
“Lights in Bloom” 2012
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 15 through Dec. 23; Dec. 26 and Dec. 27.
Where: Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave.
Cost: $13 for members; $15 for adults
Info: Call 366-5731
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