Moment: Rooted in nature: Topiary sculptor produces living art

Moment: Rooted in nature: Topiary sculptor produces living art

February 16th, 2015 by Tim Barber in Local Regional News

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but after two decades of creating topiary art, Joe Kyte knows how to grow it on a portable steel frame.

The 56-year-old former regional sales manager for a hydroponics company turned to topiary sculpture in the early 1990s, honing his skills in American portable-style topiary. The practice, according to sources, was introduced at Disneyland in 1962 as a way for Walt Disney to re-create his cartoon characters in shrubbery throughout the theme park. The classical art form of foliage landscaping, called "topiarius," dates to ancient Rome.

"The Disney people taught me a few things 21 years ago," Kyte said. "Now I build giant, steel-framed, planted topiary animals, living corporate logos and steel-wire three-dimensional sculptures."

For projects created at home, the Tellico Plains, Tenn., resident first scales the structure to size by tagging his driveway with spray paint. Shapes from some of his previous works are still faintly visible on the asphalt.

Then, with strict precision, Kyte welds his design into a steel structure. Finally, he fills it in and covers the steel with faux or live plants.

To date, Topiary Joe, as he calls himself professionally, has crafted more than 4,000 sculptures for private and corporate clients. Right now he's working on three 8-foot-tall "diamond" rings filled with sphagnum moss for Rick Terry Jewelry Designs in West Knoxville.

"They will be decorated with a lot of bling-bling lighting," Kyte said last week from his home studio.

Kyte recently spent seven weeks at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., to complete an on-site creation scheduled to debut March 7. It is a hush-hush exhibit until then, according to Kyte, so he can't elaborate on the theme.

Now at the height of his craft, Kyte can command tens of thousands of dollars for his three-dimensional creations. He has worked for some of the biggest names in entertainment, advertising and television sports networks. Google, DreamWorks and Dasani are just a few of the corporations he lists as clients.

Last week, Kyte said, he got a call from an ESPN associate producer asking him to create a topiary basketball bracket that will be used on TV to display the names of the wild-card teams in the March college playoffs.

Not all of Kyte's works are toted elsewhere. His front yard is a steel sculpture garden of cars, animals and a vertical cobra snake just feet from his mailbox along the highway leading to the Tellico River.

Ten topiary sculptures can be found among various businesses in Tellico Plains, population 894, including a hulking dragon at the Crab Trap Restaurant and Willie the Bookworm at the Tellico Plains Public Library.

Kyte said his inspiration is similar to the people-pleasing vision that drove Walt Disney.

"I provide something that is an immediate green thing that they can display or bring to life inside their park and make people, and especially kids, smile," he said. "And that's what the whole thing's for, so that we can make kids smile."