Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Marcus Menefee
Though you may not know his name, you have almost certainly seen his work.
Bernhard Meck is an environmental sculptor, a term the German-born artist created to describe his unique work, which in itself is an amalgamation of zoology, botany, engineering and architecture.
The finished products are very much alive, featuring living creatures and plants mixed with concrete recreations of stone and trees.
Meck moved to Memphis 25-years-ago to design exhibits for the Memphis Zoo, an interesting self-developed craft that has evolved drastically from his earlier projects.
One of his most recognizable works in Memphis, is the Central Flight exhibit in the tropical bird house first installed in the late ’90s. It features several multi-story concrete trees and assortment of waterfalls and living birds. Fifty tons of concrete, steel and mortar were fashioned by hand while the animals were on exhibit. However, Meck has also worked with the zoo on other exhibits, the Memphis Botanic Gardens and many personal homes throughout the city and country.
At the time of this interview we’re sitting with Meck at his home, which he shares with his husband DaKoda, his two dogs, a lot of fish and most interestingly his two Dwarf Caimans, a smaller cousin to crocodiles. Meck renovated his home nearly two decades ago to include a 1,000-gallon vivarium that houses his exotic pets. To make the vivarium, Meck cut a large hole in the back room of his house and put in a glass wall so he could watch his exhibit from the comfort of his ‘jungle room,’ named in honor of Elvis Presley.
The water, which comes half-way up the wall, is filled with a variety of fish. An all-natural fog machine creates an eerie layer of haze over the water. An assortment of living plants cling to the walls and dip into the water and in the back of the tank two sets of crocodilian eyes glare at you motionlessly just above the water.
In the back yard the structure that houses the large exhibit is covered in stones that Meck himself made, done in a style to resemble Mayan ruins. At the end of the wall is an outdoor fireplace crowned with a demon head that spews smoke and whose eyes flicker when the fire below it burns. The centerpiece of the backyard is a large pond equipped with a four-foot waterfall that is home to a variety of koi.
Since the weather has gotten cold, Meck has had to relocate his eclectic garden indoors, but typically the rainforest-themed patio features banana trees, orange trees and an assortment of other rare tropical flora.
Meck has a very large personality and is almost as eccentric as his work. So, in his own words, here is his story:
Originally, I’m from a little town in Westphalia, which was a very rural and agricultural town that’s adjacent to Holland. So, I grew up about 30 miles from the Dutch border. I had no real artistic upbringing. My dad was a coal miner. Both of my parents were kind of disadvantaged because of the war, and they both had to leave in kind of frantic ways from the East as refugees, so neither of them really finished school.
My first two artistic things were at my house. I built a pond in the back yard with simple liner, which I understand was there for almost 20 years. One day my mom called me and told me a cow ran through it and punctured the liner, so that was the end of that.
The other thing was this face I sculpted in the basement, the ‘party room’ as we called it, when the house was being built. It was like a kind of a ghoulish mask. Everyone looked at with great admiration. One day dad called all of these guys who worked on the house down to the basement and said, ‘Take a look at this!’ They all looked at it and then dad grabbed a hammer and whacked it off the wall. So that was the extent of my artistic reinforcement at home.
However, as a kid we did go to zoos and aquariums. I didn’t like the installations where you could see service doors or where the backdrop was painted with clouds and a sun. It just looked so phony. I wanted it to be a slice out of nature. That if you looked at it from the front you don’t see anything that is artificial. No pipes, no doors, nothing that looks man-made. I always dreaded that as a kid. Going to different zoos I saw what worked and what did not work. One of the most impressive things I ever saw a kid was the piranha exhibit at the Cologne Zoo in Germany. You walked up and there was this tank and it was open at the top. It had all of these exotic plants growing around and on top of it. The fish would swim towards you. It looked like a slice out of nature. It was then that I knew that was the kind of thing I wouldn’t mind doing.
I ended up attending the University of Muenster in Germany to study economics. That was an absolutely wrong move. I did not enjoy that. I was thinking about going to study journalism in West Berlin, but then I was told it was too leftist a university. If I went there, they said I would never get a job with any of the big magazines. So, I said to myself, ‘Well that leaves me in sort of an ambiguous state, what should I do with myself?’ I had this offer to go work with a friend of mine who had opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills in the U.S. I said, ‘Screw all of this!’ I packed up and left to work for him.
I ended up attending UCLA where I studied history and political science. At one point I was doing research for a Mussolini mini-series and things like that for this producer that did a lot of historical docu-series. His name was Bernie, so we connected because of Bernie, Bernhard. Anyway, that’s just a footnote.
I had two clothing stores Mascots and Novello, these were projects I did with my partner right after college. We had never even worked in a clothing store. We had never worked in a store period. We had never even worked a cash register, but we had this idea that we were going to put together a very eclectic store and that the backdrop of it would be an exotic rainforest. That was what was going to keep people talking about the shop and coming in. We sold a limited collection of eclectic clothing. We had Cafe Shirts, which most people have probably never heard of before, high-end jeans, and so forth.
I wanted to build the rainforest and since I had worked in construction as a kid I knew about certain materials. I had some experience from tinkering with things at my previous residences before. I can’t tell you exactly what I did for a living in college, but when you’re in school you kind of have to improvise to make things happen. Anyway, this rainforest was my first professional stab at something like that. At that point I didn’t know how to do trees, yet ,so I had used natural wood, which of course doesn’t last, but we had alligators.
The formula did work, but we ended up having people repeatedly asking us the same asinine questions over and over again, so we made a sign with all of the information. We had a lot of interesting people coming in. We had Elton John come in one time. We had the guy from Psycho. What’s his name? Anthony Perkins! He came in with a lady friend to show her the rainforest. He took offense of the sign that was in there explaining things. Believe it or not he went ‘psycho’ on me! So, that was a special day. Anyway, a lot of celebrities would bring their friends there. Nicholas Cage came in one time with his whole entourage. He asked me to do something for his condo. ‘In a condo?’ I thought. How would I get this stuff in there, through an elevator? It was chicken-shit, I didn’t want to touch it.
During this time, I had several different individuals approach me and ask if I could do something like our rainforest for them. One company for example was Sebastian, a company that sells hair products. I think that they’re still around. Anyway, in their corporate headquarters they wanted this huge atrium rainforest exhibit because they have this image of being environmentally engaged. So, I along with some other sculptors, built them this exhibit, and it got written up in the Los Angeles times. I still have it somewhere. I did the hardscape, the rocks and stones. They had this one sculptor who made metal trees, which looked kind of cool, but I had no opinion on them. There was another artist who made these benches out of tree trunks with wires spread across them for people to sit on. They were very eclectic, neat or whatever. But what I heard was that when anybody sat on them, and I’ll tell you bluntly, they would go, ‘My God! My ass fell asleep!’ Now the woman artist who did these was a paraplegic, so she could never feel it if she sat on them. Anyway, they later removed them because nobody could sit on them for more than five minutes before they’re butts started to tingle because the wires cut off their circulation. What a bizarre thing. There can be follies in art.
I ended up losing the store to the L.A, riots essentially. Because, suddenly, our clientele, which heavily consisted of Japanese tourists, started staying away from that part of Los Angeles. So that and other issues, plus the store getting, uh what’s the word, pilfered at one point during the riots didn’t help. You know insurance cover acts of God or War or those sorts of things.
After we closed the stores, I took some lowly jobs for a film company that did music videos at the time. I was lowly runner, nothing important. Just a little pissant that runs between offices delivering things for like a $100 a day. So, I went to an office one day to deliver something and by chance I knew the guy behind the counter. He asked me what I was doing with the alligators since I closed the store and had about ten alligators that I had to relocate. I told him, ‘You know, I’m not sure.’ But there was a guy sitting behind me in the lounge wearing a suit and tie who heard me and said, ‘You have alligators? I had alligators when I was a kid.’ My mission had been concluded. I had delivered whatever it was. Next thing I know the door opens and Michael Jackson walks in. So, I went into the elevator with the stranger, who turned out to be Michael’s driver, and Michael Jackson and kept talking to him about the alligators. The driver said to Michael, ‘He has alligators and he has to get rid of them.’ Michael Jackson (Bernhard does an uncomfortably spot on Michael Jackson impersonation.) goes, ‘Oh my God! You have alligators! How many do you have? They scare me, but I’ll take them!’ So, after that I was put into contact with Michael’s lawyer who took all of the critters. I signed this lengthy thick form with all of the details. It was just enough money to get me out of town.
In 1992, after 13 years of living in Los Angeles, somebody from Memphis convinced me that I should get engaged with the Memphis Zoo. Next thing I know I’m getting this offer to work on the reptile house. So, I came here reluctantly never thinking I was going to stay long, and initially I didn’t. I came here for several months, finished several installations and then moved back to LA.
After working with zoos for a while you find that a lot of people don’t like zoos at all. When I came back to L.A. I realized that. I went on this one date with a porn star, whom I was quite enamored with. I wanted to make certain connections and so forth, but the next thing I knew people were telling me that I was ‘aiding to the exploitation of wild and exotic animals’ and had my business card ripped up in front of me. I thought to myself, ‘You know, there’s a lot of that around and I could be judgmental about what other people do for a living, but yeah I need to diversify a little bit more I guess.’
I stayed in L.A. for about a year, and somehow, I got talked into coming back to Memphis with the promise of something big and exciting. So, in 1994 I started working with The Memphis Zoo again.
The first few years in Memphis my living situations were absolutely horrible. It was never my intention to stay here forever, but I ended up buying the house I still live at in 1998.
At some point one of the Prentis’ called me because they wanted these trees sculpted for a Bass Pro Shop in Germantown. To me that was something new and I didn’t trust myself to go forward with it, but I felt challenged! ‘I need to do trees,’ I said! So, I started doing little trees in some of the smaller exhibits in the tropical bird house at the zoo where you can only see partial parts of the trees because they’re meant to hide things or create a nesting cavity or whatever. That evolved into creating huge trees that were two stories high for the Central Flight exhibit. Personally, it’s still my most exciting piece.
This piece at my home, the vivarium and koi pond, was actually done on a dare of sorts by the then President of the Memphis Zoological Society, whom I told that the alligators and their installation looked pitiful and didn’t impress me. People would throw money down at the alligators. The water was too cool, the reptile house was too hot, it needed air conditioning, the animals needed to be lifted up. I gave him a very complex scenario of how it should be. They should be climate controlled. The public should be separated from them and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to throw things at them. I want turtles and fish and live plants in there with them. He asked, ‘How are you going to make all of that happen?’ I told him, but I guess it seemed to be too overwhelming for him.
So, I said, ‘I’m going to do it at my own house.’ It took me two years to do it and when I finally had the pictures ready the zoo was in a very high-stress mode from the pandas coming to Memphis. I went up to him and he said, ‘Bernhard! How are you doing today?’ I said, ‘Good, I have some pictures for you to see.’ I showed him pictures of my caimans swimming behind the glass in the water. He looked at me and guess what he said? He said, ‘Bernhard you are too aggressive.’ I thought, ‘What?’ You know if I was any lamer, a person like me couldn’t make a living in L.A., but of course this is a different playground. So that kind of turned me off with doing things with zoos.
So, I started working with companies that do commercial installations of pools and did some work in Nashville and Germantown, just absurd little things.
So, I started focusing on different jobs at the turn of the millennium. I started traveling back and forth to Hawaii from then until 2004. I was building pools with a very naturalistic feel to them. I would have to figure how to build a pool on one side of a property that couldn’t be accessed by trucks, but that’s a long-winded story. That’s boring. We don’t need to go there.
The construction side is horribly boring. I was featured on HGTV one time, you can look it up, but when you watch it and they ask, ‘Can you show us how to do that?’ I was absolutely reluctant. I had no interest in that. The thing is why am I showing this? So, somebody can try this at their house and then they fail and then they go ‘That stupid idiot on HGTV told me to do it!’ Anyway, but what you want to do is create a basic shape use steel wire mesh, sometimes chicken wire, sometimes welded wire. You pack mud on to it and then concrete onto it. Basically, you want to get as much structural Integrity as possible. In the finishing stage I typically use a mixture of sand, cement and color added so it is a bit more flexible. Then you pack it on, and you choose whatever you want for the texture. Like this patio for example I used a leaf blower. I really wanted it to have this sort of smooth effect, but it turned out the way it did because I had a new helper that didn’t make consistent blows. But it has this kind of natural stone look it worked for me. Sometimes it’s a hit or miss.
Anyway, in between jobs in Hawaii I was asked to do a project for the Crater of Diamonds State Park. You know where that is? If you don’t it is no big deal. It was a project for the State of Arkansas, but the process for getting this thing forward went on for half-a-year or so. Anyway, it became winter and I had another project coming up in Hawaii, so I went, but my job there began to stall too because we had to wait for a subcontractor to come from Maui to Kauai with his equipment. Everything moves slowly in Hawaii because you have to either fly it or bring it over on barges, sometimes from the mainland. So, I’m sitting here in Hawaii and can’t go forward and I start to get these frantic messages from the contractors in Arkansas. They said, ‘We have hired these other artists to substitute you, but they can’t pull it off. They’re nuts. They showed up with minivans with dead raccoons on top of the roof.’ They had this huge landscape that needed to be done and within a month they had only done this tiny section that looked like nothing. So, the contractor was becoming very freaked out and he messaged me and said that he had to fire them, and the state of Arkansas was going to fine him. He made me a very lucrative offer and I left for Arkansas. Within 20 days I had the whole thing wrapped up, got a bonus and went back to Hawaii. That’s kind of how these projects work. They consume your life and then it’s done.
Hawaii sounds fun and glamorous but often it’s very frustrating. For example, you go, ‘I’m going to need a grinder and I know the hardware stores aren’t going to have one, so I’ll just pack one.’ Then you have to get on a flight and all of the sudden Homeland Security takes you to the side. You go, ‘What is the deal now!’ And they tell you that you set off a Geiger Counter, which checks for radiation, with your luggage. It was the stone grinding tool and it had minuscule traces from granite dust which has natural radiation. So, for a New York minute they had me as a terrorist suspect, and within that minute you watch your plane fly off. Stuff like that gets really irritating and all you can do is say, ‘That’s not very cool.’
Over several years I probably spent a total of a year on the islands. I still had my house and I was just flying back and forth between here and Hawaii. I thought, ‘This is getting very complicated.’ One time I was coming back from Hawaii and landed in L.A. because I left my car parked at a friend’s house there, which in the time that I have been traveling had gathered lichen on top of it. Imagine that? I had house-sitters back in Memphis who had failed to understand that the plants growing in the flower bed were actually six-foot weeds. So, I come home from Los Angeles, which took about three days to drive, at around midnight and I have these huge weeds in my garden! I almost had a fit and started pulling weeds out of the ground before I even came inside. Those are the kind of things that make this whole job less glamorous that it sounds.
I wanted to move back to L.A. in about 2004, but then I got this job in Waco, Texas building an exhibit for the University of Baylor’s bears, which is probably the best job I ever got. I had gotten a new phone number, started changing my insurance, my driver’s license. But these jobs across the country were coming in and I’d go, ‘Where should I live?’ Should I live in L.A. again? Should I live in Hawaii? I couldn’t because I couldn’t take my caimans with me. Memphis does have a pretty relaxed exotic animal law. Unfortunately, you can’t have alligators here though because they’re not considered exotic, but caimans you don’t need any permits. What’s the logic you ask? Well I’ll tell you why. Something exotic, specifically in this case tropical, couldn’t survive out in the wild. Tennessee has this thing where you can’t have native animals as pets. Legally that is. So, you can’t have alligators, raccoons, native turtles. The government figures if a caiman got out it wouldn’t survive for very long. 60 degrees is too cold for a caiman to live more than a couple days. An alligator of course could survive. So anyway, I’ve stayed in Memphis partially for that reason.
I’ve always had a passion for reptiles in particular. Crocodilians are the largest and most historic predator that can live in the most confined environment without being smelly, offensive or incarcerated feeling. A lion or tiger likes to roam, an alligator likes to lay in his pool in the sun with his fat belly. To keep a prehistoric predator in an attractive way is very exciting to me. People used to ask me, ‘What are you going to do with those animals when they get too big for you?’ Well, I always ask them, ‘What are you going to do with your wife when she gets too fat for you?’
Anyway, since then I’ve worked on projects for the Botanic Gardens, several water parks personal patios, Chinese restaurants. There is no job description for environmental sculpting. It’s something I just had to make up. Why does an I.T. specialist call themselves an I.T. specialist? Who comes up with that?
Starting a project is always different, sometimes you have an architect do crude renderings where they say this needs to be this big or so forth to comply with guidelines. These rocks need to look as natural to the area as possible. Somethings need to suggest being three-dimensional but actually have to be practically two-dimensional, so that animals can’t crawl up the outside and the people can’t get into the inside. I was a pretty good mischief maker when I was young, so I know how to get up walls. Anyway. Sometimes you’re given parameters and you embellish. Sometimes the client has no idea what they want or how to do it, so then I suggest. So, I might have a vision, but no drawings. I ended up connecting with my husband DaKoda Davis, who was the first person to ever really visually represent what I was talking about.
The first time he impressed me, and this is one of the reasons why I stayed, was when the Memphis Botanic Gardens wanted all of these bugs and these animals sculpted. I was told I should do this, but I really had no interest in it. DaKoda had done some research on it and found which were the most lucrative projects and which were right up my alley. Specifically, he said, ‘Those worms and those big bugs, that’s what you should do!’ Overnight he was working in our studio upstairs like a little gremlin. In the morning he had an architect ready drawing and took it to the Botanic Gardens, and they were sold.
When creating things, I just start playing with stuff. If something looks good to me then that’s probably what I’m going to do more of. I store a lot of pictures, with my pornography of course, and I have several files where I put artistic inspirations: tree houses, roots, underwater landscapes. When I’m working on my own home it’s different. I never finished a corner because I thought I might put a gargoyle there, but then I thought I might want to put an arch here, or maybe I’ll enclose this and separate that. This patio was done, or I thought it was, in 2006. It’s always a work in progress.
Most of the times when I do something and I’m finished with it I go, ‘Wow! I can’t believe I took it this far!’ I’m proud of it, but I feel like I could have gone down a completely different path. Before I left for Memphis, I was working with a Foley artist, now people always go, ‘What is a Foley artist?’ A Foley artist is a sound effect person that makes sounds for movies. Sometimes I wish I had done that so I wouldn’t be working with all of these gritty, dirty materials. I would just be working six hours in a studio and I still would have been proud. Who knows? Maybe if I had stayed working for that production company, I would be making documentaries. This is all an incidental thing. It’s not someone six-years-old saying ‘I want to grow up to be a hairdresser.’ That’s a different kind of mind-set. This is more like we’re going to meander down this river and we’re going to take this course, and this was one of the paths.
Sometimes I’m all gloom and doom. I’ve probably gotten into some asbestos and I’m going to croak from mesothelioma or whatever it’s called. You think of that stuff, but somebody’s got to do this job. You’re carrying 92lb bags every day and your back is sore. So, you have to go to the gym just to be able to even do this job. I come home aching. It’s a very demanding career. I can’t see myself doing this much longer. I think I give myself, at best, another five years. It’s a very labor-intensive, exhausting and a very, very dirty job. People will look at you with this brown colored cement and mud on your face and all over your gloves and clothes. You look like some kind of an elephant proctologist. People ‘shoo’ their kids away so they don’t look at you. You don’t feel like you’re in any kind of dignified position. You don’t feel like an artist. You just feel like a schmuck that slept in dirt! But when it’s done you look around and you say, ‘Wow! It’s so cool.’ When I was working on the tropical birdhouse, I used to tell the exhibit’s curator, ‘You know, one day I’m going to be hanging from this massive concrete tree and the people will say, ‘Ah! There’s that fucking crazy artist! He finally offed himself!’