STOCKBRIDGE -- Once you cross West Stockbridge Road from Berkshire Botanical Garden's visitor center to the 14 lush display gardens on the other side of the street, you're transported to a different world.
Step a few feet into the garden area, and you see it right away -- a strange object in stark contrast to its surroundings. It's a large, green, skeletal sphere made of interconnecting steel bands, with what looks like a cupid's arrow piercing through its center, pointing toward the sky.
The object stands tall on a stone pedestal in the center of a circular patch of grass, looking like a sentry guarding the two perennial gardens that frame the green space on either side.
It's an armillary sphere, a kind of sundial with ancient origins that is still a popular fixture in modern gardens. This armillary is one of many on display at the botanical garden through Oct. 15 as part of "Garden Time: Objects Employing the Sun," an exhibit of both new and old sundials curated by antique dealers Natalie and Greg Randall of R.T. Facts in Kent, Conn.
The exhibit gives visitors a glimpse of "pre-cellphone ways of telling time," said Silka Glanzman, the botanical garden's communications manager.
While the armillary originally emerged in ancient Greece as a celestial guide for astronomers, with rings representing the equator, tropics, and lines of latitude and longitude, it was re-appropriated in the early-to-mid-19th century as a sundial. It became popular as a garden decoration with its whimsical design, according to Barbara Israel, whose book, "Antique Garden Ornament: Two Centuries of American Taste," is considered a definitive work on the subject.
"[The armillary] is a timeless object, and it's not bounded by any great strictures of design or style," Israel said. "It can be country, rustic, in the city, it can be the one object in a small garden -- I think that's a terrific thing."
John Hardacre would agree with that. He designed the green armillary at the botanical garden, and his work is often sold by R.T. Facts. Hardacre runs his iron work business, Steel Statements, with his wife, Leslie, out of their New Milford, Conn., home.
He said he first came across the spherical sundials when an antiques dealer asked him to repair an old armillary. It immediately piqued his interest.
"I just got interested in making them," he said.
He likes feeling that his work is functional as well as decorative.
In order for his armillaries to function as accurate sundials, Hardacre makes sure the arrow, or gnoman, that runs through the sphere's center is parallel to the earth's axes. This, of course, depends on the location of the armillary -- if he was building an armillary at the equator, the gnoman would lie completely flat.
Hardacre makes sure the gnoman points north, and the time can be determined from shadows cast by the gnoman onto numerals that are etched on the inside of one of the steel bands that criss-crosses around the arrow like electrons circling the nucleus in an atomic model.
Hardacre hasn't always seen himself as an artist. He worked in his cousin's machine shop as a kid growing up in Greenwich, Conn., and would help his father make go-carts.
"I love working with steel," he said. "It doesn't break too easily. If you make a mistake, you just bend it back, because it's flexible."
And steel joined the Hard acres together. Leslie was running a jewelry store out of a storefront owned by John's parents in Greenwich, while John was working with his brother on a 40-foot steel work boat that took two years to construct. They met, and soon they were a team, promoting John's work, which includes a host of other designs besides the armillaries.
Since they started Steel Statements, John Hardacre's work has traveled to places as prestigious as Sotheby's (where an armillary had an opening bid of $8,000), and as far as Ireland.
"I'm a little in awe of how humble he is," Leslie said. "The armillaries are his baby and he loves to make them, but he's so modest -- he loves to see the joy they bring people."