Artists in Their Gardens

by Valerie Easton and David Laskin

Published by Sasquatch Books

160 pages, 2001

Buy it online





Garden Follows Art

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Artists are special. Different. That is at least part of how they end up being artists in the first place. In the foreword to Artists in Their Gardens, Mark Kane, the executive garden editor of Better Homes and Gardens writes:

Artists make having new ideas look easy. You and I stand amid the displays at the garden center and are overwhelmed by the variety of plants around us, unable to see that a hydrangea would fit that bare spot behind the hostas in the shade of the locust tree. The artist, thanks to training and talent, sees a simpler scene, made up not so much of plants but of shapes (upright, rounded, fan), colors that harmonize or contrast with one another... and textures composed by the size and arrangement of leaves.... To artists, paths and arbors and plants are materials, like tubes of paint.

In Artists in Their Gardens, Seattle writers David Laskin and Valerie Easton -- gardening experts, both -- bring us profiles of 10 artists and their gardens. All of the showcased artists have chosen to live and garden in the heart of the Pacific Northwestern rain forest: from Oregon to British Columbia. Included are "painters, architects, sculptors, glass artists, multimedia artists, and, in one case, an artist whose medium is his garden" in an attempt to "capture and cork at least a whiff of the strange and beguiling perfume that hovers over these gardens."

The "strange and beguiling" ends up being a hint of what will follow. It's salient to remember that, with a single exception, these are gardens created by people who are expert in working with light and texture and shapes, not plants. And while the gardens included differ wildly one from another, each garden seems to reflect the personality and art of its creator quite precisely: like a living thumbprint.

For example, the garden of Lee Kelly, "one of the Northwest's most respected and prolific sculptors," provides a viewing ground for the huge metal personal pieces he has created and placed there over the last four decades. Kelly's monolithic end-of-the-millennium memory sculpture is situated in a meadow overlooked by a field where sheep often graze. A memorial to his son commands a special place in the garden and there is another for his wife, who died in 1990. The resulting garden is "not only... an outdoor gallery but also... a place to honor the memory of those he has loved" and these become "part of the meaning of the garden."

In contrast with Kelly's stately, focused outdoor gallery, the Vancouver Island garden of painters Grant Leier and Nixie Barton is a riot of contrasts and color. Leier says that he was "tired of seeing gardens where everything is raw and natural." And theirs, of course, is not. Garishly painted birdhouses adorned with fresh fruit; painted chickens, painted moose, classical sculpture and all sorts of things that you'd normally say shouldn't be found in a garden in the first place. "The art and the garden have a common spirit: the impulse to fill every square inch with something hot, bright and wonderful; to decorate until surfaces sing; to include, amass, accumulate, and display."

Each chapter features an artist and ends with a section called "The Artist's Eye" that neatly breaks down the preceding garden into chunks that the non-artist can deal with and perhaps emulate.

Artists in Their Gardens is both informative and inspirational; a book that not only offers a focused glimpse into the personal growing space of some very talented people, it translates some of what we see into creative fertilizer that we can bring to our own gardens. | March 2001


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.