JARS v45n4 - Art in the Garden

Art in the Garden
George F. Drake
Bellingham, Washington

Placing art in your garden is like planting a new shrub in your yard. You need to imagine how it will fit in relation to what's already there.
Even experts can make mistakes. Recently the well-known Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander allowed a work of art by the Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata in the garden that she had created for the Canadian National Gallery in Ottawa. On seeing the result, her heart sank. It was not "right" for the garden. "I regret that under pressure I acquiesced to the gallery's request to allow this work in my garden," she told the news media.
While our mistakes may not make the national news, this highly visible incident shows that the placement of art in the garden warrants thoughtful consideration of the relationship of the art object to the environment or garden. In the gardening world there are persons who are "plant plunkers". They see a plant in the nursery or in a catalogue that they like and get it without an idea of how to place it appropriately in the garden. For a number of years my wife and I ran a rhododendron nursery, and we were continually dismayed at the number of persons who would purchase a plant only by the color of the flower (of course it had to be in bloom when bought). They were not sensitive to the color or texture of the leaf, the structure of the plant, or its ultimate height. Often the buyer did not even have a site prepared for the plant. They were buying it because they "liked it". They went home and "plunked" it in the landscape.
Now, while this might be good for nursery sales it is not good for maximizing the pleasure that could be derived from the purchase of the plant. Much the same, though, can be said about the purchase and placement of works of art in the garden. I am sure that the "art plunkers" are just as enthusiastic as the "plant plunkers", and while we do not want to deny them the pleasure of purchasing works of art for the garden it might be wise for them to consider a number of variables that should (or could) be taken into consideration when purchasing or placing a work of art in the garden. Let us review some of these variables.

Under this topic one considers the work of art from the perspective of its compatibility with its context. This, perhaps, was one of the major problems with the Kawamata installation in Oberlander's garden. Recently we sold a marvelous bench of iron re-bar by Virginia Sherrow made so that one sat on the laps of "Daisy and Lloyd", 19th century figures with bonnet and straw hat. The buyers were an attorney and his wife who lived in a Victorian wood frame house. The sculpture, albeit modern in concept and design, fit within the context of its setting while an abstract cast aluminum work would not "fit" as comfortably. Much modern abstract welded art does not "fit" within the peaceful or calm setting of many gardens but would be appropriate in the public space near a busy street or in an urban setting that is more geometric and metallic.
Not all contemporary art is modern, abstract, welded and non-representational. Persons living in older homes can find excellent works by contemporary artists that would be comfortable in the yard of an adobe house or a Georgetown brick front dwelling. The point is that one should think of the context of the work when deciding which work to buy.

Garden sculpture by artist Benbow 
'54-40 or Fight by artist Benbow Bullock, Gardens of Art
Photo by JoAnn Roe

Here we consider the size or scale of a work, its shape or form, the material of which it is made, its mass or density, its complexity. Other physical attributes to be considered are whether or not it is kinetic (moving), acoustical (making sounds), shadow producing or highly colored. All of these properties of the work of art are independently variable. Just like the person who bought the rhododendron merely because the color was "just right" but failed to consider its ultimate height, its need for sun, etc., is the person who buys a work of art for placement in the garden who does not take into consideration the properties noted above.
It is obvious that a sensitive gardener would plant Rhododendron serpyllifolium albiflorum near the edge of the path or walkway, since the beauty and quality of this very fine leafed and tiny flowered rhododendron would be lost were it placed where it could only be seen in a distant view. The same principle applies to an art work that is small or finely detailed. Its defining characteristic is lost in the distance and should be placed near the walkway so the intricacies of its form and detail can be seen and appreciated.
When considering color of the art work in the garden one should think of the effect of weather and time on the color. Some works of painted steel will have to be repainted from time to time while a bronze work will rarely have to have the patina reworked but, on the contrary, look better with age. How is that color going to look in the winter setting or in a garden in full bloom? Is the color of the planting compatible with the color of the artwork?
Not many, but a number of artists are producing works of art for the garden that produce sounds. Be careful. What might prove "interesting" or "novel" when heard in the gallery becomes noise when heard too often. The ear is tuned to culturally acceptable sounds which we define as pleasing and others, such as a pane of breaking glass, as discordant or jarring. Popular now are garden gongs that look beautiful but sound like someone hitting a garbage can lid. On the other hand one can buy chimes that are perfectly tuned to various scales and in various sizes. Being in perfect pitch and tuned to known scales no matter how the wind plays them, they play a melody and not a cacophony of discordant notes. This adds the aural dimension to the visual dimension of art in the garden.
The Czech/Northwest sculptor Jan Zach wrote, "My own concern in sculpture is with the illumination of forms in space and with the utilization of the resultant shadows...as a plastic element of equal importance with the solid and negative volumes of the sculptural work." Consequently one should consider not only then inherent qualities of the work itself but also its interaction with the setting. Shadows of a work on a stark fence or wall can be exciting and continually changing. A welded steel work titled "Gismo" by the Northwest artist Richard Warrington was painted all white. I was surprised at the many varieties of white that resulted as the sun moved through the sky causing a continually changing pattern of shadows.

'Gismo' by artist Richard Warrington
'Gismo' by artist Richard Warrington,
Gardens of Art
Photo by JoAnn Roe

The staging of a work needs to be taken into consideration in its placement. Is the background compatible with the work itself or is the work lost in the background? How about the foreground. Enframement is the way in which a work is framed by garden elements or elements within the dwelling. In our home we have a large stoneware jar by Clayton James placed about 30 feet from the house but we see it framed by a floor to ceiling window every time we enter the living room. It provides a marvelous focal point in the garden and is as much a part of the aesthetic quality of our inside environment as is the painting over the fireplace just to the left of this view. Under "staging" we also consider the base for the art work, its lighting and labeling.

Independent of the idea expressed in the work of art is the quality of its execution. Not all good conceptual artists are good craftsmen. When considering the purchase of a sculpture for the garden take the time to check the craftsmanship. There is a world of difference in the welding of stainless steel by a perfectionist, such as the Seattle artist Jon Geise, and the work of some other artists working in the same medium. Not only is the finished quality or "look" of the piece affected by craftsmanship but so is its durability. One must be alert to welds that pop with temperature changes, buckling or warping of the material with heat or cold, fading of colors with sunlight. One question that we can ask ourselves as we consider a work of art is how this work will be considered a hundred years from now. Work by master craftsmen/artists such as Jan Zach, Clayton James or David Marshall, to name but a few artists from the Northwest, will remain as excellent examples of their genre of art even if the concepts or content of their art may no longer be in vogue.

Other elements to be considered when purchasing art for the garden are cost factors, maintenance and security. The cost of an art work should mentally be distributed over the probable life of the work of art. A work that has an expected life in the garden of five to ten years and costs $1,000 is much more expensive (per year of appreciation and viewing) than a work with an "indefinite" life span (a bronze work, for example) that costs $10,000.
One can find inexpensive works of art for the garden at craft fairs, student art shows and local universities. Purchase the work if it is something you can live with for a period of time and if it is well made and amenable for placement out of doors. Make sure works of clay are high fired and without cracks or openings that would allow water to enter and pop open with a freeze. When you purchase a work for placement in the garden ask for a certificate from the gallery or artist stating that the work is amenable for placement outdoors "except under certain conditions", and have these spelled out.
Safety must be taken into consideration in the placement of a work of art in the garden. We have seen 6-foot high welded steel works of garden sculpture that are balanced on a single element with a "foot print" no larger than 10 inches in diameter. Even the slightest wind or touch of a child would knock them over. When purchasing any work of art make sure that the work is appropriately designed for securing it in such a way that it will not fall over on an unsuspecting viewer. Kinetic works must be placed so moving elements are not liable to hit someone walking near by. Check the arc of suspended works to make sure they will not strike a pedestrian walking on a nearby path.
It is unfortunate, but one of the elements that must be considered in placing a work of art in the garden is security. It is also unfortunate that many artists fail to consider this factor when creating the art work. The mere weight of a work might inhibit the casual thief from walking off with the work. The size of a work will also be a factor in its security. It is not too easy to quickly run away with a work that is 12 feet tall. Smaller works should be secured to a buried concrete base or secured to a stone plinth or base in such a manner that removal is difficult or impossible without damage to the work itself or the use of special equipment.
There seems to be an increasing awareness among serious gardeners of the pleasures to be derived from placing a work of art in the garden. In this brief commentary I have discussed a few of the elements that should help in the decision.

[The author is indebted to Margaret Robinette, author of Outdoor Sculpture: Object and Environment, Whitney, 1976, for some of the concepts discussed above.]

George Drake is Director of Gardens of Art gallery which shares space with Big Rock Garden Nursery. The nursery and gallery specialize in rhododendrons, Japanese maples and fine art for the garden.