Interviewsand Articles


Editor's introduction, 'The Garden As Art'

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 10, 2000




     In this issue we've explored the garden from a particular point of view--the garden as art. For most people we spoke with, the idea of the garden as art settled comfortably into place. Why not? Aren't they all? But Art is one of those big words. Maybe it's not a problem for lots of people, but in some places the obvious is undressed, taken apart, and reassembled in ways that require a close reading. That's where I ran across the idea of "the garden as art" presented as if it were a problematic concept. More specifically, the question was posed as follows: can the garden be a medium for the fine arts?

     We talked about this with Tom Leddy, head of the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University, and a specialist in the Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics. Leddy has spent a good deal of time thinking about this subject. He brings a long-standing involvement with the arts to bear on this topic, and provides us with a very thoughtful consideration of the question.

     Besides my own thoughts on this topic, which hardly belong in the category of the scholarly, it must be freely admitted that for the rest of our investigation of the garden as art in this issue, we simply followed what touched and delighted us. To this end, Marcia Donahue has been a great help. Not only is she an artist-gardener of rare inspiration, but she also happens to know many other horticulturalist, art-inclined garden practitioners of exceptional quality. Through her, we discovered Bob Clark's lyrical Oakland garden and Cevan Forristt's amazing South-East Asian, jungle/ruined, Buddhist-temple garden in San Jose. But before we went to any of these places, we first spent a lot of time with Donahue herself in her own extraordinary garden.

     Donahue is one of those individuals of genuinely independent spirit, and besides that, she's generous. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the encounter with Donahue and her garden engenders a special feeling of encouragement for all who are lucky enough to find it. One leaves a visit to her garden willing to take a chance on some of those little impulses which one might have stiffled. I'm speaking not about impulses which would harm others, but those which could be the genuine expressions of our own individuality. How often do we over-ride our own impulses, ideas, and inspirations which might take us a little off the beaten path?

     In the realm of gardening, it's the front lawn which may best typify that unwitting submission to "how things are done." Some years ago, I faced my own inner struggle over whether or not to risk becoming a front-yard non-conformer in a neighborhood of well-trimmed lawns. Finally I took the leap and put in what soon became a small jungle, threatening to eat our house. Not only did I find the change satisfying, but I've lived to tell the story.

     Continuing in this spirit to which I can hardly avoid appending the words, "life-affirming," we arrive at our interview with artist, Mildred Howard, who talks about her own exceptional work as an artist, and also about her work as the director of the pioneering Alice Waters "Edible Schoolyard" project at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, CA. In this project, each student must spend time in the entire garden cycle from planting to harvesting and food preparation. It's a remarkable program and a model for others to follow.

     Through a chance encounter with the Krishnamurti Foundation, and via steps too numerous to list, we were led to L.A. Times garden editor, Robert Smauss, who sent us to Andy Cao's recycled glass garden in Echo Park in Los Angeles. Our coverage of that garden is minimal, I'm afraid, but we hope it gives just a hint of the originality of Cao's vision (see the inside back cover for a color photo).

     In my role as magazine editor it was possible to get a tour of one of the better-known remarkable gardens in this country, Lotusland, in Santa Barbara. One has to book a visit months, if not years, in advance in order to see this fabulous place. It's an outstanding example of what an original vision, coupled with lots of money, can accomplish.

     Not to be overlooked is the contribution of playwright, librettist, poet, conceptual artist, and general all-around creative force, Kathleen Cramer. One can never predict what Cramer will come up with, and in this issue she has given us a meditation on the vacant lot.

     A number of other very interesting items in this issue await your discovery. Having spent a number of months rich in the delights of all the gardens I've visited and the people I've met, the feeling persists of having merely touched the edge of a vast territory. So much more is out there both physically and conceptually. That is certain. Its scope might be envisioned as mappable on two axes. The basic physical facts would lie along one axis: size, for example, from the simple window box to thousands of acres. One would add to this all the varieties of plants, etc. The second axis would be a conceptual one. Along this axis, the very idea of the garden would expand from let's say, the ordinary backyard garden, to territory which could include Walter de la Maria's "Lightning Field" or parking lots for cars, and perhaps even lead from the physical into the metaphorical.

     That the question of the garden's possible role in the fine arts has arisen reflects, it seems to me, the movement which is clearly underway. The established categories for negotiating the world of art continue to loosen. The trajectory suggests a progressive blurring of such categories leaving the necessity for finding entirely new ways to think. One might ask, What is as stake? But standing in the garden, this question doesn't worry me.

-Richard Whittaker      


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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