Working with Hot Material: A Conversation with Marcia Donahue
by Richard Whittaker, Jul 2, 1999
I sat with Marcia Donahue in the kitchen of her ample old wood frame house festooned with an exuberant overflow of tribal artifacts, objets d'art, weavings, carpets, carvings, statuaries - and if that were not enough, the walls and ceilings had all been transformed by the unrestrained stylings of Mark Bulwinkle. With Marcia, in terms of letting the creative force run wild, the garden outside matched the garden inside. The combination of gardening and art led to my first question…
Richard Whittaker: Do gardening and sculpture have to be spoken of together in your case?
Marcia Donahue: For me they are one and the same thing. It's just that with gardening I have materials that some sculptors don't know about. It is sculpture. What else could it be? And it's kinetic sculpture, because it doesn't hold still. So I think you can't talk about gardens without really thinking about it in those terms. It's almost always an art form, an artistic expression...
If somebody is just trying to produce a crop, doing a good vegetable garden...then maybe it's more science, even though the person doing it is going to have some real honest to God wonderful inner experiences doing it. There's no avoiding it. Gardening is working with hot material. It's for humans. This interaction with nature--it speaks to you in a way that no other activity allows. But it is mostly art, I think. Some of it's bad art, mind you.
You have to make all these aesthetic choices based on how things will look. If they will work. What it means, referring to history and tradition, and your own upbringing. Not everybody is aware of it in that way. A lot of people are not particularly adventurous or exploring in that way, but there it is. It's debatable, but that's how I look at it.
RW: I'm interested in exploring that. I wonder if you could say more about why you would call it art.
MD: Well, there's garden history, which is linked with art history right on through. Gardens have been the place for sculpture forever, unless it's the church--outdoor sculpture. And I think gardens themselves are also the outdoor sculpture. There are the chunks you might put in--a statue or something--but the enclosure is a sculptural, three-dimensional space constructed for many different reasons, some functional, some aesthetic, some to move the spirit, and some social.
RW: I'm grappling with this concept of the garden as art. I don't have a background of garden history and I don't have such a clear idea of how to define art either.
MD: I know, and I don’t have either. These are really big terms. "Art" is a word that mostly I don’t even like to think about. In my own efforts "fine art" isn’t an issue. I’m just trying to live, and do things that satisfy me. But I am aware there’s human history and art history, and people have been doing this for a long time before it was made academic and put off somewhere into a special compartment. I’m not that interested in the special compartments, or the museum approach to it. I want to live it.
RW: As you say, it’s a big topic. We probably need an expanded vocabulary, one that’s not available.
MD: Yes. And so much of the vocabulary we do have is elitist and so exclusive... It’s bewildering to a lot of people.
RW: Then, as far as you would say, the art part of it relates to the experience of living…
MD: And also the experience of thinking and feeling and asking— in the sense of the garden being an immediate metaphor for life and death. There it is. It’s right there. And you, as the gardener in your little space, work with that however you wish. And I do. I have a little area back there with a statue of "Santa Muerte," and there’s my "Santa Vida" and my gravestone path to the compost heap, and images like that.
RW: You take it a step beyond that literal fact of the plants growing and dying.
MD: I’m spelling it out, literally. On one of the gravestones I inscribed my own name letter by letter. MARCIA REST IN PEACE.
RW: I was just reading Second Nature by....
MD: Michael Pollan. That’s a wonderful book. His thing on the American lawn is so great.
RW: He says that maybe we need some new metaphors. He’s really grappling with, as he puts it, this duality between "wilderness" and "culture" and that the polarity between the two is a lot less clear than it seems at first. He sees the garden as a natural point of reconciliation between those two extremes. The garden is a place where man acts in nature, but in a way both useful to man and not harmful to nature. What do you think of this?
MD: My feeling is that the garden is much closer to "culture" than it is to "nature," in terms of that duality. The "hot material" I am talking about— which is soil, water and plants, not to mention light and all that—these materials of gardening are uncontrollable in many ways and humbling in that sense. But if you are in a real collaboration with any material, it’s like that. Each has its own strong personality and you better work with it —clay, stone or whatever. However, with gardening, metaphorically you have the whole world of nature, but it’s still essentially a cultural activity and artefact. Gardens are just not the wilderness. There is so much about humanness in that activity. You know, we’re doing it from us. And sometimes we’re working in opposition to Nature’s balance.
RW: Maybe I could ask a little about the history of your own gardening.
MD: My mother showed me gardens, and was a gardener herself in a pretty straightforward way. She didn’t goof around with it much, but she loved it. She taught me the names of some plants and some awareness of plants, and it’s something that attracted me as a child, but I never got to do it until I moved into this house twenty-two years ago. There was a yard! I’d never had a yard before.
When I moved here and saw the back yard, I said to myself I’m not even going to go back there. I could feel the pull of it! I was trying to be a studio artist, and I thought, ‘I’ll just get distracted’ because it was really attractive. And then, of course, I did.
I also worked as a gardener, professionally. That’s how I learned. And now, I’m back in the studio again. But everything I do in the studio is formed and colored by my experiences in the garden. I’m making things for the garden and things about the garden.
RW: Full circle, an integration.
MD: Yes, it’s good. I like how things have gone.
RW: You have a lot of bamboo. How many different species?
MD: Around 30. There’s something about gardening, I mean gardening is a huge topic, but collection has something to do with it.
RW: And your sister is involved in a related field.
MD: She’s a botanist. A gardener too. She’s a real collector. And her work as a scientist, a taxonomist, is about collecting—what populations are where, and things like that. I’m currently wildly collecting these African textiles in the other room. Which is another thing about the garden. I have a background in textiles, and a real love of it; and I not only see the garden as sculpture, but as a textile-type sculpture—something that’s woven and intermingled like cloth.
RW: I know you have a project for a garden in Pennsylvania (Chanticleer, outside of Philadelphia).
MD: I’m making some stone books. These are the first stone books I’ve ever made, and they’re specifically for that place—for a room in a ruin they are building on the footprint of a demolished house. The room was the library. So, the books will be strewn around in a ruined fashion. I’ve completed the first book. It’s an opened sandstone book about three feet wide and about five inches thick, and it’s as if a woodpecker or squirrels have dug holes in the pages and buried acorns in it. So there are embedded acorns in the pages of this book. The next book is just going to have the cover open and have fancy figured Italian marble as the end paper of this stone book. The book will have "ex libris" carved on it with the name of that place.
RW: Those should be fun. When you were doing work as a studio artist were you working in sculpture?
MD: Yes. I was doing indoor things. Soft materials: wood, leather, paper, cloth. But after I started gardening I started carving redwood, and later on stone came into the picture… and concrete a little bit. Later yet, ceramics— I made all the ceramic bamboos you see in the garden. I’ve had Mark’s [Mark Bulwinkle] sculpture in this garden almost since the garden started. I’ve known Mark for many a year. And before this garden was all grown-up and you could see the apartment houses over there, I asked Mark to make me some distractions. He brought me five pieces on tall poles, metal cut-outs, and they’ve been here ever since. He’s been part of it almost since the get-go.
RW: You have your garden and house open to the public on Sunday and I suppose mainly to make some money, but I wonder if there isn’t some other…
MD: No. It’s not "mainly"—only partially—although I just sold $5 dollars worth of Mark’s postcards [laughs].
RW: Yes, I was wondering if there were other reasons.
MD: Definitely other reasons. It’s an opportunity for people to see what we do, and they can buy something or commission us. But it’s also a chance for people to talk to me about gardening, or our work, or whatever... It’s an anti-ivory tower device. When I’m working, I’m alone. I’m making dust and noise, and wearing all this stuff. When I’m here, it’s still about Mark’s and my work, but it’s social.
I think it’s a rare event when artists can show their work in the way they mean it to be seen, and to be available to yak about it and interact with people about it. For me it’s very rewarding to see how people react to it. I mean, people come here and really feel inspired—and they tell me so. And I think, "Well, that’s a good reason for doing this!" I really love it when people leave here and feel they can go home and do whatever it is they want to do, because they see I’m doing what I want to do. People are actually very moved by what Mark and I have created here.
RW: I was inspired when I first came here. Still am. I think "inspired" is a good word—liberating—that’s another good word.
MD: Yes. Permission-giving. If she can, then I can.
RW: People see it’s okay to step across these invisible boundaries. I mean, this is such a long way from a well-trimmed front lawn!
MD: Well, gardening is difficult. If you don’t do things right, things will die! And so sometimes people think there is just one way to do things. But we have a great climate. You can grow almost anything here! But even if you couldn’t, you don’t have to be that tight in your mind—about gardening, or anything. You can improvise! I mean there really is more than one way to skin a cat. So it’s nice to share the realization I’ve had, with other people. And "good taste" is another thing people are really worried about. And you know, I’ve pushed various taste and dogma envelopes, but it still works fine! A lot of people are so worried about what the neighbors will think. So people can come here and see something different, and most of the neighbors are fine with it.
RW: I was going to ask you about that. What do you think your influence has been on your neighbors?
MD: Well, I’ve given a lot of advice— plant advice and encouragement. There’s a guy across the street, a renter, and he’s digging up the parking strip and starting cuttings from another neighbor to have some flowers there. And so I’ve had that kind of influence.
RW: Have the neighbors, by and large, been accepting of your wild garden? — I mean "wild" in the exuberant sense.
MD: I haven’t had any complaints about it. I have been working with a neighbor across the street to get some trees planted by the city on this very barren stretch of Wheeler St., and I met a neighbor from the end of the street I hadn’t met before. She thought "more trees would be okay" but "it didn’t mean there had to be a lot of weird iron sculptures with them, did it?"[laughs] But when she got over that, she was really very friendly.
RW: Is the garden, as it stands now, a work in progress, or has it is pretty well arrived?
MD: I like to change it. See that whole bed there off the end of the porch—I went and murdered a lot of friends there. Just hauled them out so I could try something else. I wanted to see some different views and shapes, but it’s getting hard to do that, because I have some very fine plants here I’d like to see grow and get big. But in clearing that bed I’ve saved a place for Mark to do a nice new tall sculpture there. I have thoughts about that area over there [points], thoughts about just pulling everything out and reshuffling the deck and maybe bringing in a lot of big stone if I can get some help.
RW: There was a great big head out on the sidewalk which is gone. Where did that go?
MD: I sold it. It went to Seattle—a good place for it because it’s overcast and rainy up there, and it’s a crying head. It went to somebody else’s garden. I put it on a truck and sent it up there—all three thousand pounds of it.
RW: It was pretty safe to leave it out there, I imagine.
MD: [laughs] Yes. I’ve always felt that way, and with Mark’s big heavy pieces too. If they can get it, they can have it. But they can’t. They’d need a crane.
RW: I have the impression you’re making a lot of headway in the world, in terms of your gardening and your sculpture…
MD: Is there some headway to make?
RW: Well, what I mean is, more commissions, more recognition, more sales, things like that…
MD: I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet many talented people in the gardening world. I do have the good job in Pennsylvania and as much work as I can do. But I definitely have an outsider position. I don’t have a gallery. I don’t want a gallery. I’m going it one-on-one with people. So I don’t have representation at all.
RW: Not interested in that either, I take it.
MD: I’m not. I’m doing fine this way, and I feel that although it’s not a good way to get rich, it is a good way to get more meaning. The transactions are more personal, and I like that. It seems more normal, less weird. Less like business, more like life.
RW: I was going to ask if you had any visions of going beyond this garden and piece of land here—some other project of your own, beyond Wheeler St.
MD: No. I had to make a decision about that. This is about all I can tend without having it become oppressive. I’m getting older and sorer. [Three young women come into the kitchen. It’s after closing time but Donahue lets the girls come in.]
Girls: [the leader] Do you remember me?
MD: Yes I do. [To me] There is one of my early stones in her aunt’s garden. [to the girls] Just dash down the stairs and around the corner and you won’t even get wet. [An overhead sprinkler is watering the garden. It’s like a rain forest just outside the big double doors.]
RW: Once you were saying a lot of wonderful conversations happen in here, and that’s one of the things you like about having your house open on Sundays. In a way, that’s like a garden of a different sort.
MD: Yes. People come into the house and exchange stories.
RW: And this house is like a garden too.
MD: It is. It’s really the same idea of abundance and surprising juxtaposition, but with less green matter.
RW: Yes. The garden is expanded here beyond just green plants. And that’s an aspect I wanted to go into, not just the literal aspects of plants and cultivation but various other kinds of "gardens." Here, inside the house, there is all this color and line, unexpected image and form, and the meeting of people—another kind of thriving in some small way, or maybe not in such a small way!
MD: Not such a small way. It’s important to me. I really value that. I really look forward to these open Sunday times. It’s really neat. Today, for example, this fellow came who’s a textile collector. He has as much enthusiasm for these African textiles as I do. So we were just geeking away on textiles—with a sort of connisseurship and collector mentality, but there were garden visitors here, and several of them joined us in that. It was a surprise for them. On the other hand, I had this opportunity to talk to my fellow geek. I had the chance to realize, okay, I don’t have to be "Miss Perfect Hostess" and spread out the red carpet. If somebody wants me badly enough they can get my attention. They can join us or not.
I try not to make the garden, or my open-garden time oppressive to me. I mean, this is my life too! And so I don’t want to feel like I have to keep an immaculate maintenance schedule going on in the garden, for example. I can enjoy its ebbs and flows and its excesses, and by the same token, I want my hostess-ship here to be relaxed enough so that I can let whatever is going on happen, without feeling obligated to maintain some other sort of high standards. I try to give myself and my guests that permission.
RW: In a way, trying to be mindful of cultivating one’s own inner world.
MD: Yes. And to call one’s own inner shots as much as possible, rather than to become a slave to it.
RW: From where I sit, there’s something generous about it. Generous to let people in your house, to let them see what you do and to be open and willing to talk about it.
MD: I’m willing to share. I’m happy to share. I feel— somebody lent me a book by this pop-religious psychologist guy, M. Scott Peck— he talked about having "the gift of a grateful heart." And I have that gift. I recognize myself in that. I feel like I’ve gotten so much. I can’t believe I live in such a place! The Bay Area. My home. Mark’s art. My art. The garden. The plants. I can’t believe it! I say, "Oh, My God! This is wonderful!" I really feel gratitude for it. It’s just plain old gratitude. [Laughs] And so, I’m just very happy and it feels very natural to me to share. I’ve got more than I can use! Why not share it?
RW: I’m interested in what you say about having an "outsider" position. I’ve found myself thinking about the "outsider" artist who works purely with his or her inspirations, the unschooled artist —no references to other works, art history, etc.
MD: I can’t claim that. I am schooled, but in a business sense, I’m working from the outside. I am doing what I feel like doing and I don’t really care about my place in history. I’m not busily trying to "avant-garde" myself into some position. I’m just outside of the art market in that official, gallery-museum sense.
RW: Do you see your work in any kind of art-historical context?
MD: A lot of it, I mean, I’m carving rocks, for God’s sake! People have done that since pre-history. So yes, I do. And I’m very, very touched by those ancient pieces. I’m not reproducing them, but I feel I am still doing it; and still feeling the power and attraction of stone. Of course, people in many, many cultures, for example, have made colossal heads and things like that. For me it’s mostly a matter of getting the rocks and then figuring out what I can do with them with the tools I’ve got. I consciously make all kinds of references in my work, but not necessarily to art. To gardening, or to dying, or… I’m not just working with form, texture and color! I work with content and context. And when you’re making content, you make references because you don’t exist in solitary splendor.
RW: What are the main references would you say?
MD: Well, all kinds. For example, I made this statue in the back yard, a carved, basalt column to "Santa Meurte," the grim reaper depicted as a woman, which I saw in Mexico. Mine has skulls in her cloak and is a simple carving of a goddess of death. Then I had a bunch of architectural granite. Some of it was curbing stones and came from a cemetery. Some had a family name—and there were these letters in it, n-a u-g-h. I added a "t" and a question mark. So then it said, "naught?" So there’s the word. It’s the hardest thought for an incarnated, human, live person to contemplate. Nothingness. Naught? That would be the question you’d ask the goddess of death should you meet her. And there’s a gravestone in there inscribed, "DAD." I’ve got a ceramic revolver a friend made, which I put on it. And the plants in that area are shady and creepy. This whole little niche is loaded. That’s what I’m talking about.
RW: That brings us back to what we started with, a question about gardens as art. There is something afoot about this as a topic. Recently I read two books, "What do Gardens Mean?" by Stephanie Ross and "The Garden As Art" by Mara Miller. There seems to be some new thinking being proposed about categorizing gardens so that I guess you could call them an official fine-art medium. There’s an historical precedent from 18th century England where a garden could be considered on a par with poetry and painting.
MD: Having not read those books, I can’t comment. But what is coming to mind is the movement of land-art, earthworks; and in galleries and museums, there’s a lot of installation art. And there’s site-specific works and the importance of contextual considerations. Well, all of that is just what goes on if you make a garden!
There has been a lot of popular interest recently in gardens as people are becoming more ecologically aware. A lot of people are planting gardens and enjoying the fact that they are making oxygen. And they’re trying to use fewer chemicals doing that. In gardening that way, their own awareness and love of their surroundings increases. They wake up a little bit more. Whether it’s enough to help us, or save us, is another question, but people, nationally, are doing this a lot more, and in a less toxic way.
RW: And I understand that gardening is the most popular hobby activity in the country. There must be a better word for it than that. And that bio-diversity among plants is being preserved mostly by home gardeners, certainly not by big agriculture. There’s a growing interest in heirloom plants, and a natural curiosity about different kinds of plants. And, as you say, a concern for how to tread lightly on the earth, so to speak. What are your thoughts about that?
MD: I just salute the heck out of all of it! I think it’s really a worthy thing to do in the midst of the swirling absurdity of life. I think it’s full of value in many, many ways. Extremely touching and moving—and worth doing.