Interviewsand Articles


An Anti-Ivory Tower Device: Interview With Marcia Donahue

by Richard Whittaker, Nov 17, 2005



Berkeley Art  Center, Nov.17, 2005
A Conversation with Marcia Donahue, a Berkeley treasure.
The Berkeley Treasures Series came out of a conversation I had with Berkeley Art Center director, Robbin Henderson. If Japan could celebrate its National Treasures, why couldn't Berkeley celebrate its own cultural treasures? No reason we could think of... So in 2004, with Henderson's support, I began a series of conversations with remarkable local heros, so to speak. Most were artists, but there was always some kind of civic element in their lives one way or another. These were people who contributed to the local cultural fabric; there was always something extra. If these individuals had not always been discovered by the media, they were generally much appreciated locally. 
Marcia Donahue, artist/gardner extraordinaire. is a perfect example. Her home garden, which she opens to the public on Sunday afternoons, is actually known internationally. It's quite an astonishing place to visit. I'd met her some years earlier and had interviewed her for issue #3 [works & conversations--The Garden As Art ]. On this evening, Donahue began by showing fifty slides of her remarkable home and garden as well as some of her own sculpture included in other special gardens around the country.

In spite of Donahue's international reputation, there were lots of local people who did not know about this great resource, almost literally in their back yard. I hoped our program might help spread the word. And so, after Marcia's slide show, we sat in front the audience and talked… 

Richard Whittaker:  How many of you have never been to Marcia's garden? [many hands go up] Well, you'll want to rectify that, especially after tonight. Now first, let me say a little about this series of Programs, which we're calling "Berkeley Treasures." I've borrowed that title from Japan with their program of honoring special individuals they call "National Treasures." I think that's an enlightened attitude, which recognizes that certain people really do make a contribution to the culture and can rightfully be recognized as treasures in this cultural sense. We’re lucky that such people really exist. They exist and often they're not discovered by the media, although, in Marcia's case, she has gotten a fair amount of attention. People come from all over the world to see Marcia's garden, but actually, not many people right here in Berkeley even know about it. So we're trying to bring some recognition to people right here in Berkeley who really can be called treasures. [turning to Marcia]  As I was watching the slides, I was struck by how much sculpture you've done. Even though I know that you make sculpture, I don't often focus on that. Would you tell us all a little about your own art history and about how you've gotten to where you are today.

Marcia Donahue:  I went to art school. I went to UC Davis when it was such a hotbed with William Wiley and Robert Arneson, but I was seventeen and I was much more interested in other things at that time. So I did get to experience some wonderful artists when I was too young to really appreciate them. I dropped out. I had a child. Then I went back to school to the Massachusetts College of Art where I studied mostly craft media, ceramics, textiles, jewelry. Then I applied to graduate school as a way to get back to California and buy some time for my art work. I was in Boston longing to get back here where I grew up. I grew up in San Anselmo. So here was a way to get back to Berkeley, through graduate school. Ed Rossbach, at UC Berkeley, was through teaching which was where I really wanted to go, but I was too late, and so I completed the Fiberworks program which was accredited through Lone Mountain College.
     I had that experience and I started making art work all of the time, and I continued with that. I also did things like clean people's houses. Then we moved into a house, an actual house that we bought, that was decrepit and falling down and needed lots of work, but all of the time there was this back yard. And that is what really changed my experience. I had a studio life going on, but I kept on getting lured out into that backyard and seeing possibilities. I started learning about plants and light and soil and I just got flipped out about it. I started gardening madly. I started accepting jobs as a gardener as a way to learn and to make money. I grew a little crop of pot in order to finance my garden back in those days. I found myself planting and pruning and watering, as delightful as those activities are, but also placing found objects, making paths and things and also making sculptures, wood carvings  (for example like that gate you saw that's a big hand) for and about the garden, and I've been doing it ever since. I've been doing it for other people and I really have made quite a lot of sculpture. I started working tiny in stone and that's when I met Mark Bulwinkle. He said, "You could work bigger. You can have some space in my studio. This is a forklift. This is how you drive it." I got rock carving tools and I started making some pretty big boulder carvings. Just coming out of carving wood. So that's self-taught. I also got interested in making ceramics in order to make ceramic plants. I've made many varieties of Bambusa ceramica. I'm still doing it and don't plan to quit any time soon. So clay is good. My favorite thing to do for other people is to do what I do for myself which is to make site specific pieces which belong where they are going and somehow describe or grow out of the place and the people where it's intended. That's a limitation I really enjoy. So that's a long answer to your question.

RW:   I realized this afternoon you work with rocks and dirt and plants. By dirt, I mean clay.
MD:  Clay counts!

RW:   You work with clay, stone and plants. It's all of a piece with a garden. It's all earth. Somehow I hadn't made the connection. 

MD:  It all gets under my fingernails.

RW:  You call it "working with hot material." What do you mean when you say that? 

MD:  I mean that it gives back as much as you put in and more. I mean that it's alive. It's not anything other than life. It's all very much a part of living. That's what I mean.

RW:  We talked earlier and you used the word "collaboration" in connection with working with this material. So I wonder if you could say a little about that, "collaborating with the material." 

MD:  A person who doesn't is foolish, for one thing, because materials have very distinct qualities and if you work WITH them you'll be a lot happier than if you don't. They also offer a lot of inspiration and ideas from those qualities. What I mean is that I don't usually have a grand vision of what I want to achieve. I usually like to dive into whatever I'm working with and see what comes out of manipulating those materials. It's generally better than anything I could cook up with myself.

RW:  It means being in touch. 

MD:  It means being sensitive to what's going on at that moment with that substance and with myself.

RW:  You mentioned that earlier on you were connected with craft and that's a term that's sort of losing its standing, in a way. I mean the California College of Arts and Crafts removed that last "C."

MD:  Boooo. Boooo.

RW:  Really being in touch with the material is required by craft, maybe it’s one of the more elusive things about it. 

MD:  It is. I think that it's required for any kind of hands-on making and that includes the fine arts, or anything. So it's a distinction I just hate to make. An arena of discussion I've gotten pretty tired of.

RW:  You mean the art vs. craft thing. 

MD:  Yes. Dead horse, you know?

RW:  What interests me is trying to find a way to talk about craft in a way that reawakens some respect for it, and the way you talk about it helps me feel why we should be interested in craft. Is it a way of learning something, for instance? 

MD:  It sure is. It's a really traditional thing like in the essay in your current issue about the fellow [Doug Groves] in Nevada who prepares rawhide in order to make fine horse gear. Cowboys and vaqueros have been doing this for a long time. So there's a wonderful quality of craft in how it goes back into history, just like pottery, waaaay back. Or stone carving! Oh my God! How human!
     I thought the straightforward and loving way, the compelled way that man was talking about braiding rawhide-I just completely understood and resonated with how he talked about that.

RW:  Does working with stone and clay and the garden, does it make you feel connected that way?

MD:  To the earth?

RW:  To the past.

MD:  To the past? Oh, God yes!

RW:  Can you say anything more about that?

MD:  No. I just recognize it and take joy from the fact people have been doing this for so long and that I can go into a museum today, or even into my own living room, and see objects that were made long ago with such care and such skill, that's a part of humanness that I really admire and enjoy. It's so much nicer than the nasty stuff. [laughs]

RW:  You spoke of your garden and gardening earlier to me as performance art. Maybe we could hear something about that.

MD:  Okay. For one thing, in my case, but for most gardeners, too, people come over and see and you have gardening conversations. I won't generalize about other people except to say that gardening is a very social activity that brings connections with others. There's not just a connection to the earth, this is a cultural trip, a human behavior thing.
     But in my own case, I open up the place Sunday afternoons for anybody who might have heard of it and wants to come by. I chit chat, and that this audience comes to get me out of my ivory tower for four hours each week, means that I have to get it ready for people. So even if I don't feel like it, I'm out there sweeping the paths and I'm grateful for that. It helps me get out there and stay in touch whereas without that, I might let myself off for some other recent enthusiasm. This helps keep me plugged into the cycle of my garden, this weekly cycle of preparing it for others.
     And another part of doing this is that is it's a way of giving back to a lot of people who have given me really valuable information as well as a lot of pleasure; it's an opportunity for that. I'm so glad to have people come and say, "yes, this is how you do this" or "God isn't this gorgeous!" But when someone says, "Oh, jeez, I've got to leave and go back to my garden. I'm so inspired! "That makes me feel really good! That's my favorite response. So I get a lot from my so-called audience.

RW:  The anti-ivory tower device. I like that so much. I was thinking about the garden. There's an outer aspect and an inner aspect to so many things. There are the outer aspects, many things, including what it is that you see, and then there's the work in making it how it is and keeping it up, but I thought, well, there's an inner aspect, too. That I thought is the realm of experience. You were talking about how sometimes you're out there and you slow down.

MD:  I was wondering what you were leading up to.

RW:  That leads to this other realm, the realm of being rather than of doing.

MD:  Cool. [laughs, and addressing the audience] Richard comes over sometimes and we get to talking. And I was telling him something that I've observed, well, over my whole life since I was a child, which is if you can just slow down for a little while, it's as if the world comes into you. Plants are really good at this. If you can just look at a plant and shut up for just a second, it gets sort of psychedelic. The colors get brighter. You come into focus. You smell. You get into your body. Gardens are traditionally a place of contemplation like this. And when you can contemplate it in quiet and with love, it becomes a sacred space.

RW:  Yes. Being in a garden in this way, in this open state, can be one of the deepest ways of being here.

MD:  Plants are exhaling the oxygen you need to live! And you can inhale them visually as also, and in a tactile way.

RW:  Yes, and what is deeper than that? There may be something, but…

MD:  It's pretty good, though.

RW:  The sunlight. The water. The soil. Listening. Just quietly being in a garden.

MD:  Usually, I'm puttering in the garden, but every once in a while, I stop. I might get better at that.

RW:  You introduced to some of the most amazing gardeners in the Bay Area and I included them in issue #3[The Garden As Art]. You just mentioned this man David McDonald who might do a book on you. He says, "there's a Bay Area gardening Mafia"—that was his phrase. He meant there are a few very powerful, very influential Bay Area gardeners, Bob Clark, Cevan Forristt, Roger Raiche, David McCrory—and he said “I think Marcia is at the center of that!” What do you think of that statement?

MD:  I think he needs a device for his book. That's what I think. I am also perfectly willing to confess that I adore those people. We have exchanged wonderful ideas over the years, now. We're all in it together. I'm not the center of it, but I’m in it and I'm glad.

RW:  Well, I've put you in an awkward place, but I would think that he's right about where he places you.

MD:  I have put these people up to more flagrant tricks than they might otherwise have done. I'm a permission giver. Go ahead! Go for it! That's not too pompous! Go ahead.

RW:  That's one of the most powerful things I felt after leaving your garden the first time I saw it. It left me feeling “Wow, I can do anything I want!" And that's what happens with people who visit your garden, right?

MD:  Yes.

RW:  It's so encouraging. It makes me think of the hortisexuals. What’s going on with them today?

MD:  I don't know. I still know people from the days when I was involved in that.

RW:  Maybe we should define what Hortisexualism is.

MD:  We had an informal Bay Area garden group called The Hortisexuals, people who were around the bend or hot and bothered by plants. There were no cards. If you are one, you know it. We went to each others gardens, exchanged plants, went to parties and went on trips to other gardens. We went on some wonderful trips. One of the people who started it, Keith Calhoun had the Dry Garden Nursery on Shattuck which Richard Ward still has. It's a fine nursery. But Keith died and Keith was truly mad. He wrote the newsletter and after he was gone, the spark went out of it, for me, to tell you the truth.

RW:  Well, there was another thing I got to thinking about, the subject of scale. When you think of scale in terms of your garden, it's actually not a very big area.

MD:  It's a backyard. Yes.

RW:  But it's incredibly packed. You've got something like sixty species of bamboo, for instance, and just an amazing amount of stuff in there.

MD:  It's a park-like arboretum of a back yard. [laughs]

RW:  One could enumerate all the numbers connected with the garden, but I realized there’s another scale which is like a ratio of how much art you can tolerate. Or what that ratio is in one's environment. Like now in new construction of public buildings there's this 2% of the budget that has to be spent on art, something like that, sort of like near beer. But with you, looking at your house and your garden, you're way over on the other side of the scale with the real spirits.

MD:  I'm into overdose, for sure. I've offered visitors wet towels. [laughs] Here, dear.

RW:  So on that scale, it's really sort of epic.

MD:  That's why the garden poems says, "also, also, and, plus, ampersand, ampersand!"

RW:  That's wonderful. Well, I think that you're very generous. With your place, it's all equally garden, and there's an outer and an inner garden. Your Sundays when people come to visit, I asked you how many different countries have been represented and just in a couple of minutes she came up with sixteen different countries, all the continents, and on that level it's a garden too, a garden of exchange and sharing. You must really enjoy that part of it.

MD:  I do. It's a weekly adventure. It's also a commitment, but it's one I'm amply rewarded for. People bring me bowling balls sometimes.

RW:  How did the bowling balls first appear?

MD:  I bought five of them at a thrift store and put them on my mantle to admire because I like spheres and when I painted the living room, I put them out in the garden to get them out of the way, and I looked at them down on the ground and thought, "Damn, that looks good!" I want more of those. Then I heard of a bowling alleys going out of business twice and so that's why I'm so really wealthy with bowling balls. I've got hundreds of them. They're all over the place.

RW:  That's great. Maybe we could open it up now for some questions.

Question:  You're a permission giver. A lot of people come to your garden and come away with a feeling that well, "Marcia can do this, maybe I can follow my dream or my own little idea." Can you comment on how you found your own freedom to express yourself in alternative ways.

MD:  I think I'm just really out to lunch. I don't know where the box is, to tell you the truth. So thinking outside of it sometimes is just no big deal. I really don't know what some of the conventions are, or I'm so bored by them that I have ignored them. But also, I've been doing this for a long time and it kind of builds. I've gotten away with this, I've gotten away with that. I can wear my glitter suit tonight. Nothing bad has happened.
     Good things have happened to me when I do what I want to do. So I've gotten reinforced for it. And you know, what I do isn't that outrageous. Some people are scared of opening your private home to "the public" That's a scary thing for some people, but nobody has plundered my treasures. Somebody did fall in the pond once.

Question: How long have you been opening your house this way?

MD:  It's been twelve years now.

Same questioner:  And is there some kind of cycle? Can you talk about that process, like where are you now, your level of commitment. Is it the same energy now?

MD:  It has been sort of the same, which is to say that every weekend is different. But it's required about the same thing from me. I don't see a cycle with it exactly.

Same questioner: Do people come every weekend?

MD:  There's always somebody who shows up. Sometimes there's not very many. Sometimes some busloads. I have garden tours that come and when two huge diesel buses come to little Wheeler Street, that's sort of funny. Sometimes there are quite a few people there and sometimes, like when Richard comes, there will be conversations around the kitchen table. People meet each other there. People start talking. That's really wonderful. I like that. It's sort of like a dream come true.

Questioner:  Like a salon.

MD: Yes. That's the model. Like the olden days in New York, like in the forties.

RW: It really is wonderful. Almost without fail, when I go over to Marcia's on a Sunday, I meet interesting people.

Question:  What is your favorite part of the garden?

MD:  You know what came to mind? My bed. [laughs] I love the whole thing. Usually my favorite thing is whatever I'm working on because I'm a doer and a worker.

Question:  Are there any special gardens in different parts of the country or of the world that come to mind as favorites?

MD:  Roger Raiche and David McCrory's garden when it was on Maybeck Twin Drive in North Berkeley used to just blow my mind. I loved going over there so much. We were all so excited about it. That snowman [a granite sculpture of Donahue's] is in that garden and has since moved twice. They've moved two different places since then.

Question:  Do you respond to gardens in other countries that are more formal?

MD:  Yes. I went garden touring in England with my mom and that was just great. I love to go to gardens. Have you ever gone to Lotusland in Santa Barbara? I want to go to Angkor Wat.

Question:  I'm having a fantasy about what it must be like to have a bunch of passionate gardeners in an exotic country with finding some of these amazing places.

MD:  Maybe you ought to go on a Hortisexual outing.

Same questioner: Can you say a little about what it's like. You all go out somewhere and look at plants and what happens?

MD:  When it's an organized trip, Robin Parer has gotten a whole itinerary together and it's charging around going to a whole lot of gardens and there's lots of discussion about it. “What is the name of that plant?” and "Oh gee, How tacky!" [laughs] You can imagine. It's fun.

RW:  I still have some copies of issue #3 which was devoted entirely to gardens. In fact, you can get that issue at her house. She sent me down to Cevan Forristt's garden in San Jose, which is just fantastic.

MD:  A big favorite of mine, and very inspiring. And he's tearing it all apart and reshuffling the deck. He gardens with a forklift. This guy has tons of granite. He doesn't have his little garden trowel and gloves.

RW:  Hundreds of tons. He's sort of a maniac.

MD:  He knows what he likes.

RW:  I say that affectionately. And there's Bob Clark in Oakland. These are some of the gardens I discovered through Marcia.

MD:  Bob's now gardening in Guadalajara in the city in tumbled-down adobe mattress factories. He's making little paradises in Guadalajara. He's really jazzed about it!

Question:  You talked a lot about the three dimensional things you're fond of. Are there any two-dimensional things you're fond of?

MD:  I just saw the Matisse show in New York. It was actually Matisse and his textiles. Ahh! Matisse is a real hero in my book.

Question:  I have a question about your garden. The level of beauty is so rich and yet it's always changing. It's just surprising. If I got something to that level, I wouldn't want to change it. It's dazzling.

MD:  It's a garden, and so is my house. And so is my  process, and it's always changing. It's a kinetic form, and so to hold it still is just not where it's at; it's not what it is. It's my job to keep going with its movement and to keep moving myself. I like it like that. It keeps it fresh and the garden rearranges itself cyclically.

Same Questioner:  So you're always working with it?

MD:  Yes. It's not really ever finished. That's what so weird about organizations like the Garden Conservancy. Or of some group that is going to take over the garden after the gardener dies. That's cultivating the illusion that you can keep it the way it was. It will change right out from under you, or it will get institutionalized and sort of die.

Question:  Every time I go there I get something out of it, and you're living there all of the time. Do you get that kind of thing? It's like an oasis there.

MD:  I really dig it. I've made myself this pretty engaging and voluptuous surrounding. Once I thought there was never enough color. Now there's TOO MUCH COLOR. [laughs] I get a real charge out of it. I really do. I get an enormous charge out of it.

RW:  That reminds of something I meant to bring up which I find really interesting, and that is, that some things just don't get old. That's sort of mysterious. Here's a very simple example. There's a bush right in front of my living room window and if a bird lands in it, it doesn't matter how many times that happens, it's always a kind of delight seeing that bird there. And that must apply to what you're saying, right?

MD:  Yes.

RW:  That is one pretty good indication about art at its best, that it's news that stays news. It's something mysterious and wonderful. Something that doesn't get old. How many things in our lives are like that?

MD:  Yoga is like that. You're doing the same thing over and over, yet it's always fresh. Some things don't get stale.

Question:  Does the aesthetic of Japanese gardens interest you?

MD:  Very much. I've never been to Japan, but any time I've had a chance to look at photos of their gardens I've taken a lot of interest. California gardening is affected by that aesthetic and it's my opinion that Japanese gardens are the highest expression garden aesthetics that have ever been achieved. I admire that.

Same questioner:  It's very minimal, in a way. So you like both ends?

MD:  I see it as full of texture and pattern and bringing the world in. But it is extremely elegant, for sure; and very designed.

Question:  I garden too, and I grow a lot of food. Does that ever enter into anything you do?

MD:  Way. You saw the persimmon icon. I've been gorging on those. I love to eat out of the garden. I don't have sun enough or space enough for vegetables anymore, but if I did, I would.

Same questioner:  That's one of the things I find most rewarding about gardening is going out there and actually grazing.

MD:  Me, too. To pick a kiwi in December and it's cold, and it's fresh—ahhh!

Question:  Do you go to nurseries to get your plants?

MD:  I try to stay away now. [laughs] It's cheaper that way. But I still end up carrying things home from my friend Richard Ward's nursery all of the time, or cutting something from a trip. I don't consider it a good trip unless I have a cutting in my carry-on.

Question:  Do you see the whole thing as  having a spiritual dimension?

MD:  Yes. Among other ways of looking at it. Definitely.

Question:  Do you ever run out of space?

MD:  Over and over again. I have to hack, I have to murder some things in order to plant something else. It's just brutal, a brutal pursuit.

Question:  How big is your water bill?

MD:  In watering season for two months, it's over two hundred dollars. But it's not as much water as a lawn would take! I once asked someone who was famous for his dry garden and for his watering conservation to absolve me. I said, "Is it okay? I water this, you know." And he said it was worth every drop. I said, "Ahh, I'm absolved!" So I don't feel bad about it.

RW:  I once had a lawn and I got the idea I would take the  lawn out and make it into something else. Surprisingly, that was a scary thing. I was suddenly aware of feeling pressure to have a little lawn just like all my neighbors had. t's fantastic to learn that getting rid of a lawn and having a more interesting garden can actually save water.

MD:  Yes, and it's a much richer experience.

Question:  Have you done this for other people?

MD:  I used to do this for a living, doing garden design and installation with my friend Jana Olson. And then we both quit because we got old and injured. I had back problems, she had shoulder problems. So she went and did "Omega Two" the lighting store. And I went back to the studio.

Question:  Have you worked with children?

MD:  In the sense that many of my visitors are children, and I hang out with them. I know what their favorite things are and I like them as visitors very much, but I haven't taught art to children or garden art to anybody. We'll see what I do with my grandson who's fourteen months old. And my daughter has made some wonderful pieces for the garden.

Same questioner:  I teach children and we do a garden project each year and I'm interested in coming up with something.

MD:  You could take them on a field trip to my house. I'd love that.

Another interview with Marcia - "Working with Hot Material"


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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