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 I imagine the response might be simple—why not? But "art" is one of those big words and in some places it's another story. I ran across the idea of "the garden as art" in an academic setting. 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. His specialty is the Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics. He brings a long-standing involvement with the arts to bear on this question in a very thoughtful conversation.
     Besides my own thoughts on this topic, which hardly belong in the category of the scholarly, it should be admitted that for the rest of our investigation into the garden as art, we simply followed what touched and delighted us. In this respect, Marcia Donahue has been a great help. Not only is she an artist-gardener of rare inspiration, but she knows many other art-inclined garden practitioners of exceptional quality. Donahue led us to Bob Clark's lyrical Oakland garden and Cevan Forristt's amazing South-East Asian, ruined-Buddhist-temple-garden in San Jose. But before we went to any of these places, we first spent a lot of time with Marcia in her own extraordinary garden.
     Donahue is one of those individuals of genuinely independent spirit, and besides that, she's generous. An encounter with her, and her garden—besides being a delight—fosters a special feeling of encouragement. One leaves a visit to her garden willing to take a chance on some of those expansive impulses one might have stifled, impulses that could be genuine expressions of our own individuality. How often do we censor our own moments of inspiration that might take us a little off the beaten path?
     In the realm of gardening, it's the front lawn which may best typify the unquestioning 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. Not only did I find the change a source of constant pleasure, but I've lived to tell the story.
     Continuing in this life-affirming spirit, 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 with the entire garden cycle from planting to harvesting and food preparation. It's a remarkable program that has inspired countless other schools to create their versions.
     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 feature will give you at least a hint of the originality of Cao's vision.
     In the course of searching for fascinating gardens, I learned about Ganna Walska's Lotusland in Santa Barbara, CA, one of the better-known, remarkable gardens in the U.S.. 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 poetic meditation on a vacant lot.
     A number of other treasures await your discovery. Having spent a number of months rich in garden delights, the feeling persists of having only touched the edge of a vast territory. So much more is out there. That is certain. The possibilities are mappable on two axes. The basic physical aspects would lie along one axis: size, for example—from window box to thousands of acres. And included would be all the varieties of plants, garden objects, 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 places such as Walter de la Maria's "Lightning Field" or parking lots for cars, and perhaps could lead from the physical into the metaphorical.
     That the question of the garden's possible role in the fine arts has emerged reflects, it seems to me, the movement that's clearly underway. The established categories for negotiating the world of art continue to loosen. The trajectory suggests a progressive blurring of categories that may lead to entirely new ways of thinking. One might ask, What is as stake? But—at least while standing in a real garden—this question doesn't worry me.
     Welcome to issue #3 . —R. Whittaker      
  

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.

 

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