Surfaces

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Every three dimensional object has a surface of one sort or another.  The dictionary defines surface as the outer or topmost boundary of a 3-D object, the external aspect of an object, or a portion of space having length and breadth but no width. How unhelpful is this?  It seems simpler to just think of the surface of an object as its skin. That skin can be represented by different textures.  Paintings have subject matter, composition, color, line, mass-a whole raft of qualities.  But how the artist physically handles the paint determines its surface. I happen to be thinking about surfaces, as I had someone ask me recently why I did not carry fiberglass or plastic pots and ornament.  

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Most of my reasons have to do with a love and interest in what nature has created.  Natural materials-wood, terra cotta, stone, dirt, leaves, flowers, water-are living materials.  That life imparts a beauty to them like nothing else can.  It might be a stretch to think of stone as living and breathing, but I do.  It makes emotional sense to me that my garden and landscape be kept company with objects made from natural materials. I once taught a class in vegetable gardening for the Greening of Detroit; I did recommend that anyone worried that their natural soil was contaminated, think about planting their tomatoes and potatoes in garbage cans.  Were they old enough to be split at the bottom, or have gashes in the sides, all the better for the drainage.  But if I have a choice, I favor the real thing. 

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Terra cotta, absorptive as it is, can provide a home for other living organisms such as mosses and lichens; no wonder old terra cotta is my favorite material for pots.  The combination of plants and terra cotta is naturally beautiful.  I have no objection to made-made materials, as long as they are manufactured to look like what they really are.  Fiberglass or plastic made in imitation of any natural material always looks like an imitation.  Fiberglas pots made with an unabashedly natural fiberglass surface can be very good looking. 

more surfaces 024Pictured above is a panel of a terra cotta square pot made by the Galloway Company from Philadelphia Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.  The river bottom clay from whence their pots were made is naturally this color.  There is no mistaking this is a natural material, even if you have never seen anything made from cream colored clay. The surface is genuine; it rings right.

more surfaces 029Do you even have a number in mind for all the different kinds of leaves that must exist? Their surfaces can be hairy, shiny, matte, smooth-there is no end of variation.  But what they all have in common are surfaces that are unmistakeably alive. They live and breathe.  I could not really explain what it is about a living surface that is so evident.  Suffice it to say that I have yet to see an imitation that was truly convincing.   

surfaces 023Concrete is a man made material which I greatly like.  These terra cotta oyster floats have blobs of concrete which help to weigh the floats down in the water.  Concrete as a material is at its most beautiful when its surface accurately represents exactly what it is-concrete. Of course everyone has had to make concessions of one kind or another over their garden.  I myself have concrete terra cotta pots made in the style of classical Italian terra cotta.  I have three places where I wanted a pot in situ 12 months of the year.  My concrete pots enable this.  Their workmanship is incredibly good.  However nothing moves me more than the clay. 

more surfaces 008Steel and iron are likewise a product of human technology.  The surface of steel will age, as it corrodes.  The pits in the surface can provide a home for small plants, just like terra cotta. How steel ages can be very beautiful; age on a man made surface greatly enhances its appearance.

surfaces 006The surface of this terra cotta pot looks like a painting.  I have no idea how it was done, but there is no evidence of paint.  Whatever altered the surface has soaked in, and become part of the clay.  I am told the material is mineral based-as are many pigments.This treatment I can live with.  The shape and texture of this pot is beautiful as well-it reminds me of a squash, without trying to look like a squash.

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This very heavy gauge wire is wrapped with hemp twine; the wires originally formed stems for some wood shaving flowers.  I think I liked these stems better than the flowers, so I saved the stems.  I took giant needle nose pliers and secured all 20 stems in the middle with the 21st stem.  After curling the ends, I had myself a decent looking bow.  Natural materials-I like having them around me.

Made By Hand

 

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Some time ago I wrote about a client who told me that no matter how beautiful his house might be on the inside, in the end, it is his cave.  I am quite sure he chose the word cave, as he feels his winter is tantamount to a forced hibernation.  Garden people have strong feelings like this-me included. I do make an effort to live through the winter, as best I can; more to follow on that. The upshot-I move to a diferent kind of making- as in small sculptures from natural materials. Some of these bits are left over from other projects.  The shells in this topiary were left from my shell tower construction.  The trunk sticks came from a spring centerpiece I no longer needed, but couldn’t quite throw away.  Some materials I buy specifically for interior arrangements for the home. I buy little pots all year long for these projects.  Who doesn’t have a small space somewhere that could be enlivened by a little dose of nature? A little dose of nature- hand conceived and built-this helps brighten my winter.

topiary sculptures 017Eucalyptus is not native or hardy in Michigan, but its sturdy broad leaves remind me of boxwood- super sized, that is. Eucaylptus takes well to being preserved; the lush and lively look pictured above will last a very long time.  The delicate cedar whip stems are arranged around a stout stick under a rubber band, and then glued.  The trunk has interesting texture, does it not?  Preserved reindeer moss covers the top of the clay pot.  The moss is set low enough such that the terra cotta pie crust edge can still be seen.  

topiary sculptures 007Making anything with one’s own hand is so satisfying. My friends Lauren, Buck, Marianna, Jane, Lynn, Julie and Janet-they cook.  Fred’s twice a year chili extravanza-he runs a marathon for a solid two days over it; I have been a lucky recipient.  Some sew, others compose.  Gerhardt has not only resumed, but embraced his interrupted calling as an artist, after 30 years directing an Art Academy.  At 70, he is just firing up.  What and how all of them make things energizes me. Myself-I love what these small sculptures teach me about scale, proportion, texture, color, line, mass; what I put together stays with me, when I have a garden project to design.   

topiary 009The hard wood of kiwi vine is extraordinarily beautiful.  No two lengths are ever the same.  Though I designed a number of these small sculptures with whitewashed eucalyptus and painted terra cotta pots, each one is different.  As I compare them, I see the importance of line in a composition. I see that a signature, an arrangement of lines,  is unique, and significant.  Where I might apply this in my work-who knows.  But I have seen this, and I will remember.

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This delicate preserved foliage is the devil to work with-just ask Pam.  But stuffed densely into a foam form, each individual wispy stem contributes to a mass and an overall form that engages the eye.  The black dogwood stems are loosely gathered up and glued in.  The lesson here- observing and working with the natural inclination of any natural material- makes for a graceful object.

topiary sculptures 025This lone silver plate candlestick I inherited-I do not remember why.  For years it has been on a shelf, looking at me.  The whitewashed eucalyptus unexpectedly looks good with this formal metal trunk.  Every material needs the right spot to shine.

topiary sculptures 006Rob will show up from a buying trip with pots in hand-these are actually densely fabricated paper mache.  A wispy and dense natural material seemed like it might make a good companion. Though my first choice would be for a topiary plant firmly rooted in the ground, in a landscape, I don’t mind this slight and skillfully made interior bound reference.  Making is much about doing justice to whatever greatly interests you.

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This deep purple is not a natural color in eucalyptus, but it does so celebrate the natural color of the black dogwood trunk.  Have I ever seen black twig dogwood before this past fall-no!  A first rate grower in Wisconsin sent me bunches of this dogwwod this past November.  Regularly I see things from the natural world I have never seen before- my surprise and enchantment may fuel the winter crop of topiaries.    

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This winter, Pam constructed each and every one of our topiary sculptures.  From my sketchy designs, she has created some very beautiful sculptures;  she has a sure and an inspired hand.  She is able to take an idea and confidently interpret from her own experience and eye.    I am sure you can tell she is a first rate gardener, on winter leave.

Sunday Opinion: Rehab

 You would think agreeing to a knee replacement would be enough for anyone to sign up for, wade through and get up and out of bed in spite of- not so.  A brand new knee joint does not in and of itself constitute a rehabilitated knee.  That titanium gizmo may be a miracle of modern medicine, but it has to settle in, get situated, make friends with the cut and mightily insulted quadriceps muscle-and be persuaded to work. It has to extend the leg in question out straight-all the way out straight.  It has to flex. 90 degrees to climb the stairs-93 degrees to stand up.  106 degrees to tie your shoelaces, 117 to lift things-and 135 degrees to properly take a bath.  As I am fond of taking a tubby, I know what I have to do.  135 degrees of flexion means you can just about do anything you have a mind to.  At this writing, almost four weeks after surgery, I am at 112 degrees. I have a ways to go before I am climbing up into the Sprinter to go to market, and hauling 1 gallon pots around.  Can you hear me sighing?

I have never been all that good at self improvement.  No matter how many times I tell myself I do not need one more book on any garden related topic, new books appear. I buy my books on line now-it is criminally easy to do.  William Stout Books in California is a treasure trove of great books on design and the arts. Just reading about their books on line is great winter entertainment.  Amazon-I should just turn over a paycheck to them at Christmas time.  I buy books-to me, from me.  Powells Books, Timber Press, Hennessey and Ingalls, Potterton Books-my list of places to get in to trouble is long. I am an incorrigible offender.

I cannot walk past a plant that needs water, and direct someone else to take care of it.  Should I go to photograph a client’s summer pots, and they need water, I put the camera down.  If there are plants at my shop flopped over from having gotten too dry, I will drop whatever else I am doing, and water.  If I am really hard pressed for time, I will carry the plant to someone for immediate relief.  Early in our relationship, Buck would watch me come home to dessicated pots.  He would try to reason with me.  With complete and kindly confidence he would assure me that the pots were in no imminent danger: I should put down my things and relax a little before the evening chores.  When I brushed him off,  briefcase in one hand and the hose streaming water in the other, he would roll his eyes, and mutter under his breath.  None of this from him ever rehabilitated me-he gets started on the watering now before I get home.  Peace in our time.

For at least twenty years straight I planted columbines. Who wouldn’t love to have Nora Barlow in their garden?  Aquilegia flabellata alba-gorgeous.  The chartreuse foliaged version whose name I cannot remember-I am sure I have bought at least 50 of them. No matter how many times I told myself to just say no, I kept buying them.  It is very tough to just admit that some living thing just doesn’t like you.  Enroll me in rehab all you want, but I will probably keep buying columbines. 

I am a designer who speaks my mind-sometimes before I know it’s happened. There is no rehabbing this characteristic; I think I have the gene.  I furthermore think I have little interest in being reformed.  But my age is in my favor, whether I like it or not.  Luckily it is much harder to sustain righteous indignation for too long the older one gets. I like to think I am much less rough around the edges. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that that beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art. I find this is a good goal, practicing the art of the two way street. My interest in landscapes-designing them, building them, looking after them, is a trump card I will play against my own propensity to get out of hand, should I need to.  Clients are very much a party to what I do; I treat them like company.

I might be willing to consider the notion that one could become rehabilitated via repeated exposure.  How many times have I stretched out, and closed up that leg to the best of my ability since coming home with this new knee? I am sure the number has to be in the zillions.  My efforts today are a little bit better than yesterday, and lots better than four weeks ago. 

 This experience has reminded me of an exchange I had with my Mom forty years ago.  I woke her up in the middle of the night to tell her I could not go back to college and finish.  Who knows what reason I gave her, or why I found it necessary to initiate conversation at 2am.  She simply said that whether I finished what I had started or not, that decision was not going to make any difference in how she lived her life. This included the fact that she was going back to sleep; if I wanted to stay up all night and mull the thing over-fine.  I recollect an instant attitude rehab.  And I did graduate, by the way.

Gardeners are not just gardeners.  They are motivated, driven-impelled by an instinct to make things grow. I like this about them.  Not being able to negotiate the leap up into the Sprinter come spring will affect no one’s life but mine.  Given this, I have taken ownership of this rehab as if it were the best thing I had ever been given.  As for the columbines, I think I will give them another whirl this spring.

At A Glance: Better Than Knee Deep

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