On Garden Art

Homes & Cottages, April 1997

gardenWe spend a lot of time and money on interior decorating. We spend a lot of time and money on our gardens. We’re picky: we want that piece of sculpture over the fireplace; we want an oval tulip bed in the south corner of the garden.

Most of us, though, don’t meld the two. We think of home decoration as one element and garden design as something else. Unlike the Italians or Japanese, Canadians typically don’t put anything but plants in their gardens. In Vancouver, artists are designing garden sculpture to encourage home-owners to use art to augment and showcase the natural beauty found outside.

Vancouver artist Susanna Blunt is an avid gardener and an enthusiastic proponent of the idea. “I think that  a garden is the most wonderful place for art, yet you don’t see much of it. When you do, you see reproductions of old items, and those pieces are reminiscent of other cultures and other types of architecture. That’s why I decided to create modern, individualistic sculpture for Canadian gardens.”

Blunt’s custom pieces are made of steel, bronze, stone, glass and marble and can be simple sculptures or ornate designs. She also has a line of Swizzle Stakes, which are six-pound, 80” steel poles that have been bent or welded into creative and decorative statues. They can be grouped to create one sculpture, or used separately to support sweet peas, climbing vines or roses. They can be left to rust and age naturally, or painted to match or contrast with garden furniture or plants.

“Garden art makes any garden doubly inviting,” says Blunt. “It becomes a visual point of interest, and complements or contrasts plants so that one shows off the other to the best possible advantage. Art can turn a garden into visual theatre, even in winter, when it collects snow and ice and adds colour or interesting notes to an otherwise-bleak winter garden.”

Bradford Carrie has the same objective when creating garden sculpture, but the difference with his work lies in his materials. Carrie scours farms, rail lines, beaches, docks and abandoned houses, and uses found objects to create eclectic sculptures that can be used in conjunction with plants or as visual accents in a garden.

“My concern is with balance, colour and texture, and with showcasing the personality of objects, says Carrie. “Found objects have been used by someone in another time and this gives them character. That character becomes part of the visual value of the sculpture, and lends itself to the look of the garden.”

For Carrie, doorknobs from a turn-of-the-century house, pounded into an old oak door found in an abandoned railway tunnel, become a ‘door sculpture’, which is the ideal accent for an ivy-covered wall. The lid of a gas tank and the base of an engine are welded together and placed on a pedestal to support vines and flowers. One six-foot sculpture consists of dock fittings, a machine strap, a fishing boat hook, copper tubing and an old farm rank, all perfectly balanced with complementary, contrasting tones that age together.

Vancouver landscape architect Judith Reeve, also known from the CBC’s Canadian Gardner, refers to the use of art in gardens as “agritecture” and has long used plants, wood and odds and ends to build structures for plants to grow on. In Canada, however, Reeve finds that the concept has not quite caught on.

“Interest in garden sculpture is greater in Europe and the US. Here, the conventional, formal garden is still popular, but garden art is extremely useful. It can be used to connect garden segments, as a focus for light and water, or to dress up a blank wall. Rockwork can be turned into a pond or tiny fountain. It’s also nice to hide items that people can come across as they walk through your garden. Gardeners can make their spaces much more interesting by adding items and experimenting a little.”

Reeve adds, “There has been this tremendous snobbery about garden décor, which has made people afraid to experiment. But I say that if you find an item you like, put it in your garden. Hang it on a tree. Let water drip onto it. Make  seat out of it. Put a light in it. If it doesn’t look right, you can always change it. Art can add a little mystery and a sense of discovery to a garden and I think people should be a little more whimsical. Why not decorate your garden as you would your house?”