The sculptures and plants in Bill and Phyllis Rogers’ Sacramento garden are so closely woven together, it isn’t clear whether the artwork is in the garden or the garden is among the artwork. The Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat peer out from behind the shrubs. A smiling Humpty Dumpty sits precariously atop a wall. A rusty metal monkey runs along the top of the arbor.
Turn a corner, and you’ll come face-to-face with a screaming-red, 4,000-pound, authentic British telephone box. A fountain made of stacked pieces of terracotta pipes bubbles soothingly into a small pond. Metal plant stakes, some with swirls or curlicues on the end, are “planted” among the flowers. Pieces by their favorite artists spill out of the house into the garden, which contains approximately 2,000 varieties of perennials, shrubs, tree, vines and bulbs. Jazz music plays softly in the background.
John Morris of Penn Valley maintains that he and his wife, Ann, have a home in a garden rather than a garden around their home. The art scattered throughout the 27-acre garden is carefully orchestrated yet carefree, whimsical and formal, silly and serious, but very personal and always with a story.
“What I do here,” Morris said, “is anything that strikes my imagination.”
He has quite an imagination: dinosaurs inhabit part of the garden, and dragons have moved onto the lower acreage. Farther down the path, there’s a dance floor for a frog mariachi band, an entire hill for marching ants (fashioned from cement and steel) and another for trolls and knolls. There are ruins complete with Roman-style balustrades, reproductions of famous statues, a giant Buddha surrounded by red roses, painted posts topped with wooden hands pointing various directions (points of view, Morris explained) with more of the same just down the hill (other points of view).
Morris has built a mining town called Annsville, and plans are in the works for adding a street of tiny San Francisco Victorian-style homes. Morris looks at you with piercing blue eyes and, in his soft Mississippi accent, weaves mesmerizing and fanciful tales for visitors as they meander along its many paths. He brings the garden to life with his stories about the trolls and the dragons and the Far Western Rinkydinks that live there. Morris is as much part of the art in the garden as his statues of the Three Graces.
Rita Forman’s Auburn garden is far subtler. It’s mainly filled with camellias, azaleas, Japanese maples and bamboo. Each autumn thousands of chrysanthemums carpet the ground and provide her with plenty of flowers to cut for the house. Gravel paths intersect the garden and lure visitors around corners. An artist, she has a keen eye for color and drama. Around the back of the house, for example, the paths spill out into a large courtyard where the soothing green foliage gives way to a vibrant blue/purple picnic table with varying sizes of ceramic balls arranged masterfully down the center. She’s hung copper refrigerator coils, salvaged from a refrigerator dumped in a nearby lake, around the garden, and placed large saucers filled with small art pieces – bronzes and other things – along the paths. Lampwork beads – Forman is a lampwork bead artist – hang like multicolored jewels from the trees.
Truly, there are as many styles and ideas about art in the garden as there are gardeners and artists. Some gardeners go for fun, even kitsch, when they place concrete gnomes in the garden. For many, though, the urge to create something in the garden is far more personal, far more primal than simply buying a piece of statuary or a weather vane or a pot. These types of gardeners want – and need – to create something out of, well, almost anything: old shovels, tea cups, broken pots, bits of rusty metal, tractor parts, terracotta pipes, old tools, rusty chains, weathered gates, old windows, garage door springs, discarded doors, you name it. Still others find fabulous ready-made art pieces and place them in the garden. Finally, another group of gardeners bring the artist into the garden hoping he or she will find inspiration for creating a one-of-a-kind art piece to tuck among the plants.
“It’s your own personal view on something, and the garden is an ideal place for people to express themselves,” said Marcia Donahue, Berkeley artist and gardener. “It doesn’t have to be a public statement, just something to please yourself.”
Bottom line, it seems gardeners can’t help themselves: Art, in whatever form it may take, seems to simply appear in the garden. The story of how art insinuates itself into our gardens and our lives is very personal and sometimes accidental.
“You can’t reduce it to a simple equation because there are all kinds of gardeners and all kinds of artists. Some of them you like, and some of them you don’t,” said Donahue. “It’s a big subject.”
The key is to create or arrange artwork that sings to you and that makes you happy, she explained. “Whatever you haul into your garden should be what you love so it complements the things and plants around it,” she said. “For me it’s not just a bunch of random stuff, but is heartfelt and carefully considered.”
“For us,” Bill Rogers said, “it didn’t happen overnight. We joke that the garden is a series of corrections over the last 40 years, lots of little changes, tweaks here and there. We had some designers and artists we loved helping us, but we worked with them every step of the way so they would understand our vision and our style. It was very interactive.”
Rogers prefers artwork with a kick. “A friend once told me artwork should shake you up, and the art we have in the garden does that in a good way.” Case in point: He commissioned a sculpture of beat-up football player wearing an eye patch and pointing a finger in an inappropriate manner.
For Forman, much of the artwork scattered throughout her garden fulfilled a need, and she approached it the same why she decorates her home: lots of color. Sometimes an opportunity presented itself. “I had thousands of extra lampwork beads, and I thought they’d look nice in the trees,” she said. It was the same with the terracotta balls, which she made when she specialized in ceramics. “I’m an arranger, and I needed to arrange them somewhere. The picnic table was the perfect spot.”
Placement is crucial, Donahue said. “The advice I give myself is I like it to look at home, like it grew there. I like surprising elements to be very well-integrated so that they are really a part of the garden, but nevertheless surprising.”
John Morris said he’s fortunate to have dozens of vistas in the garden, and he doesn’t want the artwork to overpower or block the views. “Over time I’ve learned not to crowd the view, even if it’s a borrowed view of the Sierra Buttes or Lassen. You want to let the impact settle in for a while, so don’t crowd things together,” he said. “It’s easy to have too many things. You want the art to be a point of interest, but not to clutter the view.”
He pauses, chuckles, and then sums it up this way: “When I see the smile on people’s faces that means they finally get whatever joke or message my artwork is meant to convey, that’s the best.”
Putting art in the garden
Marcia Donahue: My advice is to try it. Nothing is written in stone so you can always undo it. Just try things out and see how you like it and then try something else again. Gardens are always moving. You don’t have to get it right the first time or the fifth time. Improvise.
Rita Forman: Keep an open mind. If I see an interesting piece I think I might want to add to the garden, I think about where it might go. It’s all in your eye, but don’t overdo, and have a sense of what you like. If you really like something, you’ll find a place for it. But I don’t just go out and say I’m going to buy art for the garden. I want it to be meaningful, I want it to be something that is beautiful and gives me pleasure when I look at it. For me, it has to evoke an emotional response, whether it’s something from nature or something someone created.
John Morris: Think through an idea and put something there that reminds you of what you’ve been thinking of and let it build. Don’t try to do everything at once. For me, too much planning limits the possibility of what it will look like.
Phyllis Rogers: Take your time. Create the garden for yourself, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t keep something around that you don’t like.
Bill Rogers: We look for inspiration and ideas everywhere we go. We’re always scavenging for ideas. Gardens are always evolving. They’re dynamic, not static. It’s the journey.