About 20 years ago when my husband and I were new to Pasadena we went to see the newly renovated gardens of the Norton Simon Museum. If you haven’t been there, I highly recommend a visit. Nancy Goslee Power designed it to reflect the essence of Monet’s garden in Giverny, and it was spectacular. It still is. Her elegant use of sculptural art throughout the garden is masterful and adds a depth and magnificence to what might otherwise be simply a beautiful garden.
It made me think. While it makes obvious sense to incorporate art in the garden of a museum, would it not be as powerful to do so in the garden at home? It may seem out of reach and something for only the wealthiest clientele. But shouldn’t art be accessible to the average homeowner as well?
I would say yes. But rather than hearing from me, I thought it might be more meaningful to read about art and it’s place in the garden from one of my longest clients, a dear friend and accomplished Ceramic artist based in Pasadena, Joan G. Aebi.
interview with the artist
NCR: Joan, how did it happen that you first began to bring your pottery into the garden?
JGA: The first thing I did was the “chard pile” which, if you make a lot of ceramics, you have a lot of things that don’t turn out very well. You get a nice sense of satisfaction when you have a piece that you thought was going to be great and it turned out Ucky instead—you take it and slam it into the ground and it breaks apart. You get a real charge out of that!
From the beginning, long before we worked together on her design, Joan began throwing her discarded sculptures into a pile in the front yard of her house at the base of a massive and ancient Deodar Cedar. Thousands of broken pieces of pottery stretched out in a 15′ radius beyond the base of the tree making a fascinating understory—a uniquely artful yet accidental interpretation of mulch.
JGA: The other thing is that at that time I was doing a lot of people and casting people in clay. So I had chests, backs, and hands and faces, and I would throw them in there. Then the neighborhood kids started going through and and say “Oh my god! There’s a hand!” so they started going through and looking for treasures.
The other thing is that’s amazing about it is the stuff sinks into the ground. With as much stuff as I’ve put in there you’d think that the pile would be really high but it just sinks in.
Deodars can grow in a variety of soils as long as they have good drainage. In this case, with so much clay going into the soil water from the irrigation and rains goes into the pile and becomes absorbed by the clay. Slowly, over time, the moisture is released into the soil below creating an unlikely symbiotic relationship with the tree.
NCR: You also had some totem poles out there before we worked together on your design.
JGA: I had a friend who was making some outdoor sculptures and I got the idea of making totem poles and I really liked the idea of, you know, sort of staking up the different types of pots that you could stack and make these totem poles.
NCR: Did you those pieces start with the intention of being used for the totem poles or did you select ones that you had already made and thought they would work for this application?
JGA: Both. I started by using pieces that I had made and stacking them and then I would say I need a top to this and how am I gonna do it? After a while it really became that I was making a totem pole.
NCR: When I saw your artwork I just knew that it had a place in the garden and as much as we could use we should incorporate it in there. I don’t know if that was your intention for your sculptures.
JGA: It really wasn’t. But as with some of my ceramics you end up with so many more pieces than you know what to do with so this was a great way of dealing with it. And they work. They belong. I hadn’t really used any of the people pots outside. That was you. That was great. I mean I love it that they’re out there. They’re not real refined so they really work well in the feeling of a garden where things happen in a free flowing sort of way.
NCR: It seems like art in the garden is a really personal choice. What do you think about how others might be able to incorporate art in the garden?
JGA: It depends on the person and what they want to do. I think that the garden is a great place to display art. Especially ceramics because ceramics can stand up to being outside. Particularly things that are high fired will work well. Metal also works. I think it’s wonderful to have these unique pieces in the garden.
Also, if you have something that can take the weather, put treasures in the garden! That can be art for the garden! Whatever! But treasures should go in the garden, just like artwork. It makes it personal. These bits of who you are make a personal statement rather than standard “garden art”. And your garden is so much more special with it.
Check out our post Garden Art: Found Items for more ideas on this!
Finding your own art
One of the main take-aways from our conversation is that art, however you define it, gives you a means of expressing your own true self. And this applies even in the garden.
Joan is an artist, so she has a wealth of opportunity to use her own pieces to enhance her outdoor spaces. But you don’t have to be the artist to bring art into the garden. You only need to know what you love. Here are some suggestions on how to find something magical while incorporating art in the garden.
. Contact your local Arts Organization. In Pasadena, Armory Center for the Arts is a great resource for you to discover and connect with the local art community.
. Contact your local matal’s guild, or pottery studio where you might also discover an artist you love
. Consider using treasures you have or one’s you’ve found and bring them into the garden in an artful way (Contact us if you need help with that)
. For art in the garden, you will want to stick with durable materials that can withstand the elements: metal, pottery, concrete, and glass are the four best choices.
. Stay away from plastics at all costs!
. Wood can be amazing but it weathers and rots. To keep it looking good it should be sealed and never placed directly in or on soil