Wednesday, January 31

Gardening and Artistry: Part I

Recently, a posting on As the Garden Grows asked this question: Why do we garden? As I read, I mentally ticked off Tricia's points. Wanted to grow my own food... check. Enjoy the relaxation... check. There was something missing in her list, though. Something that motivated me but had not been named. As I tossed and turned last night, it finally came to me. I had to admit that part of the reason that I garden is to indulge my artistic ego.

In fact, I dare to suggest that all gardeners who grow things with any consideration at all for aesthetics are artists at heart. Some of my fellow garden bloggers may already be disagreeing with me, or at least shaking their heads and saying, "Not me--I'm no artist," but wait. I just did a search for quotes with the subject of "artist" in one of my favorite quote databases, and found many quotes that seem to back up my theory. So let's explore a few ideas before you tell me that I'm wrong:

"All civilation and culture are the results of the creative imagination or artist quality in man. The artist... makes life more interesting or beautiful, more understandable or mysterious... more wonderful." - George Bellows

When I first started gardening, I was attracted to the idea of naturalistic gardens. I am very reverent about the beauty of nature, and also liked the idea of putting in plants that were well-suited to their surroundings and thus would not need much babying. In reality, I found "naturalistic" planting to be a huge letdown, and also somewhat of an inherent lie.

The truth is, when we garden, we are not randomly and naturalistically planting. We weed out unwanted plants. We plan for aesthetically beautiful combinations and appreciate the occasional happy accidents. I believe that Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury expressed my own feelings best in Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space: "Strictly speaking, nothing that is made by people can be truly natural, and since gardens (unless they are simply enclosures of wild landscapes) are by definition human artefacts, it is perhaps misleading to speak of natural gardens."

Gardeners make plantings that are more interesting, more beautiful, more understandable, more mysterious, Therefore, they are artists.

"He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist." - Francis of Assisi

All gardeners work with their hands, sometimes with the aid of a tool or with the protection of a glove but always with their hands. We use our heads, too, in planning out the sizes of beds or the spacing of annuals. And in diagnosing plant diseases and sussing out whether too much rain or too little sunshine is the cause of a plant's lackluster performance in a certain spot.

And gardeners definitely use their hearts. Some plants we keep in the garden simply because they make us smile, or because they remind us of our roots or a certain special person. Sometimes our gardens break our hearts, whether ice storms cause tree limbs to fall or whether our own mistakes cause the untimely demise of a favorite plant.

"Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way all over again." - Eudora Welty

I see this childlike amazement at the natural world over and over again in various garden blog posts. Lisa over at Millertime constantly amuses me with posts that express her delight in everything from vermicomposting to raising fungus. Don (who I think of as Iowa Garden Boy) takes beautiful pictures of snowdrops and snow-mired winter grasses that non-gardeners would walk right by... and he posts them, too, for all of the rest of us to appreciate. And so many other garden bloggers experience and share their own childlike amazement in other ways as well.

So, have I proven my case beyond a reasonable doubt? No court of law would think so. But I'm more interested in what my fellow artists--er, gardeners--think.

Do you consider yourself an artist? Do you simply try to keep your flower combinations from clashing or are you driven to create particularly dynamic and exciting combinations?

Do you copy the designs of the "old masters" like Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll, and Roberto Burle Marx? Do you subscribe to a certain style of design, like English borders or cottage gardening, or do you prefer to be eclectic?

Do you find yourself tending to stay with one type of plant (perennials, vegetables, shrubs, annuals) or are you fully into mixing your artistic media?

Do any of these art analogies work for you--in your head and in your heart? Or do you think I must have delusions of grandeur to think of myself as an artist? I would love to hear your thoughts, either way.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right on. Great post.

Annie in Austin said...

I suppose some kinds of gardening, like vegetable plots, concentrate on utility rather than aesthetic, choices, and a lot of gardening is just taking delight in watching things grow.

But some things that I do, like designing a bed to be seen as the view from a window or shuffling perennials to make the color combinations more pleasing, and most of the things that you do as you study the contrasts, are both gardening and artistic statements.

At my houses I've tended to make vignettes, rather low compositions to be seen in turn as I walked around. The 'big picture' would have shown power lines & poles, the neighbors' houses, cars and trucks, and other intrusions on the view.

When I took photos of these gardens, I tried to capture them as living paintings. I think you do the same thing, Kim.

Would we try so hard to make the photos match the dreams in our minds if art were not a prime motive?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Anonymous said...

Kim: What a wonderful post! I'm going to re-read it and post something up on my blog this weekend. Thanks so much for the food for thought.

lisa said...

You are absolutely right-on! We are all artists, and the best/worst part is the ultimate lack of control we have over the outcome. It teaches (me) that it's really alright when things don't go as planned, don't sweat the small stuff, and always enjoy whatever beauty you see in life...because THAT'S what matters!

Chris Kreussling (Flatbush Gardener) said...

Definitely. With two additional observations.

We are part of the natural world. "Nothing exists that is against nature" someone once said (I don't recall who). We exist, our gardens exist, and none of this is "against nature". None of our gardens, and certainly none of us, are "unnatural". Through gardening we may express and embody some of our relationship with the rest of nature. In so doing, we may feel separate and apart. I approach this as a caretaker, in collaboration with my charges, rather than needing to dominate them.

Which brings me to a second thought on "Why We Garden." There is an important spiritual component to this work. I don't mean this in a mystical, magical way, but in the way that something about the beliefs and hopes which sustain us from day to day is fed, nourished, and nurtured in the garden, in gardening. Maybe this is what is meant by "Heart", maybe it's something else.

Unknown said...

While I don't think all gardeners are necessarily being artistic (some approach their gardens more like micro-farms, which I think is fine if that's what you're after), I certainly hope to bring some kind of artistic touch to my garden, and there is a long history of gardening as an artform to draw from.

So, yes, I agree with almost all of your conclusions. The only part I don't agree with is the quote about how nothing that is made by people can be truly natural. That would indicate that humans are somehow separate from nature, when of course we are part of it (sometimes we're the big ugly part!). I think we'd do a better job of not messing up the world if we would just acknowledge that we are part of the natural world, part of the food chain, part of the planet's lifecycle, and not the dominant force here with the sole purpose of taming and conquering everything else.

Besides, certainly humans are not the only creatures who care about aesthetics. Studies have shown that some bird species put extra care into building their nests so that they're not just functional, but also more appealing. So by bringing an artistic touch to our gardens, we may just be acting on a very natural instinct.

Anonymous said...

Claire hit on this ... Artist v. Engineer is one of the components in my garden personality test, a project that's been sitting on the back burner for a couple years now.

Artists score high on the 'has to look good' scale while engineers score high on the 'it has to work' scale. Needless to say, there's some of both in all of us.

I score pretty high on the engineer side, but you wouldn't know it from my blog.

growingagardenindavis said...

No delusions, Kim, you have the heart of an artist.
To answer your questions...I try for combinations that I like and I try them out from different spots and vantage style must be eclectic, I just do what I like! And I mix plants...there are too many good choices to limit myself to one plant type...but I repeat them through the yard to tie things together.
To keep it short I've posted more thoughts over on my blog...

Colleen Vanderlinden said...

Another great post, Kim! But you know long-winded me...I'll have to answer this over on my blog :-)

And, I'll say're SO an artist. Anyone who asks whether they should grow red or blue kale in their beds has a definite artistic streak :-)

Kylee Baumle said...

Wonderful post, Kim! I look forward to reading your thoughts, which you express SO well.

I like the photo of the Northern Sea Oats. I have some, and I need to go out and get some photos of ours.

Kerri said...

Kim, I heartily agree with you!
As we visualize, then garden, we're mixing colors, textures, shapes...endeavoring to create something that's aesthetically pleasing. Isn't that what art is all about?
We are expressing creativity.
Some of us then , paint, draw or photograph what we've preserve the image.
It's my opinion that gardeners are artistic in nature.

ACey said...

Love this post a lot! I am total mixed media artist - in other media as well as at the gardening level

Kristen said...

Oh, yes, you are an artist. And I agree about the childlike wonder being a part of it.

It is all part of being aware in order to share.

Unknown said...

These are all such interesting comments--thank you all for sharing. I'm reading them all, but chewing on things a little more before posting any replies. I guess I'm still turning so much of this over and over in my head...

Anonymous said...

I had to take a few days on this one.

Of course I agree (though the term "art" has ALWAYS been problematic for me). And this is one hell of a post. Beautiful. And the comments are fantastic as well.

I was once asked to give a lecture about creativity (LONG STORY) to a bunch of marketing executives. I was actually asked to talk about how there is some formula to creativity and to explain what it was/is. (As though I know.) I don't agree with that proposition at all and so I spoke about talent and creativity. I happen to believe that creativity and humanity are the same. We are all creative (although we may or may not be artists - I don't know).

I suppose my thoughts run more along the lines of:

1. We garden because we are human.
2. To be human is to be creative.
3. We are creative in our gardens.

Personally, I don't garden for food. I garden because it makes me feel good and keeps my mind occupied... and I love to watch plants grow.

I've seen photo's of YOUR gardens. No question: there is artistry. But there is also humanity.

Goddamn I wish it were spring.

Ki said...

It's difficult to imagine the ultimate size/shape of shrubs, trees and even some flowering plants. So for me it's more like plant and plant more to fill in any empty spot. Or dig them out when they get too crowded. Planting by colors is an afterthought or more accurately no thought at all. I find that if you have enough differently shaped and colored flowers they seem to be like an artist's palette and the colors don't seem to clash. And having a surround of green attenuates any dissonance of colors.

You would think that since I paint, and am very careful in composing a picture, I would be more considered when planting but I'm not. I Just plant and hope for the best though I think or would like to think some kind of subliminal process guides the forming of the garden ;) You are in a garden and not looking at a 2D flat object and that makes a tremendous difference too.

Sweet Home and Garden Carolina said...

As both an artist and avid gardener I enjoyed your post linking the two. Monet said that if he hadn't been a gardener first he would not have been inspired to paint. He created a lasting legacy in both his garden and paintings of his garden.

To me the garden is a blank canvas in which we delight in filling it with texture, form and color. At the same time it is a craft that must be learned if we are to succeed in creating a work of art.

phempton said...

I think there are two ends of the spectrum. One is the utilitarian gardener who grows in a mechanical way to produce results. Then there is the emotional gardener who perhaps attaches memories and meaning to individual plants that he/she grows.

For me, the purpose of growing is to remember things from the past and sometimes to look forward to the emotions that a growing plant will revive in me. It is an affirmation of the never-ending cycles that we live though.

Patrick - I Heart Gardening

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