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Art In the Garden

January 21, 2016

Sherwood Wind OrchidOn a beautiful summery day in early September, I visited the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with my friend Karen. Our specific purpose was to see the exhibit of George Sherwood’s kinetic sculptures then on display at the garden. I am a big fan of Sherwood’s work, especially the large-scale pieces, some of which I had seen previously at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. These sculptures are made of stainless steel, often have organic shapes, and are designed to move in the breeze.

The older Sherwood pieces that I was familiar with, like Wind Orchid (above), have large moving parts. The newer works in this exhibit have smaller moving pieces so that the aspect they present to the viewer and the way they reflect light continually change. Photographs can’t do justice to these sculptures.

It doesn’t really capture the way Memory of Water shimmers in the sunlight, Sherwood Memory of Water
Sherwood Memory of Fibonacci or the constant but subtle shifts in Memory of Fibonacci (my personal favorite).
Flock of Birds had the most dramatic movement, as the “birds” changed direction, moving now toward you and then away. Sherwood Flock of Birds

Seeing these sculptures with Karen was a revelation; she is herself an artist, and she combined aesthetic appreciation with an analysis of how Sherwood’s pieces are constructed. The visit not only gave me a much deeper appreciation of these works of art; it also got me thinking about the place of art in gardens.

Art and gardens seem to go together. Gardens are, in a sense, works of art, and it’s probably not surprising that many artists are also gardeners. Moreover, gardens often include objects d’art as part of their design. Carefully chosen pieces of art can provide a focal point or destination in a garden or can help set the mood. When I was first trying to understand how to create a mood of serenity in a garden (see Design Ideas from Butchart Gardens: Creating Serenity), I noted that serene gardens I visited included art objects made of natural materials like stone or wood.

Despite my love of both art and gardens and my understanding of the important role art can play in a garden, I have been very hesitant to add objects d’art to my own garden. A piece of art is a substantial purchase and may also be a substantial object that is difficult to move; I worry about making an expensive mistake. The kinds of small, inexpensive gnomes and fairies that work well in cottage gardens don’t fit the aesthetic of my garden. While I like a bit of whimsy both in art and in the garden, kitsch is not right for me.

rock spinnerI felt very confident when I bought my one garden art piece, a “rock spinner” by Maine blacksmith Andy Lech , for my serenity garden; but while I still love the piece, I have to admit that it’s not working well in its current location. The rock spinner seemed quite substantial when viewed in a grassy area at the Common Ground Fair, but it practically disappears against the tall pine trees that back my serenity garden; I need something with more mass for this location. Eventually, I will find the right piece for the serenity garden and move the rock spinner to a more open location where it will show to better effect.

One impediment to acquiring works of art for my garden is the problem of “champagne taste and a beer budget.” I would love to have a George Sherwood sculpture in my garden, and seeing photos of his work in his own garden made me swoon (see Favorite Garden Books: The Inspired Garden), but his pieces cost tens of thousands of dollars. I also love those large concrete urns from Lunaform; but they, too, are out of my budget.

garden fish artI need to find pieces that costs tens, or at most, hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Something on the order of these garden fish on display near the Sherwood sculptures at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens would work in my garden and might be affordable. I also want to see what’s available from Maine potters. I saw a vendor at the fair selling birdbaths that were essentially large pie pans mounted on copper pipes. One of my favorite Maine potters, Bonnema Potters, used to sell large planter-sized pieces that they displayed outside their shop. If they are still selling these, and if they can either be left outside through the winter or are light enough for me to move indoors for the winter, they might be ideal. I have many of their pieces inside my house, and I like the idea of using garden art that would reflect my indoor design aesthetic.

In the next two years, I would like to focus on adding art to my garden. I plan to start with something that could be used as a focal point in my new fragrant garden and also find the right piece to replace the rock spinner in the serenity garden, which will then free up the rock spinner for a location in the new front garden.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2016 12:44 am

    Art + flowers + trees = Greater than the sum of their parts.

  2. January 22, 2016 5:36 am

    I’m lucky enough to have inherited several garden gnomes with my new garden… Most of them have accidentally ended up in the trash, but one of them is 4ft high (including his pedestal) and made of solid concrete. He remains in situ until I get somebody to help me get rid of that dreadful thing… There’s also a lion holding a crest by the drive – perhaps suitable for a grander house, but hardly for a rather modest house in the countryside.

    I believe you might have given me the inspiration for a new post…

    • January 25, 2016 10:33 pm

      Since there was no garden at my house when I bought it, the only bit of embarrassing, kitschy yard decor I inherited is a “wishing well” cover for the well pump. I’ve now discovered that it’s possible to get a well pump cover that looks like a rock, so the wishing well’s days are numbered.

      • January 26, 2016 12:14 am

        My well cover is a rather ugly, yellow plastic “tent”, but I suspect I’ll only be able to see it in winter, as there are some good shrubs around it – so at least for now that won’t be a priority. Still, if it had been a “wishing well” I might have made it one.

        Fortunately plants can cover up so many ugly-but-practical elements in a garden.

  3. January 22, 2016 9:30 am

    Jean, I love yard art so I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • January 25, 2016 10:41 pm

      Kathy, Visiting the Sherwood exhibit was inspiring for me, so I’m happy to pass along some of the inspiration. 🙂

  4. January 22, 2016 1:13 pm

    Your pictures of George Sherwood’s sculptures were lovely – and, as you say, how lucky to visit with an artist who understood the construction as well as the concept. We are on a very tight budget here. But our garden was previously owned by a sculpture (and we saw his work in situ when we viewed it for the first time). I still miss his work when I walk around the garden – so many spaces were designed with his pieces in mind. Lovely post, Jean.

    • January 25, 2016 10:43 pm

      A friend of mine had a garden that must also have been previously owned by a sculptor, but she got the sculptures included with the house and garden. For my new fragrant garden (to be added this year), I do hope that I can find something affordable and incorporate it into the design rather than adding something later.

      • January 26, 2016 3:45 pm

        Jean – one of the sculptures that was previously in our garden was sold for over 30,000€. I wouldn’t (although I did) have dreamed that he would leave it for us. He did, afterwards, in the course of social contact, give us many small gifts. Given that he is who he is, that was generous. The second thing is that he only got about 30% of that price when he sold through a Dutch gallery. The second point is very sad, in my opinion. How do we all value really beautiful art? Do we (like me) imagine that we can have it for nothing? An artist has to eat! I do hope that your fragrant garden works out well and I will look forward to what you do! Bonne Annee!

  5. January 22, 2016 1:20 pm

    I wonder if you could find something suitable in the used market like Craig’s List, yard sales, flea markets, or at one of those great furniture auctions that I remember in Maine. There is a place near here that has really big pieces salvaged from other gardens and they are quite affordable.

    • January 25, 2016 10:45 pm

      Carolyn, These are great suggestions. Thanks!

  6. January 22, 2016 2:47 pm

    Lovely photos! I like found art as well. A weathered tree root or a rusty weather vane can be a terrific addition to a garden. Good luck in your search. I find that half the fun.

  7. January 22, 2016 3:20 pm

    Jean – I’m with you. I’d love to add more art to my garden but I can’t afford the things I would want. About the best I can do right now is colorful pots.

    • January 25, 2016 10:51 pm

      Chad, I’m thinking about large colorful pots as an affordable option.

  8. January 22, 2016 3:20 pm

    When I was much younger I found an artist who made these amazing, moving metal sculptures and at the time he wanted $500 for his pieces. That was a huge amount of money at the time so put off acquiring one of his pieces until the following year. When I did see him again he was asking over $10,000 for the same work. I now spend more time admiring pieces that have been publicly acquired and displayed.

    • January 25, 2016 10:55 pm

      Yikes, don’t you wish you had found the $500 before he was established. I remember reading once that Helen Frankenthaler’s very famous painting, Mountains and Sea had not been able to find a buyer when it was offered by her gallery for $150. My first reaction was: I’ve got $150; I’ll buy it!! Then I realized that it was hanging on the wall in the National Gallery of Art (where I have visited it many times) and no longer available for $150.

  9. January 22, 2016 4:55 pm

    echoing your chosen art on both sides of the house wall – sounds like a wonderful idea!

    • January 25, 2016 10:56 pm

      I like this idea, too; I’m hoping it will work out.

  10. January 23, 2016 7:51 pm

    Wow! Those art pieces are amazing! Memory of Fibonacci may be my own favorite of the ones you show, though the Flock of Birds had to be fabulous. I laughed about your champagne taste and beer budget. That is the story of my life!

    • January 25, 2016 10:59 pm

      Deb, Most of these large sculptures were fabulous! If I had the money and space, Memory of Fibonacci would be the quieter of my two favorites, Flock of Birds much more dramatic and scene-stealing. You can see that the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens placed it in the company of big, bold plantings.

  11. January 23, 2016 10:51 pm

    I fell in love with the Coastal Main Botanic Garden a couple of years ago when I saw photos of it and it’s been on my bucket list ever since. I was glad to enjoy another visit courtesy of your blog and see the wonderful George Sherwood sculptures. I hope you find your perfect piece or garden art one day!

    • January 25, 2016 11:00 pm

      Kris, When you get to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, we’ll have to visit. I only live about an hour and a half away.

  12. January 24, 2016 6:44 am

    Hello Jean, there are a couple of gardens around us where the garden is a setting for all the sculpture and artwork within it. Each piece has a (prohibitive) price tag attached to it. Some are lovely, others less to my taste. I am much more traditional when it comes to “art work” in the garden, preferring urns, pillars, sundials and armillary spheres. The price of these though, mean it could be some time before I reach for the wallet. I’d rather build up the garden first as a setting for these to go into.

    • January 25, 2016 11:04 pm

      Sunil, There are some places in my garden where decorative objects could be added after the fact. In my new fragrant garden, though, I really need an appropriate (and appropriately large) piece as a focal point.

  13. January 26, 2016 10:02 am

    I am a huge fan of what I call outdoors art,I agree with you that it needs time to decide what would be the piece that goes to a certain area in the garden for it usually is a long term location. I guess that garden needs a piece that would add to the concept of the area. Sure you will find it!

    • January 28, 2016 10:47 am

      Lula, This was a very helpful comment. It made me realize that I’m not a strong conceptual garden designer. My serenity garden is the only area of the garden that has an explicit conceptual foundation. The closest I get to a concept elsewhere is often a color palette for a particular garden area. If I do have a concept for my house and garden, it’s a strong sense of place and celebrating the beauties of Maine. That suggests that I should focus on local materials and local craftspeople and artists in choosing art for my garden.

  14. January 27, 2016 5:18 pm

    Love the Fish, also the Memory of Fibonacci.

    • January 28, 2016 10:51 am

      Jason, I’m starting to rethink the approach to art in my serenity garden. Instead of a big piece of art that can stand up to those pine trees, I’m imagining something small — like a school of those fish swimming through the flower bed — that beckons the viewer close for an intimate look at the garden and that also makes them smile.

  15. January 31, 2016 7:48 pm

    I have seen many photos of this garden, but not the sculptures…I really love them.

    • February 1, 2016 8:28 am

      Donna, Only Wind Orchid (seen in the distance in the top photo) is permanently installed at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The others were part of a temporary exhibit. (I managed to get there to see them twice before the exhibit ended.)

  16. Kim (You are not alone) permalink
    February 1, 2016 4:30 am

    I adore art and I adore gardens, so art in gardens is a double happy-whammy. If I actually had my own gardening space, I would go small — precious trinkets scattered throughout. I think of large displays of art in gardens as something more public, up to the community space gardeners and such. I’m so glad you’re continuing to thrive in your gardening heart this winter! –Kim

    • February 1, 2016 8:27 am

      Kim, This comment did indeed end up in my spam, and I had to unspam it manually. You can use this as an example if you contact Askimet again. Good luck.

      • Kim (You are not alone) permalink
        February 1, 2016 9:00 pm

        Thanks for letting me know. I had a feeling it would, since the page went completely blank after I clicked on Post Comment. I posted my experiences and things I’ve tried in the Forums, so hopefully some genius out there will get to the bottom of this!

  17. February 2, 2016 12:07 pm

    How did I miss this post? Not to worry, I came across it this morning and read your comments and the responses with real interest. So many natural objects can be used as art, if chosen and placed with that in mind. A tree trunk with no bark and an interesting shape can be polished so that it stands out; placed upright wherever a vertical accent is needed, it can be a wonderful focal point. I explore the woods with open eyes, looking for natural objects I can use, and I often see things. I agree that your rock spinner is lost where it is now, and like your idea of putting something smaller but shiny, like the fish, to attract the eye and the feet.

    • February 2, 2016 9:53 pm

      Pat, I’m very happy to have your input on this. I don’t have the type of creativity or skills that could turn something found in the woods into art. I just did a search online and found the website of the folks that make the fish. They would be a substantial investment for me, but affordable. I think there are some garden fish in my future.

      • February 3, 2016 6:56 pm

        Jean, today I came across a photo in Henk Gerritsen’s book, An Essay on Gardening, showing about some wood posts – maybe 7-9 of them — painted a deep red and arranged in an attractively non-symmetrical way in the midst of ferns. They looked splendid and I thought you might find this idea both appealing and inexpensive. I know that James Golden at The View from Federal Twist has done something similar — and you may see something like this popping up at Glen Villa.


  1. Objects In The Garden | Flâneur Gardening

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