Personal landscapes: Yard art brings expression to a new medium

Tuesday, October 30, 2007 | 3:00 p.m. CDT; updated 2:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Stone garden trolls sit on a table awaiting sale. Gardeners use so-called “vernacular landscapes” to add a touch of personality or whimsy to their gardens.

Art is enjoying a coming-out party across America as gardeners add personality to their yards.

Discarded farm implements are being restored for use as planters. Plywood cutouts of Disney-like ducklings are staked out alongside driveways and sidewalks. Statuary mingles with rose bushes. Fountains become the focal points of residential ponds. Colorful bottles replace fall foliage on tree branches.

Personal statements, all. But does this visual outpouring represent a creative direction in landscaping or is it just so much neighborhood kitsch?

“Garden is art and art is a part of the garden. We realize these two things belong together,” said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a strong new trend with American designers, many of whom are artists who have turned to gardening.” she said. “I’d never choose a gazing ball, but then, that’s just a matter of attitude.”

Shimizu’s husband is a Japanese garden designer, which is an exacting form of landscaping.

“You do have some restraints in that kind of garden,” Shimizu said. “I kept wanting to junk ours up. He kept saying, ‘No.’ I finally found a beautiful stone Buddha. He said, ‘OK.’ It looks nice and appropriate.

“Some gardens are meant for yard art and there are certain kinds of yards where it really works. But it’s not for every garden. You have to have a respect for place.”

Jill Nokes is a horticulturist and landscape designer from Austin, Texas, who became fascinated with yard art or “vernacular landscapes” during family travels across the region as a child.

It’s a way for people to “use their yard or garden to create particularly exuberant statements about themselves, their history or background and even religious beliefs,” writes Nokes in “Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home.”

Her book offers up a different kind of garden tour. It’s a series of vignettes about the unique environments people have created on their properties.

“For several decades, we have seen increased attention given to place-making and sense of place as important indicators of cultural and social vitality,” Nokes writes. “The yard and garden remain as one of the few common realms where people with ordinary means and skill can shape with their own hands to create a personal expression that is visible to all.”

A chain of design themes began to form as Nokes drove around the state, gathering material for her book.

“I began to see how the intent of one gardener was linked to the other, though the outcome may have been very different and their background or location far-flung.”

Some of her themes:

  • Local landmarks: “Both as the gardener saw him- or herself, sending a message or as the viewer,” Nokes said: “Turn right at that yard that has the statue of the Sphinx in front.”
  • Monuments: “Displays or tableaus that showcased a life’s work.”
  • Hobbyists, connoisseurs and obsessive collectors: “Day lily fanciers, cactus collectors, who become mentors to others new in the game.”
  • Transformers: “Folks who moved into a ruined landscape and made it into their own version of paradise.”
  • Holdouts: “Folks who remained, almost on an island, in landscapes that were being exploited and destroyed all around them, because their family had been there five generations and to them, land is identity,” she said. “You see this in urban ghetto settings.”
  • Sacred Gardens: “ Almost everyone I profiled used the same language when describing some aspects of their yard. Things like ‘welcome to my Garden of Eden.’ ’I feel I was called to do this.’ ’This is sacred space.’”

One factor that differentiates most of these three-dimensional garden galleries from other types of landscape expression is their fragile, fleeting quality, Nokes said.

“These places are ephemeral art forms. Three of my sites were damaged by Hurricane Rita. One burned down altogether and a 45-year-old windbreak in the Panhandle was seriously damaged by wildfires in ‘06.

“Some of these sites are on the decline due to the age of the maker. I’m not even talking about drought, floods and grasshoppers. Life is fragile.”

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