The Art Institute In The Garden

October 6, 2010

Lately, as I observe the garden, I feel as if I am in an art museum.

The garden gives the same lectures, albeit it silently, as did my professors in art school. In school, we were taught how repeating shapes unify a work, create perspective and cause the viewer’s eye to travel through the work, eventually leading that viewer to the focus of a piece. They also teach to vary those forms to add interest and variety, to give viewers a reason to continue looking.

In the garden, repeating shapes and creating patterns seems to be law. Look at the structure of those growing brussel sprouts, the long petals like a ladder moving upward, repeating the shape, the movement. Nestled in between are the sprouts, orbs of green, uniform yet varied, just as I’ve been taught.

The leaves of a sedum repeat and repeat and repeat, layers upon layers, leading your eye up and up and up. The outside form of the leaves repeats and so do the veins, pointing you ever upward, toward the center of attention; the bloom itself. That bloom is the focus of the work, that variation, that culmination, that holds the viewer’s interest and makes them smile in pleasure.

Circles and lines, the masters will explain, are important to keep the eye engaged in the work, to create movement throughout the work, guide the viewer through all the elements, to encircle and embrace the composition.

Coneflowers do just that, a spray of petals rising in a crown. Then, like an interactive sculpture that changes in different lights and angles, the petals begin to angle themselves towards the earth in tight, organized lines – like arrows – and the center grows higher and higher, rounder and rounder. Petals blacken and drop completely, then that center becomes an orb, a circle of lines; seeds. And the circles and lines are repeated in the garden with dozens and dozens of coneflower stems and heads in drifts.

The hibiscus seed heads are an orgy of circles. The head itself is a sphere, like a rounded cup. The lip of that cup forms another five circles and inside that cup, five brown pellets that rattle inside.

Next comes texture. You’ll want to respect and work with textures, not fight with them, say the educators. Vary your textures to create interest, show contrast. Those contrasts are what will make a complicated texture less chaotic and a smooth texture interesting in its own right.

Ah, the grasses. Blades that are slender and sleek, thin and thick. The seeds heads atop each one crown them with a burst of textual contrast. The pampas grass blades have edges that can slice into your skin, rough like a cat’s tongue. They reach up and curve out, arcing down to the ground. The seed heads are soft, like velvet beads through your hands when they are closed and now, like cotton fluff as they bloom. Dropseed heads are like raindrops held in place against a backdrop of substantial blades.

Then there is light and shadow. While midday’s bright overhead light flattens everything and reduces contrast, the early morning and evening sun throws everything into relief, picks out details, enhances colors and illuminates forms. Early enough to catch the dew, we see more shadows, clear shadows and reflective shadows. Back to the brussel sprouts, for peas of water caught in small pockets, for light and shadow in the puckers of the leaves. Watching veins light up, the leaves luminescent, shadows caught. True of spider webs too, who rigidly comply to a circular form, use repeating shapes and are best seen in the intense contrast of morning and evening beams.

Color! Bright pops of yellow and red and pink and purple and orange and burgundy and green, green, green. There seems to be very few unnatural combinations in the garden, no matter how unskilled the planter. Nature seems to have designed a perfect palette, so even though a red bee balm is placed next to a purple coneflower, they complement each other.

The  mums seem to be the ultimate combination of all these elements. Forms repeat, patterns emerge, like sculptural elements, perhaps origami, as the petals round into cones upon cones upon cones, smaller and smaller – or perhaps larger and larger, depending upon how your eye moves through all those spherical, curvaceous shapes. Leaves are jagged and irregular, rough and scratchy. Flowers are symphonies of orderliness and tight patterns, delicate and soft.

Art imitates nature.

These concepts of art are ages-old, carved literally in stone, in the temples and pyramids of Egypt, in the cuniforms of prehistoric society, in the cave paintings of man’s ancestors. But did the originators of the formal elements of design – elements that even the most innovative of artists still adhere to in some form –  realize they were taking directly from nature? Or was all that subliminal as they went about their pedantics?

Obviously, nature came first, then art and then the rules. Were the rules created simply to recognize that our senses are attuned to, attracted to and soothed by nature, above everything else? Because we are – ultimately – a part of that nature, just stardust in the universe?

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