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Q & A Jim Charlier:

Talking the talk about walking the (Garden) Walk

Behind every not-for-profit organization

Photos by kc kratt.

charged with maintaining our architectural gems, historic landmarks, and cultural legacies stands a group of dedicated, unpaid individuals who believe in the power of serving something greater than themselves. Jim Charlier is a perfect example: A graphic designer who lives and works in the Elmwood Village, he has been giving back to his community through volunteer work since he moved here from Binghamton thirty years ago to attend Buff State.

Founder and president of JCharlier Communication Design, he works for “clients that either cannot afford, or choose not to afford, an advertising agency,” as he puts it. Over the years, Charlier has volunteered for an impressive list of deserving organizations, including the Art Directors Club of Buffalo, the Castellani Art Museum, the Erie 1 BOCES Graphic Design Technology Program, Urban Roots Community Garden Center, and the Elmwood Village Association. “My interests happen to be in design, fine art, gardening, and promoting Buffalo. And that’s where I spend my volunteering/community service time. I feel everyone should do something,” he says.

Perhaps Charlier’s most important contribution has been his work with Garden Walk Buffalo, of which he has been president since 2006. This cherished WNY institution has accomplished a lot since its inception in 1995, but it remains true to the original goals as established by founder Marvin Lunenfeld: to encourage neighborhood beautification and civic pride by celebrating the city’s longstanding love of gardening. It has evolved from a small neighborhood event into the largest tour of its kind in the country, with much of that growth occurring in the past decade. And 2010 is sure to be its biggest year to date, as organizers embrace the first-ever National Buffalo Garden Festival, uniting the ever-multiplying number of garden walks in the area with related satellite events under an unprecedented five-week “great green umbrella,” from June 18 through July 25.

Of all your accomplishments, which are you proudest of?
The way Garden Walk has helped to improve homes, blocks, and neighborhoods on the West Side. By encouraging gardens and gardening we’ve seen home values increase, neighborhood pride resurface, streets become safer and more walkable, and block clubs start.

We’ve gotten rave reviews from gardening magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens, Fine Gardening, Organic Gardening, Garden Design, Martha Stewart Living, Garden Gate, Horticulture, and dozens of [general interest] national publications. I’ve been able to take my advertising, marketing, and PR experience and help Garden Walk become more than just a Buffalo event. We attract around 50,000 avid gardeners to Buffalo—thousands of them from around the country—and hopefully have changed a few preconceived notions of this much-maligned city.

Garden Walk has also given out more than $26,000 in grants to community groups; we even produced a stunning coffee table book and interactive DVD. And the best part of all is that the event is free to all who attend—but we still bring in revenue. We spin green into gold.

How did you first get involved with Garden Walk Buffalo?
I remember stumbling onto the very first Walk. Three or four years later, I was asked to design the poster and map. I put my own garden on the Walk in year five or six and I’ve had my garden on it pretty much ever since.

What trends have you noticed in garden design recently?
I am aware of [several] trends—outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, vegetable gardens, outdoor TVs—but I suggest artwork be incorporated into any garden. I like what a writer from The Atlantic Online says: that, in addition to Japanese- and English-style gardens, we have a new category—a “Buffalo-style garden,” that the writer defines as “eclectic, funky mixes in which found objects and exotic-looking surrounding rooftops figure prominently.” That’s a trend I’d like to see more of: the mix of art, architecture, and gardening, Buffalo-style.

Your own garden is fairly whimsical, with plenty of inviting locations to spend time with family and entertain friends.
I’ve got a formal French raised-bed vegetable potager, a Harry Potter garden, a diamond-shaped dwarf-pear-tree espalier, a patio, arbors, artwork, a three-tiered deck with spa and outdoor kitchen, and a lightning-shaped lightning rod tops off our 1897 home. [For more details and some enchanting photos, check out Charlier’s blog at www.ArtofGardening.org.]

What advice would you give someone just starting out?
Latch on to a friend who doesn’t kill too many plants and ask questions. Read garden books, blogs, and magazines. Definitely make [your garden] your own; design to suit your space and how you intend to use the space. Add plants last.

What do you love most about life in Buffalo?
I get tremendous personal satisfaction from helping, in my own small way, to make the place I live a better place to be, and to be from. An anagram of my last name is “real rich”—and living in such a dynamic community, in a big old Victorian, with the family I have, and great friends I’ve made here in Buffalo, I do feel “real rich.”

Get your garden gear

How can you—a GW vet—show that you’re
not faking the garden funk?

By showing your GW-love with Garden Walk posters, shirts, tote bags, magnets, and more. While many of these were available only for the GW weekend before, now they can be had year-round at www.GardenWalkBuffalo.com (click on “Online Store”) or visit www.aepbooktree.com/?org=gardenwalk. The posters, especially, have been oft-requested items over the years. Reprints are available for $10 each, and a set of eight can be nabbed for $70. And when you buy any book in print at the Garden Walk site, your purchase helps support GW and its neighborhood Beautification Grants. These important grants assist block clubs and community groups for beautification projects in the area surrounding Garden Walk Buffalo.

—Christopher Schobert

Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, is a Buffalo-based architect and frequent contributing writer to Spree and Spree Home. For more info on Garden Walk Buffalo (July 24–25), visit www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com; to learn more about the first National Buffalo Garden Festival, see www.nationalgardenfestival.com.

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