The Dirt: A guide to garden art
Of the hundreds of gardens I’ve visited, some remain in my mind’s eye. A few distinguish themselves with rare plant collections, effective hardscape, or dramatic plant groupings. But when I close my eyes and remember, it’s usually the art that I’m seeing—the artifacts, collectibles, statues, or pieces of architecture.
As dominant as art has become in “Buffalo style” gardens—some writers think it’s our defining characteristic—the concept bewilders many of us who may lack art education, collections, or familiarity with galleries and auctions. How does the non-art crowd become sharp enough to choose and place art in gardens?
From attic and cellar
An easy entrée into personalizing a garden with art or artifacts might start with a look into your own cupboards, basement, closets, or outbuildings. I have seen wonderful uses of collectibles—depression glass, tins, hats, bottles, and birdhouses—lined up on fences, hung from trees, mounted on walls, or tucked among perennials. Using your collections doesn’t mean you’re committed for life; change keeps gardens, like wardrobes or living rooms, interesting. And don’t necessarily mix the collections. It’s a fine line between quirky charm and that certain salvage yard feeling.
The architecture of your house and the garden’s bones, from path to pergola, also provide clues about what art and décor might work. Somehow, the Victorian home and wrought iron benches don’t welcome workboots stuffed with succulents, and the 1850s farmhouse would be quite embarrassed by a metallic nude male torso suspended from an oak tree. But try it—I could be wrong.
Where art comes from
I asked several creative gardeners whose gardens are known for art how and where they found their pieces. Often the answer was luck, timing, or odd circumstance. Certainly Ellen Goldstein didn’t go looking for bowling balls to turn into a totem pole structure—one of the most photographed art examples in Buffalo gardens. But digging in the yard one day, Ellen’s husband, Mitch Flynn, unearthed a bowling ball with “Phil” inscribed on it. Soon “Phil” was joined by “Zak” and fourteen other ebonite black beauties sourced from other locations, and a fabulous piece of funky art was born.
Antique dealers, security guards, construction workers, and people who work with iron, copper, or scrap metal have found or created signature garden décor as a side benefit to their jobs. Frank Scheuttle and M.J. Szydlowski share a memorable, art-filled garden that’s a popular stop on the Parkside Garden Tour. Frank’s Hertel Avenue business (Silent Voices Art & Antiques) is the source for many of his finds. His advice to treasure-hunters: “Try antique shops—like my friend Ron Korman’s Muleskinner Art & Antiques [Williamsville]—and get to know and trust a dealer.” He also advises us to ask about art objects when we like them—“Where did you get that? What gave you the idea to use that piece?” Just as we ask about the plants we see, we should also ask about the art.
What art-savvy gardeners say
The best question I asked was: In your opinion, what do novices, and the less artistic among us, most often do wrong?
Almost universally, they agreed: Enough is enough, less is more, and cluttered isn’t pretty. One art collector, also a stylish gardener, put it this way: “When I visit gardens (and I have visited hundreds) that use art—or even kitsch collections—I ask myself, ‘Did the gardener know when to stop?’” His suggestion for the compulsive collector: Just as you must with limited closet space, when you bring in a new piece, remove another. Drew Kelley of Garden Walk Buffalo, whose garden features many surprise artifacts in unexpected places, says: “Don’t let brash art pieces—bold, bright colors—overpower the plants. Let the garden be the focus.”
Another hint to guide the insecure garden decorator: Consider the role of art in your garden. If the art is central to your life, then design the garden around it. But if art is there to decorate a garden, be selective. Art can be wonderful in either role—star or supporting actor—but be conscious of its function.
A third role for garden décor often shows up in gardens with mixed purposes. If your garden is also a bird sanctuary, then the shepherds’ hooks, feeders, perches, and houses become your focal points. If children share your yard, then playhouses, swings, or fairy houses may become the theme. These can be done with charm and grace—or they can look downright junky.
Copy what others are doing in their gardens until you find your own style. Jim Charlier, president of Garden Walk Buffalo, says this won’t be difficult here: “Buffalo is blessed with a large artistic community—painters, writers, dancers, architects, musicians, photographers, designers, sculptors, curators, and more. It’s no surprise that art is reflected in its gardens. It just took outsiders—referring to ‘Buffalo-style gardens’—to show us what we have!”
Choose one good piece of art or décor, rather than several minor pieces. If you can’t buy original art, look for something less pricey with a similar feel. But avoid cheap, kitschy garden decorations. (After awhile, you will know that when you see it.)
Look to nature. A boulder, stacked rocks, broken branch, or driftwood, can be beautiful.
Finally, place the art object where you sense the need, and keep moving it until you say “Aha.” If you are a gardener, you probably have a better eye than you think you do.
Finally, the insecure among us can teach ourselves to see, to a great extent. In the words of my art collector friend, “Visit art museums. Look at the art for yourself; don’t just listen to canned talk on a headphone. Then read about it. The more you look at art, the more you will begin to understand what is good art and what is mediocre.”
I’m sure he’s right. I’m also sure that when we’ve all learned to see, choose and place art in our gardens that every one of us will do so differently. Like gardens, art is ultimately a very personal matter.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, speaker, consultant, and director of the National Garden Festival.