Works of Garden Art

On the one hand, there are paintings of gardens and plants – Monet’s water lilies, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Rousseau’s lush, tropical fantasies. On the other, there are gardens that are works of art themselves – the Tuileries of Paris, the gardens of Winterthur in Delaware, the bordered walkways of the Alhambra in Spain. The intersection of art and gardens is time-honored, and it continues today, here on Martha’s Vineyard.    

Thaw Malin, a painter from Chilmark, grew up helping his father with landscaping projects, and his love of gardening is reflected in his art, which often focuses on flowers and gardens. He is methodical in his pursuit of subjects, traveling around the Island to places of interest, snapping digital photographs, and seeing what leaps out at him. Frequently, he says, he’ll decide to paint a particular garden because of what’s in the background, off in the distance. Other times, it’s the quality of light at a certain time of day.                    

“There are some gardens that just have beautiful aspects,” he says. “The long view, a building in the right place, a Chilmark lacy stone wall, the right kind of background for flowers, things arranged so that light plays on flowers in a dynamic way.”

He also likes to paint huge, O’Keeffe-like portraits of individual flowers. “It’s an excuse to paint in intense colors,” he says, noting that the palette of colors in most landscapes is more muted. “You get to take the nuances of a color and play with them, experiencing a shade from its darkest subtleties to its brightest over a large space.” The colors in his portrait of a red-orange poppy, for example, range from bright yellow where the sun glints off a petal to deep burgundy where the petals overlap at the base of the blossom.       

For Kara Taylor, West Tisbury artist, landscape designer, and gardener, the fundamental elements of painting are all present in gardening. Form, line, color, and texture are as much a part of planting a garden as they are of making a piece of art.   

“In my paintings,” she says, “I layer color and texture, and it’s the same in the garden. I think about the garden as if it were a painting, only it’s both 2-D and 3-D at the same time.”

In the garden, as in her art, she has a particular palette with which she likes to work. Drawn to contrasts between bright and deep colors, she often juxtaposes plants whose leaves are silvery, chartreuse, and burgundy. The results are striking, with colors playing off one another in a vivid yet harmonious way. In a series of gardens she created to nestle in and around huge boulders on a property at Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury, maroon-leaved smoke bushes abut bright green lady’s mantle and silvery gray dusty miller; yellow tree peonies and burgundy clematis bloom at the same time against the backdrop of lichen-covered glacial rocks.

“You have to know your plants,” she says, “when everything blooms in relation to everything else. It’s really quite mathematical.”

Tisbury artist Peggy Turner Zablotny also has a striking garden – one you can’t help noticing when you drive by the corner of State Road and Look Street. Because in her botanical collages she uses actual plant material – an abundance of pressed flowers, leaves, seeds, and stems – her garden is designed for both high yield and diversity, and it’s positively overflowing with sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, coreopsis, and a myriad of other plants. But it’s more than simply a factory for materials.

“I spend a lot of time, when planting, trying to project what it’s going to look like,” she says. “I think about what people going by on the road will see, and I often put the lower things closer to the road, with the taller plants farther back. I’ve even tried to think about how it would look if I were hovering above the garden and it were one of my pieces.”

Gardening and making art are similar processes for Zablotny. In both, she likes to play color, form, and texture against each other, grouping together, for example, a variety of diverse plants against a solid background. She says that for her, the color green is especially important as background, both in the garden and on the page.

“A backdrop of green makes the colors of the blooms more vibrant,” she says. “I grow and press a lot of greens.”

Patterns are also important, and Zablotny gets inspiration for her compositions from looking at what happens in the garden. “The more you look at patterns in the garden,” she says, “the more in awe of Mother Nature you become.” Particularly, she adds, when you look very closely at plants. “When you take apart a flower, press it, and magnify it, you see tiny patterns that you don’t otherwise – in the veins, cells, seeds, and fuzz. You might see a curlicue or a spiral where you don’t expect it.”

Artist Lucy Mitchell of West Tisbury also uses plant material in her works, collecting leaves and seeds from her garden and elsewhere around the Island. Her work on paper often brings to mind illustrations from scholarly botanical texts; her compartmentalized boxes recall old-fashioned cabinets of natural curiosities.

“I consider the garden an extension of my studio and my work,” she says. “I like to look at the garden as a scientific place, as well as a thing of beauty.” She began her garden with a collection of medicinal herbs. Later she developed a fascination with native plants. Since then, her garden has continued to evolve in a piecemeal fashion, reflecting, more than anything else, Mitchell’s ideas and intellectual pursuits.

“What I think is so fascinating about gardens,” she says, “is that unlike landscapes, they’re limited. You choose what to put in them, and what to take out. I do a lot of propagating – taking cuttings, reseeding. I like to experiment in the garden; it’s a place to indulge my interests.”

She indulges her artistic interests outdoors not only by gardening but also by creating temporary works of art from beach stones arranged in patterns in the grass. “They’re installations,” she says. “I leave them there until the grass gets too tall and Rez [her husband, painter Rez Williams] says, ‘If you want me to mow the lawn, you’ve got to pick up your rocks.’”

Most artist-gardeners agree that, despite how similar gardening and making art can be, they are also different in important ways.

“Gardening is so appealing to me,” says Kara Taylor, “because it’s alive. It’s constantly adapting and changing, just as we are, as human beings. It’s more active than making art, less internal. I particularly like interactive gardens, with paths to wander and places to sit and reflect.”

“I love being outside,” says Lucy Mitchell. “It’s less intellectual than making art, except when I decide to inventory it, look up insects, and so on. In the garden, you don’t have as much control as you do in the studio. Things you’ve planted get eaten by the deer – I guess they’re the art critics of the garden. A lot is left to chance, which is good for an artist; you have to learn to let go and start all over again.”