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Art in the garden: Placing the right work in the right spot

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For many landscape designers and homeowners, a garden isn't complete without the right art. But how do you find the right spot for a piece of outdoor art and choose the plants to complement it?

The first step is finding a work that really speaks to you, and then “allow the art to help define the landscape,” says landscape architect Edmund Hollander. He recommends working with an artist or gallery, when possible, to create a relationship between artwork and garden.

“It's really not so different from the relationship between a house and its surrounding landscape,” he says.

Susan Lowry, coauthor with Nancy Berner of “Private Gardens of the Bay Area” (The Monacelli Press, October 2017), says art in a garden should enhance its surroundings. “Scale, texture and light all play off the object, and there is also an emotional content that influences how we see the garden itself,” she says.

Less is more, she cautions: “We have seen many a garden ruined by too many extraneous voices jumbled into the frame.”

The most common mistake when placing art in gardens, Hollander warns, is “sticking a work where there's too much other stuff. It's as if a museum hung a painting on a wallpapered wall instead of on a white one.”

So experts recommend that works be placed against quiet backdrops like evergreens, hedges or lawns.

Karen Daubmann, associate vice president for exhibitions and public engagement at the New York Botanical Garden, has helped design plantings around works by glass artist Dale Chihuly and others. The principles for selecting and showing art in a home garden are similar, she says.

“It's nice to go for something as a larger focal point — something you can see from your window and enjoy all year round, and then some smaller works that you only discover up close,” she says.

“And when you're decided where to place something, don't forget to look up. It's a nice surprise to look up and see a pergola, chandelier or lantern.”

Most important, Daubmann says, is to choose art you really love. “Chances are, if you're placing it in a garden you have designed and planted yourself, it will work, because it's the same aesthetic,” she says.

Keep in mind when and from where the work will be viewed. From the kitchen window? The living room? If you'll be viewing it at night, consider lighter colors, she says.

“White glass or white flowers make for a great moonlight garden, while dark blues will tend to get lost in the evening,” Daubmann says. “A mossy, shaded garden can be spiced up quite a lot with light colored art.”

And the artwork doesn't have to be expensive. “I sometimes find wonderful pieces in antique shops or at barn sales that really spark my imagination,” Daubmann says.

Hilary Lewis, chief curator and creative director at The Glass House, Philip Johnson's iconic house and surrounding landscape and structures in New Canaan, Connecticut, helps plan the installations there.She says works should be visible from various parts of the property, should feel like an extension of the landscape, and should draw people in.

For inspiration, experts suggest visiting sculpture gardens, museums or botanical gardens.

“There are lots of sculpture gardens of all kinds around these days, and the combination of landscape and art, when done right, can be very inspiring,” Hollander says.

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