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The garden as muse: transformation, sanctuary and keeping the cataclysm at bay

"The Bog Garden," by Miles Lowry, painted on Mulberry paper at Annaghmakerrig in Ireland.

I grew up in a North Vancouver home that had a back yard and garden that was magical for a child. There was a garden hill made of stone-walled tiers capped with a wishing well. A creek wound through the back, with an arched cement bridge that led to a narrow garden lining the back fence. Three colourfully painted gnomes populated the yard and there were trees, fences and nooks for climbing, hiding and playing house.

I have many happy memories of the time spent in this garden (not the least of which was when my Uncle Norman – feigning disgust over a missed croquet shot – flung his mallet into the air, where it took orbit over the fence before lodging itself in the upper reaches of a neighbour’s tree).

The garden as muse

For all my garden memories, though, I never considered the notion of my garden as muse until I heard Victoria artist Miles Lowry yesterday at a panel discussion on this subject. The event was part of the Art in Bloom fundraiser series for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

"Feathering" by Miles Lowry. At the Garden as Muse lecture, Lowry demonstrated how this painting, created on Mulberry (rice) paper could be twisted into a small bundle. Using this type of canvas allows him to paint in natural settings around the world.

Lowry described his childhood garden in Victoria’s James Bay neighbourhood as a magical place – a transformative place – as evidenced by the dramatic changes that occurred to the toys he buried there.

“We create garden sanctuaries, I think,” said Lowry, whose sanctuary now is a studio he helped build in his sister’s back yard garden.

For dancer and writer David Ferguson, the garden is sometimes a figurative sanctuary.  He described drawing the garden around himself while on a trip to Korea to buffer the overwhelming energy of a large city.

“As a dancer I hold the garden in my body all the time,” he said. “The garden is the closest thing to church I have.”

As with Lowry, Ferguson also finds the garden to be a physically transformative place.

“It’s where I unravel my dancer body and re-conjure my writer’s self.”

A playwright, Ferguson says the garden is frequently the stage where “emerging dialogue comes out.”

Garden of good and evil?

Moderator Linda Rogers, Victoria’s Poet Laureate, hearkened back to the Garden of Eden, likening Victoria to a paradise where cataclysm is never far away thanks to the earthquake fault on which the city is perched.

“It creates an awareness of the fragility of life.”

Rogers has written a novel, The Empress Letters, that features a protagonist who becomes a painter of flowers. It’s the young woman’s way of connecting with an emotionally distant mother who transmutes grief over the death of a child into an obsession with her garden. One of the novel’s settings is based on the Beach Avenue home that had belonged to Roger’s grandmother. The home featured both a beautiful garden and a tunnel that was probably used for opium smuggling. It’s a fitting depiction of the good and evil garden analogy that recurs in Rogers’ work, including the poem His Beautiful Prayer Shawl that she read aloud from her book Muscle Memory. It contains the sentence: “For days, we circled the tree, the blossoms so thick on the branches we couldn’t see past them…”

The poem ends:

“We both know what will happen in our chosen garden. We watched the Native boy in the park pick imaginary glass from his face. We saw him eating from garbage cans. When the cold weather comes, the beautiful prayer shawl on Buddha’s shoulders will rot, the dead leaves will fall; and the messenger hanging in the apple branches will reveal himself again.”

I cannot conjure insights as deep and dark as these from my garden memories. (The deepest and darkest I got was when I fell into the creek, emerging coated in slimy mud like a creature from a low-budget movie). The garden gnomes of my youth were no Buddhas but they were harbingers of joy and colour, silent witnesses to hours of happy play. And what is play but the imagination unfurled, creativity unleashed like the life force of a bud opening to the sun in spring? I guess my garden was a muse after all!

Dig deeper into artistic musings about gardens:

  • Visit Miles Lowry in his backyard studio at 1829 Lillian Road during the Fairfield Artists Studio Tour April 30 and May 1.
  • Look for the book Framing the Garden, an anthology of Victoria painters and poets edited by Linda Rogers, to be published this fall (2011).
  • Check out the other events  in the Art in Bloom series, which runs through April 2.

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