- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Gardening for many people is a singular art form. Other people make art the focus of their garden. Combining the two can be a challenge, according to local landscape designers and architects called upon to balance sculpture’s fixed forms with a garden’s seasonal permutations.

Clients usually have their own ideas of what constitutes appropriate outdoor art, which can range from the kitschy to the grand.

Then, too, there is the problem of adapting the work to a prescribed piece of property, whether the setting is urban or suburban. Environmental conditions are paramount when considering the placement of treasures on a permanent base.

Also, don’t expect that neighbors and local governing authorities all will look the other way, especially when the installation impinges on the public view.

“Outdoor sculpture adds another level of interest to a garden, so it is not just garden plants or paving,” says Lila Fendrick, owner of Lila Fendrick Landscape Architecture in Chevy Chase, Md.

The process involved is not an easy one, however. One of her clients had a full-scale mock-up built of a sculpture to be placed in the garden beforehand to test which site would be most appropriate.

“You design garden spaces for specific pieces. Sometimes you are shown a photo [of a sculpture], and you have to find a place for it,” she says. “Usually you are then in the process of doing the garden, but often the owner will find something on a vacation, and then you find a home for it. You can have people who buy sculpture unexpectedly, or you can be lucky enough to have somebody with full documentation, with sizes and weights.”

When determining the kind of plantings that will surround a piece, not only are size and proportion crucial matters, but also coloring, lighting and security.

“You have to think of color a lot,” she says. “There are no hard and fast rules. Obviously, you try to obscure a base or pedestal and not obscure a sculpture, but you may plant in a way to reveal sculpture unexpectedly. Sculpture is meant to be revealed, and revealing it slowly over time requires paths of discovery.”

Understanding the importance of scale is critical, says Sandra Youssef Clinton, president and founder of Clinton and Associates in Hyattsville, who finds more and more clients intrigued by the idea of putting sculpture in a garden.

“A piece by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore or Jean Dubuffet screams out for space around them. Then there are just tiny little sculptures that can get lost,” she says.

Difficulties arise when a client comes up with what Ms. Clinton calls “almost comic relief sculpture.” She had to tell one client that her firm in all good conscience couldn’t place them “because we couldn’t relate to these.”

Old farm machinery, on the other hand, she finds intriguing. A project handled by her firm for a Potomac home included a big wire basket, “the kind that would collect hay on top of an enormous combine machine,” which was placed on a lawn and backed up with river birch trees next to a horse pasture.

“We put the basket on its side down a hill where horses would come up to it on one edge. We had an old drinking trough for cattle and placed that in a garden setting, where it became a pond,” Ms. Clinton says.

Changing seasons add to the richness of the art pieces, she says. “Sometimes the sculpture is a focal point, and sometimes the garden takes over. Siting depends on a realistic appraisal of all the dimensions involved. In small gardens, if you have a long, narrow space, you can use sculpture to pull the eye back to the depth of the garden.” A really critical element, she says, is the fact that “with landscape there is no ceiling; the sky is the limit.”

Some novel sculptural pieces are chosen for sentiment. Landscape designer Melissa Clark, who is with the Bethesda firm of Landscape Projects Inc., did a garden five years ago for Jeffrey Balkind and Francoise LeGall in Chevy Chase, Md.

The two later asked her for help displaying three Nepalese carved wooden screen panels that Mr. Balkind had obtained on his travels. Originally used as covers for windows, each piece is 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Mr. Balkind wanted to show them lit up among the trees on his property, especially a copper beech with a silvery trunk that forms a backdrop for the panels — harmonizing the tree’s color with that of the screens.

Fabricating supports and completing the job took nearly a year because the town of Chevy Chase required a variance to the rule that prohibits structures — including fences — that are not a certain distance from the property line. Placement was determined in part by the need to use cement support blocks where they would not harm tree roots.

“It is a visible but understated presence and entrance way to the house,” Ms. Clark says.

Originally, plans called for geraniums among the plantings, but these were nixed by Ms. LeGall. “I decided I didn’t like the flowers or the leaves,” she says. Ms. Clark added evergreens (rhododendrons and skimmia) and low-growing nandina in place of geraniums for ground cover, plus blue and white flower bulbs for spring. Previous plantings included white hydrangeas.

Cardiologist Gary Mintz was similarly concerned when he hired the prestigious architectural firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates of 800 G St. SE to plan a Capitol Hill garden outside his home, which fronts on two busy city streets. There would be competition with tree roots on the sidewalk, so close is his property to a public area.

The four sculptures in his collection, including one by the late artist George Rickey, sit in a fenced patio garden with plantings designed to change with the season.

“The Rickey piece created a layered effect between the windows and the terrace and the busy street,” James van Sweden explains. “The fact that the Rickey sort of oscillates is especially appropriate because we are famous for gardens with grasses that blow in the wind.”

Some so-called sculptural pieces come closer to entertainment than art. Tom Mannion, owner of the landscape design firm in Arlington that bears his name, went to the other extreme when he decided to decorate his own home garden with what he calls “kitschy little things I can see from my front living-room window that have absolutely zero maintenance.”

He bought three hanging baskets from a garden store that ordinarily would be filled with soil and instead put gazing balls in the center surrounded by rings of moss. They resemble “an amazing ice cream cone with a glass top” that he says “a few neighbors thought looked like outer-space creatures.”

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