An editor recently asked if I would describe myself as a “landscape artist.” I said, “No, my mom is a landscape artist. I just design and build gardens.”
My mother, Molly Mabe (note: site has audio), is best known for her oil on canvas landscape paintings. They are varied, intricate, and endlessly involving. On my best days of designing gardens, I like to think I am a little like her. Whether or not that is true, many of my best creative practices come directly from her. She did not teach these guidelines, so much as embody them. Being the lucky kid who watched her paint in her studio and comb the beach for sharks’ teeth, I absorbed her habits and practices in the way that kids do. Which is to say, I rarely appeared to be paying attention (“Mom, I’m booored. Can we go yet?”), but from a remove of thirty or so years I think and hope I was.
Mom is the world's best noticer. While the rest of us are busily looking, but not really seeing, Mom is probably noticing something…. She might notice dry blades of grass in a marsh, how they move differently from the fresh blades or the way that they change the scene when viewed from a distance. On a larger scale, she might notice how September light influences the mood of a pond's reflection, or how the thickness of a palm canopy shades surrounding undergrowth. She is not an artist who carries canvas and easel into the woods, but rather one who absorbs everything, from detail to mood and brings it into the studio. Very few of her paintings are “from life,” most are invented from her nuanced sense of place.
I try to emulate this skillful noticing, although I generally fall into more active observation. While in gardens, nurseries and nature, I try to take it all in, good, bad and indifferent. This is a quite different practice from learning, with the goal of imitation, and is rather more like gathering a palette of impressions to be recalled at the right moment. Sometimes years later, an observation will inspire a new plant combination or even a design.
When people see my mother’s work in person, especially the large pieces, they often comment that they feel drawn into the painting. As befits a great noticer, Mom is keenly aware of how line, form and contour direct the eye. At times, she allows attention to scan broadly across a distant marsh, at others, she draws us along the tide line of a beach, around a bend or into the canopy. Viewers project themselves into that scene, and they feel surrounded by it, even though it is a two dimensional piece.
If Mom's work holds a clearly applicable lesson for my work in garden design, this is it. We all have busy lives, with little time to stroll through gardens. However, a path to a peaceful bench or a carefully curated planting captures attention. We use features, pathways, dramatic plantings and other three dimensional tricks (we have it easy) to draw the eye and imagination into the space, bringing people into the garden, even when they are not able to physically wander through it.
Finally, for sake of word count, not completeness, Mom is curious. She is a student of Eastern and Western art history, and she experiments constantly. She may have painted a few marsh scenes, but each one is different, with some new aspect to keep her attention. She loves to play with scale. I have one painting that is perhaps eight inches, square. Another ambitious piece is 6 1/2 inches tall and 80 (EIGHTY!) feet long. It is a beach scene, moving from dawn, through day to dusk across three long walls, and it is more amazing than you imagine. She might paint koi swimming in lotus flowers or a pair of found birds’ nests. She decorated at least one minister’s stole. She could probably sell her doodles. As you might imagine, I prefer an embellished Post-It note from my mom to any store bought birthday card.
With her example, I have no excuse or desire for rubber-stamp design. There is always a new way to use the same materials or new materials to bring a point of difference to a design. Sometimes, when I am pushing myself to find a better, new angle of approach to my work, I sense a small, familiar spark - a combination of joy and adventure that, if tended carefully, can lead to the glow of inspiration that I remember from my mom’s studio.
Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother's Day.