Days Like Grass, Art and Gardens
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourishet.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone;
and the place thereof shall know it no more.
Proverbs 103: 15, 16
(Kings James version)
I grew up in the Church. My sister (Stephanie) and I sang gospel duets and solos by Skeeta Davis, BJ Thomas, Mahalia Jackson and Jim Reeves in churches across Trinidad. At the age of eighty-one my mom still leads song services in the little Church-Of-God in Rio Claro. My brother Gregory, played guitar in Church. He masters acoustic, electric and twelve-stringed guitars, cuatro and mandolin and plays in parang bands. He also sings with the most amazing voice, which is a big hit at weddings. Gregory and I were both baptized on the same day when he was eleven and I nine, in the presence of hundreds of witnesses. Although I may no longer adhere to the doctrines, the Church has had a huge impact on the way I live my life. Somewhere in my childhood the above passage became a favorite of mine. It still is.
Grasses are also woven into my past. For many years my mother foraged deep into the forest and returned home bug and leech-bitten, exhausted and happy supporting a huge bundle of hollow reeds, enclosed by one arm on her shoulder. Those reeds were laid out to dry until golden brown and later braided into mile-long chords then made into intricate rugs. Rolling fields of sugarcane with their fluffy plumes were part of my everyday surroundings for all the years of my childhood in Trinidad and Tobago. It was for the harvesting of that tall grass called sugarcane or Saccharum officinarum that Africans were enslaved on various Caribbean islands. I am the descendant of slaves. As a teen I made portraits and paintings and drawings of sugarcane fields and clumps of tall bamboo near reflective pools of water with leaves sailing by. Later I lamented the loss of those plumes as the sugar industry crumbled. Slavery, displacement, land ownership, resistance to and connections with agriculture, poverty, wealth and cultural shifts are all wrapped up in the history of the sugarcane and of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. It is my history and a bit of this info is often present in my paintings.
Strong linear profiles in plants have always appealed to me, yet, despite their skinny frame, goldenrod was a loathsome species. It was because I needed to clear many thousands of them from a meadow in order to plant a garden near a little house in the woods on East Buckland Road in Massachusetts many years ago. Goldenrod reproduce by rhizomes and I found it best to pull each one by hand but soon discovered that once they start flowering those buggers hold on to the ground. After pulling them for weeks on end, I became tortured by all things yellow and despised yellow-flowering plants. Yellow became the crassest of colors.
Then, one day, in spring I suddenly loved goldenrod. I realized that I love the way they died. Their stems were buried in winter and after the thaw what was left were thousands of bleached crisscrossing straw-like masses. There was a random quality and chaos created when the stems fell willy-nilly in small and large clumps at varying angles. The effect to my eyes was one of currents, rhythms and fractal energy. Those elements embody change and the passage of time which I often detect in nature and parts of natural objects. As much as God may be in the details, God may often be in the generalities and atmosphere. I found that I was increasingly captivated by landscapes, aerial photography and tensions created in small and wide natural environments.
Linear marks found in nature, like ones made by goldenrod, bamboo and sugarcane continually enter my abstract paintings which have been called 'field paintings' because they have no main focal point and seem to extend beyond the ends of the canvas. They can be viewed as a small section of a much larger, more infinite space. Almost all my paintings are untitled. However, titles like "Field", "Currents" and "Days Like Grass" were attached to paintings created between 1995 and 2005.
Untitled, 1995. 48"x48". Oil on Canvas
It is no wonder then that when I first discovered the field-like plantings of Piet Oudolf I almost gasped for breath. I could not believe my eyes. I was mesmerized not so much by the colors but by the depth and movement created by layering of colors and texture and the rhythmic quality produced by linear plants, stacked vertically creating horizontal ridges and plateaus with their massed umbels, spikes and seed heads in increased depth of field. I remember excitedly showing an image of Piet's work to a friend who immediately remarked, "This looks like your paintings".
Piet Oudolf planting design on the HighLine, summer 2014
Piet has revolutionized the garden design world with his vision of naturalistic style of planting that are reminiscent of North American plains but with a planned randomness that would hardly place them amongst wall paper. The sheer scale of many of his plantings and the masses of varying colors and textures are dramatic living visual fields of plants en mass that look like giant canvases; art that one can jump into and interact with. Then too these paintings move, change color and depth with each passing hour, day and season. As time shifts from autumn to fall and from fall to winter the short-lived colors of blossoms give way to opulent earthy worlds of ochre, burnt sienna, sepia and amber; almost monochromatic designs. Before our eyes are transforming environments subtlety ushering us into the days and months to come.
Piet Oudolf planting at Wisley, England. Possibly my favorite image of his work.
Piet's meticulous attention to understanding individual plant morphology as they age and are affected by rain, frost, snow and light, and his skill at timing the various stages of their lives with other similar and contrasting plant combinations is also remarkable. Seed heads of flowers and grasses create semi transparent screens, washes and glazes. Seen close-up each flower or seed head commands its share of importance. The artist selects plants whose structural details make us wonder at the magic of creation, such as those revealed in the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt. On wider scales and experienced at various angles, colors, shapes and textures are combined to cause our eyes and minds to meander and pause. Sunlight, fractured through tall seed heads often create cathedrals and sublime garden atmospheres. The plantings transform moods similar to the way a horizon line or a jagged shape calms or jars us, but always draws us closer. Piet Oudolf's designs contain layers of complexity that inspire emotional reactions, slow us down in awe and inspire the most reluctant of us to create connections with nature.
The pizazz is largely due to the use of various fine-textured, tall and short grasses, which when green or dry act as backdrops, borders or dividers for stronger colors and as filters for light. Blocks of colorful umbels and upright or crooked spikes are framed by pools of Molinia, Deschampsia, stiff Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', feathery Stipa and Panicum. Grasses shimmer, flop, arch, fan, spray, obscure, soften, divide and unite Piet's designs. Then too they make their obvious progression from green blades to seed heads and plumes to dried blades, moving all the while, making their presence, aging and disappearance pronounced. They are the common thread that zigs and zags throughout the designs of Piet Oudolf. Grasses display their dried seed heads and leaves which hang around during winter, creating interest and movement in what can be the most depressing time of the year. Grasses, with their light and whimsical quality, brighten the fall and winter landscape and also provide food and shelter for birds, insects and other small creatures when very little else is available. Gotta love grass.
Lobelia cardinalis and helianthus enclosed by switch grass at the Native Plant Garden, NYBG
Untitled, 1995. 18"x18", Mixed Medium on Canvas
Time is an important aspect of Piet's designs, not just in his desire to have the viewer experience the garden as it matures over the years but to impact the viewer throughout the life cycle of each plant. As the foundation of his designs, grasses best convey the ephemeral quality that defines his gardens. They are fleeting. They are emblems of frailty, beauty and transience. I dare say that they echo our own frailty, beauty and transience. Beauty itself elicits joy and sadness at the same instant because we know it is always momentary. Although I would not call them memento mori, grasses reminded the author of that passage in Proverbs that we are just here for a while, blown around by the vagaries of fortune and gone in a second. This thought should humble us and inspire some urgency to live well. If we think of our presence as short-lived as grasses, we would probably live more fiercely, more purposely and exit each phase of our lives and this world leaving positive impressions.
Just as nature has influenced my paintings, elements of my art-making have leaked into the gardens and planting I design. When conditions are ideal I include goldenrod and I have a weakness for Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', Carex flacca, Hakonechola macra 'Aureola', Calamagrostis brachytricha, Chasmantium, Pennisetum, Stipa and Panicum virgatum.
Miscanthus sinensis and Chasmanthium latifolium in the West 148 Street Garden
West 123 Street planting with Panicum virgatum, Stipa, Miscanthus and Molinia
The way I design plantings has also been impacted since encountering the work of Piet Oudolf. I met the artist and garden designer in November of 2012 while working as a seasonal gardener at Brooklyn Bridge Park, just days after Hurricane Sandy. He stopped by as I was in the midst of installing fencing around a bioswale filled with grasses and asters. It was a very brief meeting and as we shook hands I thought it strange and weirdly comical how we met as gardeners while I felt we shared a deeper connection as artists. He never guessed how ardently I admired and respected his work.
I still sing a lot, including gospel songs, especially while I garden or design. Gardens, plants, plants as habitat and human interactions with plants occupy my thoughts throughout these days like grass. I spend much more time as a garden designer and gardener than as a painter lately. I can only speak for myself when I say that the two titles, the two passions, united in a love of beauty and intrigue of the natural world are rarely ever independent and most often, inseparable.