postscript to Natural Discourse; Flora & Fauna

It’s been such a pleasure to see what shape and expression each successive Natural Discourse has taken. Developed by Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel for the Berkeley Botanic Garden, a group of artists were invited to make site-specific work for the garden and then give talks about that work. (‘Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden.’) Shirley Watts has continued this series of talks and brought it to other venues and arboreta. I’ve loved them all.

Shirley’s household as a child blended both art and science, with parents working in music and medicine.
As a result, she effortlessly moves between the two worlds and finds the intricate linkages between both, the overlap where science and art inform and enrich each other.
Working in gardens, we know how much science is involved in making that perfect moment on a warm June day.
Boundless romantic longing moderated by keen observation are what makes our gardens cause visitors to shrug, “Oh, you can grow anything. You have such a green thumb.”
Artists and scientists are both filled with longing for their subjects, and both rely on thumbs and brains in their work.
Shirley doesn’t feel the need to segregate them into separate symposia, recognizing the contributions each make to the other.

The physical collections of herbaria and natural history museums were a theme of this year’s Natural Discourse.
To talk about these collections, you need to bring in explorers, adventurers, disaster, hubris, lack of funding, lost collections, redemption. All the really juicy stuff.
And the specimen of Liatris punctata collected by Custer two years before Little Big Horn with his handwritten tag that was nearly thrown in the trash.
As always, it was a great time.


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Shirley Watts on opening night at the La Brea Tar Pits

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Natural Discourse: Flora & Fauna; A Day at the Natural History Museum 10/17/15

From the Natural Discourse event registration page:

Natural Discourse has been invited to explore the Natural History Museum! The Museum opens its doors for a day-long conversation about gardens, art, science, and collections.

Natural Discourse is an ongoing series of symposia, publications, and site-specific art installations that explores the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of botanical gardens and natural history museums.”

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Image above from Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium at Houghton Library at Harvard University
Maura C. Flannery, Professor of Biology at St John’s University, will reveal the secret lives of herbarium specimens

Living (and suffering) as we do in a mostly plant-blind world, there are precious few opportunities to further our appreciation of plants as the real engine that drives our world. The Natural Discourse series of lectures has evolved into an invigorating and must-see event for plant lovers since its inception in 2012. Whether the theme is Form & Function, Culture & Cultivation, Light & Image, or 2015’s Flora & Fauna, garden designer and symposium curator Shirley Watts unfailingly assembles a deep bench of artists, designers, writers, and scientists whose work, in surprising and brilliantly idiosyncratic ways, celebrates the primacy of plants. My geek love for plants not only finds a natural echo but is amplified and expanded in undreamt of ways. As well as being located in Southern California again, I appreciate the timing in the month of October as a kind of requiem to Los Angeles’ long summer.

If you haven’t attended a Natural Discourse before, there’s so many reasons to make the event this year your first.
The setting in Exposition Park means not only are there a number of other museums to visit and gardens to explore, but the strategic Metro stop at Exposition Park means you can leave the car home.
In Los Angeles, that counts as an arms-raised-in-a-V triumph.
The vast complex of museums means if a pal would rather ogle dinosaur bones or visit the California Science Center to view the majestic space shuttle Endeavour, you can easily part ways and reunite off and on throughout the day.

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James Griffith, From the Infinite to the Particular 4, tar on panel
Image courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery

Personally, I’m wildly excited to hear the official “tar story.” I’ve blogged several times on James Griffith’s use of local tar as a medium for his current work.
Due to Shirley’s formidable persuasive powers, now we can all hear his remarkable account in person.
(James’ tar painting theme dovetails nicely with the Keynote Lecture given by Rosamond Purcell at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum on Friday, October 16, at 6:30 p.m.)

Long-standing champion of restoration of the cement-bottomed Los Angeles River, landscape architect Mia Lehrer is another speaker I won’t want to miss.
Ms. Lehrer recently converted a four-acre parking lot at Exposition Park into garden:

We created a four-acre garden on what was once the parking lot for both staff and visitors on the side of the museum that faces Exposition Boulevard. There was an ambition to open up the museum to the community, and to the Metro that traverses Exposition Boulevard to become not just a museum of natural history but also become more relevant through its exploration into urban ecology by creating gardens that allow a better way to live in the city.” – L.A. Designer: Mia Lehrer, Shaping The City Through Public Space

Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, will speak on plant exploration and collections. Another example of Shirley’s curatorial genius, photographer Rosamond Purcell’s resume includes work with comedian/magician/actor Ricky Jay as well as naturalist Stephen Jay Gould. These are not solemn, fidget-in-your-seat lectures but bracing, wide-ranging, wholly engrossing explorations of culture intersecting with plants from myriad vantage points. I promise you, for the price of a dinner for two, your plant-loving soul will be fed and nurtured enough to see you through winter and into spring. I’m going to try to remember to wear a name tag, so please grab my elbow and say hello.


The complete list of speakers:

JoAnne Northrup, Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art, on taxidermy, contemporary art, and 19th century wildlife painting
Maura C. Flannery, Professor of Biology at St John’s University, on the secret lives of herbarium specimens
Jim Folsom, Director of the Huntington Botanical Gardens, on plant exploration and collections
James Griffith, Painter, on using tar from the LaBrea Tar Pits as an artistic medium
Mia Lehrer, Landscape Architect, on the creation of the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum
Rosamond Purcell, Photographer, on her images of Natural History collections around the world
Natania Meeker & Antonia Szabari, Associate Professors of French, Italian and Comparative Literature at USC, on animated plants and vegetal cinema


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friday clippings 6/5/15

Late spring conversation at our house sums up living in a “mixed” household (gardeners/nongardeners):

Duncan, from the back porch: Whatcha doin’ out there?
Me, from deep in the garden: Sitting in a field of poppies.
Duncan (scanning for alleged field of poppies): Okay.

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Disembodied voice from deep in garden continues: It’s just one plant really, but I’m pretending.
And it’s not a poppy exactly, but in the poppy family.
Glaucium grandiflorum from Iran, a country we don’t get much good news about, and yet there grows this poppy that is so…so…

Duncan: Pretty?

Voice from deep in garden: Yes! So very pretty.

Duncan: Okaaay.

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Voice from deep in garden continues talking to now-empty back porch:

Botanists should be the ones in charge of things, politics, treaties, border disputes…What’s good for the plant world will necessarily be good for everything else…

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(plant-drunk words and theorizing continute to drift over poppies)

In other news…

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Cyrtanthus elatus x montanus is in bloom, a hybrid of a South African bulb.
I haven’t noticed any real dormancy requirements with this one, where watering needs to be withheld to let it rest. Makes it easy.

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And in still other news (real news), if you’re not on Facebook, you may have missed the announcement that Sunset is moving its offices to Oakland.
Its test gardens and kitchen will be moved to Cornerstone, Sonoma, Calif. (read here).
Cornerstone is a collection of outdoor gardens, shops and restaurants inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire, curated by owner Teresa Raffo.
It was the site of possibly my favorite garden show ever, “The Late Show,” in 2009.
Sunset at Cornerstone makes perfect sense.

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There are permanent installations by artists, designers, and landscape architects to visit year-round, like the “Garden of Contrast” by James Van Sweden and Sheila Brady

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“White Cloud” by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot

And yet another change for a major garden publication, Better Homes and Gardens announced recently that Stephen Orr will be the new Editor-in-Chief.
I loved Orr’s book Tomorrow’s Garden, fresh and forward-looking, all which bodes well for BHG.

And this weekend Toronto hosts the Garden Bloggers Fling, so there should be lots of good reading from attendees in the weeks ahead.

The first week of June, and it’s still mild and overcast (glorious!) here in Los Angeles. Enjoy your weekend!

a Shirley Watts’ garden

Monday features two long-time friends (and family) of AGO. Oldest son Mitch took these photos of a Shirley Watts-designed garden a few years back and kindly agreed to let me share them here.

The garden had a lot of formal, established features and furniture to incorporate into the new design, but nonetheless, to those who know her work, Watt’s artistic eye and hand can easily be seen throughout. Like all Watts’ gardens I’ve seen, there’s a uniquely timeless, modern/classical fusion that always lends an air of tranquility and simplicity — but with plenty of startling details, beautifully sensual plants, and bravura flourishes to discover.

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“The Artful Garden” featuring Shirley Watts, Portland, Oregon 2/15/15


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Detail of mural in the new reception hall at Rancho Los Alamitos.


I don’t suppose there’s the smallest chance we’ll ever see a “bullet train” built that runs to Portland, Oregon, since the voter-approved Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed train has been delayed two years and still faces an uphill political battle. Whether by train or plane, a girl can dream of buying a ticket for next weekend to hear Bay Area artist and garden designer Shirley Watts give a talk sponsored by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon entitled “The Artful Garden” at Portland State University’s Hoffman Hall, 1 p.m., Sunday, February 15, 2015. Coincidentally, Shirley was in Los Angeles briefly last week, and we met up at Rancho Los Alamitos, where I had the benefit of her discerning perspective as we strolled the grounds. Typical for me, I see plants, plants, agaves, plants, more plants, where Shirley will remark, What an odd figure-eight amoeba shape they put the lawn into here! Must be California modernism seeping into the early rancho style. The low adobe walls, the original cement pottery, the placement of a bench, none of it escaped her quick eye, and my visit was that much richer for her comments and musings. With her deep knowledge of plants and antennae exquisitely tuned to the romance and atmosphere of a place, I couldn’t have enjoyed the visit more if it had been led by one of the Rancho’s docents.

That Saturday I arrived an hour early to wander the gardens, so I’ll leave you with my photos of plants and more plants, and the occasional horse (Preston, the two-year-old Shire).
For the full-bodied pleasure of viewing gardens through Shirley’s eyes, you’ll have to hear her speak this Sunday.

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floral fireworks

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Oooh…it looks just like…Calluna vulgaris !

At fireworks shows, I’m the one that keeps up a running commentary of free associations, so this “Flowerwork” by artist Sarah Illenberger for The Plant journal was an instant hit with me.

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From her website: “Sarah is renowned for creating vivid, witty images that open up new perspectives on seemingly familiar subjects.”


thanks to Jessica at Thread & Bones. Via Miss Moss

Natural Discourse: Light & Image 2014, an epilogue

Ever wonder when our buildings are going to have the photosensitivity and photoreactivity of plants? Dale Clifford, with his focus on biomimetics applied to architecture, is on the case, investigating the possibility of designing a photoreactive brick inspired by the quadrangular, shade-modulating shape of a cactus. Looking for a tidy description of life on earth? Plant biologist Roger Hangarter has one for you: excited electrons powered by the sun. I’m totally borrowing that, Roger.


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Christian Thornton, Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio

Questions, questions. Can modern glass kilns reduce their energy footprint?
Certainly, by as much as 30 percent, if recycled glass is used and the kilns are run on vegetable oil discarded by local Oaxacan restaurants.

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Cobaea scandens in the Ware Collection of Glass Plants

And what did 19th century university botany departments do when dried specimens were insufficiently detailed for the rigorous study of plant architecture? Find the finest glass artists in the world, of course, German glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, to create glass models with precise, scientific accuracy. Harvard’s Ware Collection of Glass Plants transcends its scientific origins and is now regarded as a prized art collection visited by millions every year.

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Shirley Watts readies the book table sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore.
Clarissa Dalloway may have bought the flowers for her party herself, but the large vase on the book table was, I think, provided by Silverlake Farms.

All these questions and more could only have been answered by another installment of Natural Discourse, the peripatetic series of lectures curated by artist and garden designer Shirley Watts that allows artists and scientists to share their unique perspectives and fields of inquiry into our beloved plant world, which was held Saturday, October 18, 2014, at the LA County Arboretum.

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The auditorium at the LA County Arboretum was the biggest space yet of the three iterations of Natural Discourse, and for that reason I thought it perhaps the most challenging venue thus far.

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But wherever Natural Discourse is located, whether perched in a conservatory-like glass hall atop the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, or in a historic landmark hotel designed by Julia Morgan, or at your local arboretum, the effect is consistently hypnotic. The lights go down, the chattering eventually subsides, and Marion Brenner begins to articulate her relationship to light and its role in obtaining her exquisitely timeless landscape photographs seen on the projection screen. And then you begin to scribble furiously as she explains how she now shoots wirelessly to an iPad to live-proof her work.

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Photo found here

Possibly only at Natural Discourse will you meet an artist concerned with how long it will take an agave bloom to grow and thereby destroy the glass necklace he’s designed and placed on its flowering shoot.
(Christian Thornton of Xaquixe Glass Innovation Studio has recorded 8 inches of growth a day.)

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The welcome being given by Richard Schulhof, Director of the LA Arboretum.

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Jenny Brown, Collection Manager of the Ware Collection of Glass Plants, playfully engages with the interactive programming wizardry of John Carpenter.

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Mr. Carpenter’s work asks questions like: Why can’t the fleeting thrill of blowing on a dandelion be prolonged?
(You can view the results of his dandelion inquiry at the link.)
Carpenter’s work may bring to mind the digitally interactive sequences in the movie Minority Report, which he designed.

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I want to personally thank Sue Dadd and James Griffith for providing both food and lodging Friday night.
And thanks also to their charming cat Kabuki, who slept at my feet all night.

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Very early Saturday morning I crept out in jammies and socks to have a private natural discourse with their stunning garden, this time a ravine adjacent to the Folly Bowl.
Talk about excited electrons!

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Photos of Natural Discourse at the LA County Arboretum by MB Maher.

Natural Discourse at Los Angeles Co. Arboretum 10/18/14

The drive will be considerably shorter for me to this year’s Natural Discourse, which will be held close to home at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden:
A symposium presented by the Garden Conservancy and the Arboretum that will explore the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of the botanical garden.”

Natural Discourse: Light & Image
Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
301 North Baldwin Ave
Arcadia, CA 91007

Wahoo! Garden designer/Natural Discourse curator Shirley Watts assembles a mesmerizing group of storytellers in a day-long event that has no equal in the botanical world.


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Coincidentally, and perfectly in keeping with this year’s theme of Light & Image, Shirley’s lanterns inscribed with excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made the cover of Pacific Horticulture this month, with photos by MB Maher, and an interview by Lorene Edwards Forkner: “Artful Gardens; A conversation with Shirley Alexandra Watts.” 19-year-old Mary Shelley famously conceived of the idea for her novel Frankenstein while vacationing with friends in Geneva, Switzerland. The weather was miserable, so they passed the time indoors in an impromptu game of Can You Top This Scary Story. (I think it’s safe to say that Mary probably won that game hands down when she recounted the germ for the story that grew into her book: “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”)

All of which proves that sparks fly when like-minded people gather to entertain each other. See for yourself at Natural Discourse tomorrow, Saturday, October 18, 2014, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You can search the blog for the many posts I’ve written about previous Natural Discourse symposia, such as this one here.

Fernando Caruncho’s Design Studio

Images from Architectural Digest of the design studio of the Spanish landscape architect who resolutely insists on being called a gardener.
As with stripping down occupations to their mythic essence, Caruncho does the same for gardens, revealing anew the power of simple, age-old forms.
Timeless essentials from a former philosophy student who discovered the garden is the perfect venue for investigating dialectics of nature and spirit.
A seamless fusion of Moorish, French, Spanish influences, always the geometric elevated and emphasized over color.
The design studio is made of primal building blocks of box, jasmine, fig, pomegranate, bay laurel, lime, gravel, water.
Not as much a signature style as a deeply assimilated understanding of previous civilizations’ response to living in the light, heat, seasonal drought of the Mediterranean Basin.
So important is the play of light in Caruncho’s work that he considers his gardens a “light box.”
Celebrated for work including a wheat-filled parterre, Caruncho’s design studio has a neo-Medieval air. A contemplative compound for the philosophizing gardener.


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The floors are the gravel, the ceiling is the sky, and the walls are the clipped laurel and boxwood that follow the curves.”

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Photography by Simon Watson
Source here.

supergraphic Deborah Sussman


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When I visited Los Angeles’ Grand Park for the first time, I didn’t know that environmental designer Deborah Sussman, who passed away last week at age 83, was the force behind those shocking pink chairs and benches, a color Ms. Sussman energetically promoted throughout her 60-year career.

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Her design firm Sussman/Prejza & Co handled “signage, wayfinding, and amenities” for Grand Park, including its color schemes.

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above photo by Jim Simmons found here

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Garden markers (designed by Sussman/Prejza & Company) resemble oversized garden stakes and indicate the region, describe the climate, and talk about the specific characteristics of a featured plant within each garden. Magenta site furnishings throughout the park invite visitors to linger, enjoying its vibrant display. The vibrant color was chosen to act as a year-round “bloom” that complements the seasonal colors of the gardens.” — World Landscape Architecture

photo from Design Boom

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photo from Design Boom

Of course, there were many more celebrated projects before and after Grand Park, beginning in her twenties, when she worked for Charles and Ray Eames.

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I also didn’t know that Sussman had collaborated on the graphics and signage work for the Eames exhibit at Pacific Standard Time when I visited that show at LACMA here.

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Perhaps most famously, Ms. Sussman was the environmental designer for Los Angeles’ 1984 Summer Olympics, the first since 1932 to make a profit. Her brilliant sleight of hand with inexpensive, temporary structures such as scaffolding, bold use of graphics and color in signage, has brought her the status of the graphic designer’s designer. Just last weekend I was chatting with an architect about her, who admitted that he had stowed some of the throwaway ’84 Olympic signage in his garage (lucky him).

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image found at Design & Architecture

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As her last show at the WUHO Gallery proclaimed, Deborah Sussman loved LA, and the bold, vibrant mark she left on this city will be something I’ll be reminded of now every time I visit Grand Park.