Tag Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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.

a much anticipated visit to the garden of Shirley Watts

I’ve been home for over a week, but I left my heart in….okay, not my heart, because that’s solidly esconced here at home in the LBC, but I think I may have left my sensorium in San Francisco. On the nearby island of Alameda to be exact, in artist and garden designer Shirley Watts’ garden, which undulates and swirls with cultural references, both pop and classical, science, language and poetry, but in teasingly subtle and allusive ways. Shirley has that rare gift of making a space look undesigned, inevitable. Lush and moody, the garden doesn’t give up its secrets all at once and welcomes and rewards the inquisitive. Intimate and intensely personal, humble really in its refreshing lack of assertive, California-style hardscape and “garden features,” it enfolds and envelopes, quietly offering up much to stimulate the eye and mind or just a tranquil place to become lost in thought. Confident, playful, simultaneously artless and artful, relaxed and rigorous, it’s a garden that asks you to peer in closer, look behind, into and around, that engages as much as it restores. A Joseph Cornell shadowbox of a garden. I’ve been wanting to see this garden for ages, and fortuitously Shirley and Emmanuel graciously agreed to open their home and garden Thursday night for a pre-Fling reception. I’ll change the Fling channel soon, I promise, but couldn’t resist offering a look at Shirley’s garden in repose, sans partiers, the prequel to Thursday night. Photos by MB Maher, who also paparazzi’d Thursday night’s festivities here.

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If there’s any doubt that this is the home of a supremely confident artist, constantly tweaking and playing with symmetry and classical expectations, the back view of the recent addition clarifies matters. The black pots are terracotta painted with chalkboard paint.

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A bracing juxtaposition to the exterior view of the addition is the traditional wainscotting, carpets and chandelier of the interior.

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The home and garden of a woman informed by and comfortable in any century.

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Rosa glauca tapping at the window

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The lanterns send out their glowing messages at night, whether fanciful images of coleoptera

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or words from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Don’t all garden makers veer dangerously close to the same impulses as Dr. Frankenstein?)

Below are some of my photos from Thursday at the kick-off party

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shoes of MB Maher

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Leslie Bennett of Star Apple Edible Gardens and one of the nicest people at the Fling. Swag from the Fling included her new book, The Beautiful Edible Garden

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Behind the vellum, the wooden sculptures and a screen filled with mussel shells.

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Though she doesn’t make a big deal of it, Shirley is a superbly knowledgeable plantswoman with a great eye for layering the plants of a garden down to the smallest detail. Everyone asked about this plant, Mathiasella bupleuroides, rare and not easy to grow (don’t ask). Shirley claims the opposite, that it’s not formidable at all, and said it’s been blooming like this since February. Mathiasella is a designer cocktail of a plant, equal parts angelica, euphorbia, and hellebore.

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Mathiasella bupleuroides, over 5 feet in height

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A wavy-leaved mullein, possibly Verbascum undulatum

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Calla lily tangled in a succulent’s bloom

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I saw this mimulus later on the trip at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

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Begonia grandis

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One of the hallmarks of Shirley’s work is the subtly elegant use of salvage. She doesn’t hit you over the head with repurposing, but tucked away against a fence you might discern a screen of abstract shapes, the cast-offs from an industrial machinist’s template.

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A rose that reminds me of the Austin rose ‘Othello’

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To scent an open summer window, Nicotiana sylvestris

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A rusted urn filled with Echeveria nodulosa

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When acanthus blooms, a garden instantly becomes timeless

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Possibly the serrated leaves of Eryngium agavifolium

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The owl Emmanual liberated from the Reims cathedral in France

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The visage of Orlando Bloom broods over the garden. Shirley is fearless in sourcing pieces for her garden design work, and provenance can include old movie billboards.

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I’ll close with some images of a garden Shirley worked on for a client that shows traces of the same themes as her own garden. Photos by MB Maher.

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Along with her garden design work, Shirley has recently been acting as co-curator of an ongoing collaboration between artists and the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley entitled “Natural Discourse.” You can search AGO for posts related to Natural Discourse, such as this one here.

To read more about Shirley Watts’ work, check out Stephen Orr’s Tomorrow’s Garden and Zahid Sardar’s New Garden Design, both listed with Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts.

(Edited 7/10/13 and reposted. Shirley confirmed the rose is indeed ‘Othello’ and that the owl “did not come from the Reims cathedral. It came from a 17th century villa across the street from where Emmanuel grew up. They were tearing it down for condos.”)

be afraid: Frankenstein Petunia

OK, I find an old paperback of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the house a few days ago and haven’t been able to put it down. So maybe I’m sensitized to the book’s themes, but I really didn’t expect to find Shelley’s ideas so explicitly animated in the present day, with a slight twist:

In a promethean leap, man and plant become one, creating new life.

Meet Edunia, the “plantimal” love child of artist/biodesigner Eduardo Kac, “who doesn’t merely incorporate existing living things in his artworks—he tries to create new life-forms.”

It lives. It is real, as real as you and I,” says Kac, a Brazil native living in Chicago. “Except nature didn’t make it, I did.”

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Kac selected the pink petunia, in large part because of the distinct red veins that hint at his own red blood. And though he refers to his creation as a “plantimal,” that may be overstating the case. The organism has only a minuscule stretch of human DNA amid many thousands of plant genes.”

“The DNA sequence was sent to Neil Olszewski, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota…After six years of tinkering, the artist-scientist duo inserted a copy of Kac’s immunoglobulin gene fragment into a common breed of the flower Petunia hybrida.

“It’s not the first transgenic plant…’But you don’t have plants that have been made to explore ideas,’ Olszewski says. ‘Eduardo came to this with an artistic vision. That is the real novelty.'”


The tragedy and downfall of the scientist Frankenstein unfolds when he is unable to love his hideous creation. To be honest, I’d have some trouble loving a petunia. An agave, however, is another matter entirely.

Read more here.