An Eden of Their Own
What do you do in the middle of a heat wave? Go on a garden tour, of course. This past scorching Saturday, four of us set out to see My Own Slice of the State, which featured six idiosyncratic outsider gardens presented by the arts consortium NewTown a cutting-edge, artist-run, iconoclastic nonprofit that is self-described as a persistent weed in the garden of art.So we knew from the start we would not be touring the luxuriant grounds of great manses. Rather, these were homemade jobs, the ideas and impulses of artists set loose in their own back yards.Armed with a trusty green map obtained for $3 at the Northwest Pasadena Armory for the Arts, we three women and a toddler drove north into Altadena to the home of sculptor Annabelle Aylmer. Slipping behind a horizontal redwood fence, we saw, curving out of the house, a gradated series of discs, a form of perfected vertebrae. In the back yard, flagstone pavers led us over an ingenious pebbly homemade stream, past more spinally allusive yard sculptures (even the 3-foot-tall plywood light bulb had a skeletal aspect) to the artists new studio, which was simultaneously under construction and already in use. The artist herself sat back by the house, under a lush grape arbor with her friendly Lab-chow dog. We joined her for a moment, enjoyed the tinkle of the stream, the rustle of feathery bamboo, and watched young children battle the impulse to pluck the apples blushing on a nearby tree.Then it was over to Lake Avenue and Ben McGintys Underground Arts Society, a cooperative gallery crammed with paintings, sculptures, jewelry and other oddments. Ben himself, a charming, fully tattooed man in a startling white dress shirt, met us at the door. I turned on the air conditioning, he announced, then apologized that the most famous feature of his garden an ancient, omnipresent trumpet vine was not in bloom. Bens garden is really a kind of outdoor home or dream childhood clubhouse, complete with kitchen sink and many nooks and hideouts in which to huddle and plot mischief, all of it arbored by the mighty vine.Its really best at night, at one of his monthly arts parties, said Michele Zack, Altadenas own historian.But today, in full sunlight, we appreciated McGintys humor and meticulousness of detail voluptuous hanging lanterns, a floor of decorative cinder blocks filled with pea gravel, barbells resting on a curlicued antique iron sewing-machine stand.Onward! When artists Sue Dadd and James Griffith bought their hard-used midcentury modern home in east Altadena six or so years ago, they knew theyd have to do something with the front yard, which had already pretty much sloughed down the hillside. The steep, bowllike shape suggested an amphitheater, and so, after completely refinishing their house, the two of them set to work. Four years, countless truckloads of soil and some 65 tons of broken concrete later, they now have the Folly Bowl, a steep, grassy and plant-filled theater, with a stage and lovely acoustics somehow, the sounds of unamplified performers dont reach the neighbors. Its a beautiful and monumental curiosity, and a real boon to the arts community.After the Folly Bowl, the garden of ceramic artist Carol Ann Klimek and architect David Michaels, adjacent to the Altadena Country Club, seemed downright subtle at first glance. Then, we spotted a series of colorful hands sticking up out of the ground (help! help!), and a large cloth sculpture in the trees, and more abstract ceramic, wood and iron sculptures scattered under the propertys hundred-plus trees. Klimek and Michaels also have an impressive specimen garden of tomatoes and peppers, and there, on the table for guests, was a bowl of freshly smoked salmon (the smoker, a few yards off, was still hot). Michaels is a lover of hardwood, he said; he uses it for sculpting, and for smoking. This salmon was smoked with an experimental blend of liquid amber and red oak. Not bad.Next, we headed to the home of Shrine (a.k.a. Brent Spears), who is in his mid-40s and a cheerful, chronic artist that is, everything he touches turns to art. His yard, in north Pasadena, was lawn five years ago, and now is a jungle of fanciful forms and mosaic work, a smaller, domesticated Watts Tower, with a big lash of Gaudí, a painters color sense and an enormous sense of humor. Shrines work has an inclusive obsessiveness; virtually everything you could sink into mortar has been sunk shoes, rusty tools, glass jars full of beads, marbles, reflectors, matchbox toys, televisions, wastepaper-basket feet. A tall, multicolored striped tower is made of a beer keg, a large plastic cylinder and a metal barrel, topped with a naturally striped century plant. Wildly creative recycling includes wrapping poles in old hoses, stacking tires into towers and covering them in mosaic. The towers and sculptures intermingle with the otherworldly forms of cacti and succulents, all of it marvelous, strange and enterprising shouldnt everybody be at home beautifying their homes?We concluded our tour at the severely beautiful property of Andreas Hessing and Karen Bonfigli, whose narrow and very deep yard is a paean to the virtues of poured concrete curbs, decomposed granite, native plants and bold art installation. At the top of the grounds sits a low, very thick wall composed of rock in wire caging. At the gap in the wall begins a sinuous path past matilija poppies and sage to a tract of many small concrete house-shaped blocks, while on the other side of the path sits a neat row of big, rusty wheellike discs that look like those huge sprinklers in hay fields. The path ends in the shade of an enormous oak, beyond which sit the pretty 1918 wood clapboard farmhouse, and the back yard with its huge new studio painted the same green as the magisterial ancient olive tree by its door.We came home to see our own, meagerly appointed yard with new eyes. After a few glasses of ice water and a late lunch of garden vegetables, we were ready to start some tiling or tilling or massive excavations of our own. But first, a nap.
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