Over the Garden Wall
© 2002 Margot Schulzke
Monet is reported to have said he was a gardener first, a painter second. I took a breather while working in my own much-loved garden, pondering the implications of his remark. It is no doubt true in my case, too, though I wish the results were as spectacular as his.
What is a garden, after all, if not a wrap-around canvas—one that wraps around the artist? As I rested, I savored this quiet spot, a patio paved with stepping stones, nestled down amid tall trees, close to a stream—poplars, volunteer flowering plums and birches to one side, a line of twenty-year-old snowball bushes towering on the other, with a hunchbacked willow at the far end. The branches of the poplars and nearby willows sigh in the breeze, and birds have their say. Under the birches and plums are great stands of day lilies, now in their full glory, with shasta daisies, pink coral bells, yarrow, red-leafed orange canna lilies and a dozen other delights. Lilies of the Nile await their turn; daffodils, azaleas and sweet william have had theirs.
I was frankly awed at what a privilege it is to live in this lovely spot. Why me? How did I get here? As the breezes whispered through the trees, I felt a yearning to reach beyond the visual. There is something more here, just out of sight, just beyond my comprehension. The “unseen truths” of William James felt very close at hand. The same is true of the painting process, I realized—there is always something more, something for which there are no words, the unseen truths Monet obviously reached for.
One thought follows another. What is the genesis of a garden, a painting? Where did the impetus for the garden come from? At once I was back in my childhood garden, the one created by my parents’ hands.
We moved into what would become the long-time family home when I was ten. It was a blank, brown, Delta peat-dirt canvas, a totally vacant lot with a house on it when we arrived. But it was a half-acre, so there was room to make something of it. I asked my parents if we could plant a forest at the back of the lot—and they did. Flowering eucalyptus grows fast; so do poplars. They were joined by night-flowering jasmine and a black walnut tree, with azaleas along the edge. A tall privet hedge behind them soon gave the illusion of deep woods. Stepping stones ran the length of the mini-forest, and to a child’s mind, it was enough. At the far right end was a tiny meadow, with a rocking bench. It was where I went to dream, to forget the real world—and to get into my own.
It was my version of the magic wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was the rabbit hole that Alice peered down, then fell into, in Alice in Wonderland, and it was Alice’s Looking Glass—all rolled into one.
There were other times, other experiences, the combination of which made all things seem possible. In addition to the wonderful garden, there were art supplies for every birthday, every Christmas—and books.
One memory—of which I am especially fond—was of Mother holding Shakespeare reader’s theater in the kitchen with my sisters and me, each of us playing several roles as she prepared dinner. And I recall hovering over the dining room table as my father rolled out his eight-foot long time line, of his own making, of the events in the Egyptian, Assyrian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman empires, extracted from his reading of Herodotus, Eusebius, Josephus, and other ancient historians.
His passion became one of mine; it is, I think, where my love of all things ethnic and foreign came from, to say nothing of my love of history. I always want to know the roots of every cultural phenomenon, and how who is linked to whom—not in Hollywood, about which I care not at all, but in the genesis of ethnic groups.
There were other factors. At one point, I asked my mother why she only praised us, and never told us what was wrong with us. She replied, “Oh, the world will take care of that.” (Fortunately for the world, Dad helped it along.) But I grew up thinking that we really could do anything we set our minds to. She often reminded us, when fear of other’s opinions temporarily overtook us: “If you don’t want to be criticized, say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.” The implication being, “otherwise, plan on it, and plan to ignore it.”
Meanwhile, she performed for eighteen years with the local symphony, wrote short stories and articles for publication, and one summer while I was home from college, went off by herself to New York for a couple of weeks, to see the Broadway shows. No one had heard of women’s lib yet, but to the extent that she could, she was teaching us the possibilities. She gave us permission to do things, be things.
A generation later, the black walnut tree was big enough for my children to dangle from its branches. They remember nestling under the bows of the same jasmine bush, sitting on the now-weary rocking bench, and letting their fresh, young imaginations run rampant. The gift was given again.
What is the point of sharing all this personal stuff? Who cares? The answer may be offered in an essay in the latest issue of Arts and Antiques. “Raised on Art”, by Kristian Davies, relates the experience he had growing up in a home filled with original works by great 19th and early 20th century American masters.
He writes, “When I was seven years old, I thought Albert Bierstadt was a close friend of my father. My older brother and I would sit at the dinner table as my parents talked about people with strange names like Milne Ramsey and Childe Hassam… Still too young to join in, my brother and I mostly listened. My father would talk about these Bierstadts, Cropseys, Herzogs and Hudson River School. I imagined them entering a building with the actual words, “Hudson River School” written above the entrance. One day I asked my father who these people were and learned they had painted the pictures that were hanging around our house.”
Davies observes that his father’s “picture-buying obsession…had turned our house into a veritable permanent exhibit equal to many museums I have visited. My brother had an enormous N.C.Wyeth painting hanging above his bed.” He continues, “Surrounded by paintings all of our waking hours, my brother and I were unaware that these images were seeping into our consciousness, especially in our toddler years. The mind of a child can drift into a trance as he stares at a painting. …He reemerges when supper is called, unaware of the imprint that has just been made on his imagination.”
He went along with his father in the following years, meeting many of the artists of the Cape Ann region. He says, “I had no prior reference from which to judge what I was looking at. This is the child’s perishable gift: to see things and only see them, not to judge and compare. …If you are the parent of young children, bombard their senses, expose them to everything—paintings, books, beautiful music—while their infant minds are still open like floodgates. Let beauty work its magic before MTV takes over.”1
Is the impact of the arts on young minds imaginary, or real? For a few years in the late seventies and early eighties, with the aid of several dedicated and determined souls, we founded and, for a while, ran a private school. We had tired of asking our local school district to provide a self-contained gifted program and finally decided, if it was going to happen, we had to do it ourselves. In one breathless summer, we found affordable quarters, put up firewalls and fire doors, taped and textured walls, laid carpet, interviewed teachers, assembled an advisory board, and mapped out a curriculum.
Our sixty-some students, grades one through eight—many of whom were not gifted and a few of whom were diagnosed as dyslexic—used the standard reading program, as all we could afford were hand-me-down texts discarded by the public schools.
What we did that was markedly different was to have several hours of each week dedicated to the arts—visual and performing, including acting in dramas. The results: by standardized tests, at the end of that first year, our sixty-some students had averaged two years of reading growth, in that one year. One student made six years’ progress.
The following years continued to show dramatic, above-average progress. We can’t attribute the unusual success to the reading program, since it was the same one most of them had come from. It was the arts that made the difference. Synapses—the connectors between one neuron and another—which did not exist before are formed in the brain during stimulating activity; connotative skills grow to complement denotative skills. The powers of imagination and visualization soar; comprehension expands, the making of connections between thoughts is facilitated.
Whether in the context of a school or in the home, creative experiences have an enormous impact on minds and lives. And ultimately, on a community and a nation.
Our backgrounds are infinitely varied, but the seeds for creativity come from somewhere. I asked a few artist friends what liberated their passion for painting and how they discovered they were artists. Marbo Barnard, who grew up in Japan during the war, was supplied with artist’s materials by her father from the time she was perhaps seven. She recalls a special fondness for Sakura Craypas. She was fascinated by pretty faces, and would buy fashion magazines—hiding them from her very strict father, who disapproved of them. The school system provided for one teacher to continue with the same group of children for six years of their elementary schooling; Marbo remembers her teacher for those six years as very supportive and understanding of her love of art. She began winning awards while still in grade school.
Thelma Davis, on the other hand, was given little encouragement to pursue her love of art until she met her husband, Lyle. While she expresses great appreciation for the foundation her family provided for her life, it was all practicality. It was Lyle who set her free to create as she had always dreamed of doing. He understands the impulse better than most, as he is a fellow artist.
Anita Wolff’s father was an inventor, “always making things of wood and metal”, her older brother an artist, and her mother a creative seamstress, who, Anita recalls, sang a lot. It was a creative atmosphere as far back as her memory takes her. She says, “I cannot remember not being inspired.”
Whether it is by creating a magic garden—even if only remotely akin to Monet’s glorious obsession—or having great art, such as N.C. Wyeth’s The King Knocks, hanging over a child’s bed, or holding reader’s theater in the kitchen, or simply by allowing our own love of art to overflow from our homes and studios into the subconscious minds of children and grandchildren, we are impacting on generations. The presence of the arts in our lives and in our homes—to say nothing of our schools—is indisputably of major importance.
James F. Cooper observes that “psychologists and neurobiologists are suggesting that beauty is a need hard-wired into human minds and bodies.”2 He paraphrases Sir Thomas More: “The soul has an absolute, unforgiving need for beauty. It requires it the way the body requires food and the mind needs thought.”3
Like a sponge, a young mind soaks up experiences with beauty, just as it does all early experience. The first substances a dry sponge encounters are absorbed most readily, and most permanently. Sooner or later, a sponge becomes saturated, and it releases some of what it has absorbed.
Hopefully we can fill the minds of children around us with beauty and wonder, in effect inoculating them against the onslaughts of ugliness that will—eventually and inevitably— come their way. Meanwhile providing them with the power and the vision to pass it on again. ##
1 Kristian Davies, “Raised on Art,” pp. 114-115, Art and Antiques Magazine, summer 2002.
2 Ibid., p. 5
3 James F. Cooper, American Arts Quarterly, spring 2002, p. 7
This was published in the Pastel Journal, later that year (2002) —but I hold copyright. MS
Published here with permission from the author. KC