Monday, December 1, 2008


The voluminous new entry hall at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Is it the walls or the space they hold that is so elegant?

WISCONSIN in November is sparse.

Just a dusting of snow and newly naked trees. Winter hadn’t settled in yet when we visited over Thanksgiving week, but Fall was definitely through. Hardly seems like a time to celebrate, even though that’s what we were there for.
After landing in Milwaukee we headed north. First to Green Bay to visit the woman who taught me to draw ( don’t look at my drawings as evidence of her skills as a teacher, for she teaches much better than I’ll ever draw ). Carol Emmons was my drawing instructor at UW-Milwaukee back in the late 70’s.
I say she taught me how to draw, but actually she taught me how to see. The most profound perception she opened my eyes to was the concept of negative space. The space in between things. In the 2 dimensional world of drawing these spaces become shapes and these shapes can be powerful elements in the composition of a drawing. So one is not just drawing a tree or a coffee cup, but the air between the branches, the hole in the handle.
Often times when I consult people on how to improve the gardens, I find they have been trying to solve their problems by filling up space. And when the garden gets cluttered they scream: “ Help!”
This is when I declare deletion king. Lifting tree limbs, clipping shrubs, removing aged perennials and rampant ground covers. Destruction, or deconstruction, is a the part of gardening I think most people avoid. They see these acts as brutal and miss the benefits of deleting, or what I would rather call adding negative space.
That’s why I love Fall and Winter, the garden shows you it’s negative spaces.You can follow them, enhance them. What is a bowl with out that empty belly to fill with soup. What is a garden without a scooped out corner to gather shade. An arching branch to frame a walk or view.

A reductionist garden at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

I used to adamantly look at nature for clues on how to create a garden. Not a bad idea I’ll admit, but limited. Now I look at architecture too. Am I maturing from my plant driven motivations? Has my interest in what’s “not there” become as important as what is? I know I’ve moved on from my 2 dimensional notions of painting a garden, though I will never tire of color and light and play. I guess as the gardens I created mature it is the editing, the hollowing out, the sculpting that increases in importance. As if the garden’s requirements force me to mature as a gardener. When I was 18 learning to draw I got my mind blown by the concept of negative space, but it is not until now that I realize we live in the negatives spaces. It’s where life happens, in between walls, in between branches, in our arms.
So now what I am looking at is volume. How branches hold space arching and expanding. How lawns run snug along the flat or undulating surface of the earth. How shrubs, boulders, even moveable furniture grabs at space molds it into shapes. Even the sky plays along mute with low clouds, obscuring with fog. Or opening ad infinitum at night to stars.
As we moved north in our travels last week to my parents home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it seemed we were moving closer to the sky and farther from a sense of garden. Though geometric farms and towns were carved out of the never ending northern forest, they appeared more like interruptions than intentions.
My parents had the intention when they bough their 40 acre farm back in the 70’s to let some of the cleared land return to forest. Over 30 years, and a strange passivity rarely seen in my parents, a forest has reemerged. Black spruce ( Picea mariana ) and white pine (Pinus strobus) and popple ( Populus tremuloides ) as they call it. That land wants to be forest , resists agro-nomics.
That bit of recovering woods is an antitheses to the mown hay fields that surround it begins to lend shape to the shapeless land, like a blank part of a page gives volume to a drawing. The interplay of ascending trees and flat fields change places; the fields become negative spaces in their Winter fallowness, the evergreens growing in a space taken out of production become the product, so to speak, as we searched for my parents Christmas tree.
And open up the woods.

Here we stand, my parents and I, in the forest they created by doing nothing. The blaze orange is not a fashion statement, but anti-camouflage, it was deer hunting season.