BY DIANNA MACLEOD
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
May 21, 2014
Only a gardener with a certain amount of whimsy would christen a shady corner of her garden “The Dancing Rabbit Glen.” Although sculptor Georgia Gerber possesses more than her share of whimsy, she describes her gardening style as “ruthless.”
“I’m not afraid to whack something out of the garden.”
Most of us would agree that a ten-acre homestead demands a certain amount of ruthlessness—and a whole lot of whacking.
Gerber and her husband Randy Hudson moved to Whidbey Island in 1982, intent on building a house, an artist’s studio and a foundry for casting bronze sculptures. Once the couple had cleared an acre of the alder trees that dominated the property, they began to construct their rural retreat. Eventually they added more outbuildings, including a stable for Gerber’s horse (and a pony to keep the horse company). The surrounding garden—broad, sweeping swaths of plants that flow like a river—evolved slowly and in a way some gardeners would consider haphazard.
“I didn’t plan it on paper,” Gerber recalled. “Rather, I looked out each window of the house and made decisions based on what I wanted to see.”
Perhaps this lack of advance planning isn’t surprising coming from someone with a heightened ability to visualize in three dimensions. When beginning a new sculpture—regardless of its scale—Gerber seldom draws or makes models. Rather, she begins by working directly in the clay from an idea in her head, refining and changing until she is satisfied with the final image. The piece is then molded and continued through additional steps to create the piece in bronze. This complicated and laborious procedure involves constructing more molds made of sand, plaster and vermiculite. Metal, heated to blistering temperatures, is poured into the molds. The cooled sections are then welded together and tooled. Finally, the patina of the piece is developed with chemicals before being buffed with wax.
According to Gerber, gardening liberates her from all that.
“Working in bronze is physically and emotionally draining. I have to be absolutely certain about each piece. So I savor the freedom of the garden.” She also likes seeing the immediate results of wielding shears and shovel. “After a long day in the studio, I enjoy mowing the grass.” The impermanence and constant change of a garden appeals to her. “I don’t have to achieve perfection the first time—or ever.”
By placing her bronze seals, otters, ravens, and other animals among her own well-chosen and tended plants, it’s as though Gerber has found a way to unite the demanding nature of sculpture with the forgiving nature of a garden—while sneaking in a little of her signature offbeat humor. A bronze cat curls into itself—and into a stone wall. Three rabbits—the center one nearly obscured by ivy—dance beneath the lacy umbrella of a Japanese maple. A large hare lies prone at the foot of a raised bed in the artistically-fenced rabbit-proof vegetable garden. “I wouldn’t put penguins among the vegetables,” she said. “That does not seem as appropriate as another garden setting might offer.”
It seems fitting that Gerber has chosen to include a variety of shrubs in her garden beds; the shrubs provide a backdrop that holds its own against the hard materials and strong forms of her bronze pieces. “I chose low-maintenance plants in repeating patterns. In my garden, spirea is the uniting plant. And I like the way red tones of the leaf echo the red siding on the house.”
Although she has included alliums and lilies among the greenery, Gerber’s garden is not one that depends heavily on flowers. The emphasis is on form, foliage, and contrasts in color, texture and leaf shape. “I adore the English perennial gardens, but maintaining them would be too much work.” With Gerber’s eye for coloration and patina, it’s not surprising that foliage would exert a primary appeal. (She creates the patina on most of her own sculptures using three basic chemicals combined in varying strengths and applied at varying temperatures. “Patinas, like gardens, can change over time. They both can have a mind of their own, and sometimes you just need to accept it.”)
As much as her garden beds create the impression of complexity and contrast, Gerber has simplified their maintenance. “I go through my beds in early spring and then do very little throughout the year. It has to be that way, because there are too many to fuss over any single one.” She utilizes landscape cloth and wood chips to minimize the tedious chore of weeding. Early on she built up the soil to improve its texture and productivity, a lesson she learned on the acreage in rural Pennsylvania where she was raised. “My father had a tractor—two tractors, in case one broke down. And he had every tractor attachment known to man!”
As a sculptor, Gerber works in “editions” of 15. Gerber and Hudson keep the last piece of most editions, and some of those are permanently placed in her garden, making it a kind of Noah’s ark of creatures large and small. When Gerber walks through her garden, it’s like walking through her own evolution as an artist.
Georgia Gerber’s sculptures are situated in outdoor settings all over the country. While some are faithful representations of the creatures of the natural world, others are fanciful: a boy riding a bear, a girl reclining against a rabbit four times her size. In those settings—beach, park, library entrance—a Gerber sculpture confers a sense of magic. In no place is that sense of wild whimsy more apparent than in the sculptor’s own garden.
To look around at cats curled up in the ivy and rabbits cavorting among the fronds, you’d never suspect that the woman responsible for this bucolic Eden was anything but bountiful and merciful.
But look again at the relationship between sculpture and plants, between hard and soft, between enduring and fleeting, and you’ll probably come to the conclusion that a little ruthlessness can be a good thing.
Photo at top: Weeding under the watchful eye of the hare (photo by David Welton)
Dianna MacLeod holds a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. An alumna of Hedgebrook, she moved to the island in October of 2011 to complete a novel—and never left.
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