The 2012 Utah Nursery and Landscape Association Green Conference was held this past week and what a week it was! I’ll write more about the event and provide some great photos but, for today, I want to talk about the most significant moment for me at the conference- meeting landscape legend, Topher Delaney.
Topher Delaney’s work is as unique as her name. She pulls off designs and installations that most of us would never even attempt to get away with! Her unconventional style and creative use of materials are the hallmarks of her work.
She shared with us a beautiful organic garden she created in California. This garden is a massive installation using Cor-Ten steel grids (Cor-Ten steel are sheets of steel that have copper added to them which enables them to rust on the outside as they weather without the rust going all the way through). It includes an array of roses that shift from red through the pink shades until a pure white is reached. Much of the 11 acre site is used to grow organic fruit. As you might imagine, this garden is for a very wealthy family who uses it for entertaining.
The Modernist Organic Garden is an interesting installation because it’s more than just a landscape installation- it involves community. Local farmers harvest and sell the produce at area Farmer’s Markets and in that way, the community is drawn to the garden. Further, the garden owners host fundraising events in their garden for cancer-related charities. I cannot express how much I love that!
I’ve never worked on gardens for mega millionaires- though I have designed for a few folks who were mere millionaires. The gardens I designed were about enjoyment for the family and, sometimes, impressing visitors (and both goals were achieved)- but no real higher purpose, no heightened sense of connection to both land and community. Most won’t even be maintained by the owners so the disconnect from the land continues.
In fact, the fanciest garden I designed left me a little deflated when I finished because it was a Italianate-style landscape that didn’t look natural here or reflect OUR sense of place. Sure, it looks like a home and garden straight out of the Old World but it felt too contrived for THIS world between mountains and dessert. It is a beautiful landscape but it feels imposed rather than natural. I suppose that makes it a success as it reflects the owners and their world view but it isn’t at all reflective of mine.
When I mentioned this to Delaney and asked how she handles this situation (designing for the client wants, even when it’s not at all your own vision), she responded that “I’ve never designed a landscape I wasn’t proud of”. Ouch. She further explained that once you do that, it’s all you’ll do. And she’s right about that. Then again, she is the rare visionary that is hired specifically for her aesthetic and thus the clients WANT her designs to reflect her style. Most of us are hired to decipher and create the image in the client’s head then apply it to the landscape with a hint of our own style. In any case, her comments caused a little light bulb in my head to go on and any doubts I had about my decision to leave the private design + build part of the profession evaporated.
As I processed her words and lectures, I thought back over all the projects I’ve worked on through the years. As it turns out, the project I am MOST proud of isn’t a gorgeous landscape at all. In fact, it’s just a little over the line to the ‘tacky’ side of things. Heck, I didn’t even design it though I did envision it and co-managed the project. I wasn’t paid for the work either, I spent more than a year as a near-full time volunteer. However, when the dust settled, our group of 50 average people had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and recruited 6,000 volunteers to build the largest children’s playground in Utah in just 10 days, totally from scratch.
It didn’t all go perfectly but of every project I’ve ever worked on, THIS was the most rewarding! Parents came together to create something magical for their children and Grandchildren and our community worked together to complete a goal that none of us could have completed seperately. For me, THAT is the magic. It’ not how the landscape looks but what it’s able to DO that provides the greatest satisfaction to my soul.
At the beginning of the lecture I was transported by thoughts of what it would feel like to be a great designer- perhaps a bit of the ‘road not taken’ syndrome (and those thoughts make the incredible assumption that it is even within me in the first place to have ever become a great designer). However, by the end of her lectures I knew with absolute certainty that the change of direction away from landscaping as a way of promoting myself and my own talents toward landscaping as a tool for providing meaning and connection for other people is exactly what I want to be doing in my life!
Instead of designing landscapes that are pretty but myopic, I now get to use my skills for a higher social purpose. And THAT is what motivates me! Teaching people how to coax the ideas and landscape connection out of themselves and empowering them to create it is just something I find personally rewarding. Gardens SHOULD have meaning and be a refection of those who tend them. I am so honored to spend my career helping people find and connect with the land in ways that honor both their spirit and the land.
I will never be a Topher Delaney. I will, however, be able to look back on the body of work I create when I reach the end of my ‘career’ and be proud of what I helped OTHERS create for themselves and the meaning which is really what it’s all supposed to be about anyway.