Creature Comfort

2000-2001 315
When Troy showed up at work with this eight week old Catahoulee leopard cur (yes that’s what Louisiana hunting people call these hunting dogs) he had named Annie, we were all oohs and ahhs.  Her eyes were raptor blue; her toenails looked like he had painted them a luscious shade of white pearl. Her coat that looks to me like gravel is formally known as blue Merle. Her eyelashes were white-wow. She gave no hint at this stage of the  hound she would become. 

DSC03581Troy is a gardener of exceptional ability, in addition to his gift as a sculptor. Growing up on a farm on the west side of Michigan, he grew a giant vegetable garden, ran a blueberry farm, did surveying, hunted, fished, and walked the woods. He came by his skills as a naturalist, naturally.  He sculpted for me in concrete; this two-headed fox bench is his work.  Annie went everywhere with him, including to the studio.  

dogs in wire 1
Troy would produce a body of work, and then show up at my office; “what do you want me to make now?”.  I was watching Annie run her self designated obstacle course around the pots and up on the wall, and back, down and over a iron cistern and so on; she is a miracle in motion. Naturally, I translated what my eyes were watching; “what about a pack of hounds?  Make me a pack of hounds”.  A week later I was looking at a pack of welded steel rebar and steel mesh frames.  A whole lot of dogs-working, at attention, sleeping, skulking, howling, moving; dogs doing what they do.   

Dogs in wireThese very gestural and simple structures provide strength for the concrete and mortar to come. He squishes and packs concrete around these frames; the strength that a garden sculpture needs first and foremost, comes first.  But I could tell from these frames I was going to like what came next.  The outside mortar layer he hand carves. 

Concrete Fox HoundsI was not prepared for how much I liked them. His sculptures of hounds are not about a biologically correct reproduction, they are about the heart and soul of his hound Annie. I was astonished by how much energy, motion and fluidity he managed to wring from a marriage of steel, and hundred pound sacks of concrete.  This explication aside, these hounds won me over.

DSC06590One hound was on his back, sunning and scratching, in the garden.  Another was howling at the moon as if he had ten minutes to live.   Yet another was tentatively down, those back legs were tucked under in such a position he could be cruising at a second’s notice.

Concrete Hound 1This sculpture makes clear the legs that make for balance, and the legs that carry the weight.  The position of the ears suggest this hound just shook his head, and looked up towards the moon.  Most garden sculpture leaves me cold; these hounds are right at home in a landscape.

statuary (7)There was some discussion with Troy regarding sculpture that relies on the environment to be complete.  He said, “don’t give me the history, just tell me what you need”.  So ok fine, I asked him for a hound barking up a tree-the tree would be supplied by whomever took this barking dog home.  She does have a good tree, and this hound has a good home.   

E05Troy’s sculptures of hounds could be in or out, up or down, on a sidewalk, in a bed, on a wall. I have placed 16 of them; they all moved away from me. When the garden wanes, I think about how much I value the sculpture that enchants me, all year long.  His sculpture-creature comfort.

MCat moved in some years ago; we heard him mewing under a stack of Italian terra cotta pots.  He could not have been much more than four weeks old.   When the hounds first came to the shop, he moved in with them.  He slept on this table every night for six weeks straight. Enough said, about the hounds.

Sculpture in the Garden-an Addendum

Sculpture in a garden is a big topic, which I am sure will surface again and again in my writings.  Defining a sculpture can be very much about the environment in which it is placed.  It is my opinion that some sculpture absolutely relies on its environment,  in order to earn the the honored designation-sculpture.  Some sculpture I see in galleries, or museums, I would never see as sculpture-but for the gallery or museum address. Some landscape sculpture has been documented in photographs- often this sculpture is more about the moment of the photograph, than the sculpture itself. I own every book ever published about the work of Andy Goldsworthy-but many of his sculptures are ephemeral such that they are not really sculpture in a classical sense.  The photographs of his works are as much art as the works themselves. But his work makes me rethink my definitions-this is a good thing to come from looking at art.   I buy books regularly, and I read a lot.  Its exciting to see contemporary garden sculpture-what a departure it is from classical sculpture. As I am willing to be surprised, I try to temper my sense of sculpture with a big dose of what I see, and what I am asked to do.  This seems to work.   



Earth sculptures have a huge history; what gardener does not know something about crop circles?  What 20th century landscape designer has not given serious thought to sculptures of earth, covered in some living skin?  What landscape designer, since the day that someone thought to design landscapes, doesn’t see when the landscape transcends horticulture and becomes sculpture?  What gardener has not been interested in Stonehenge, and every Stonehedge counterpart documented world wide?   I am not a first rate scholar on the history of garden sculpture-I am just a somewhat educated landscape designer with a big interest in garden sculpture.


I am strictly a supporting cast, where the sculpture of my clients is concerned.  I look at what they buy, and if I am lucky, they will pile things up, move things around-and talk about what moves them. 


Contrary to the garden sculpture placed in Europe ever since the formal garden got its name, some sculptures are ephemeral, moveable-here today-elsewhere tomorrow. These Belgian hazelwood spheres, piled up into a boxwood hedge-who does not appreciate the gesture?



These birds once graced the roof of the Palais Royale in Paris. This would be the better part of two centuries ago.  What remains of them is their wrought iron armatures, and their hand-wrought feet.  This pair of ancient birds are the most spectacular sculptures I have ever seen.  They have such incredible presence, though little remains of their original shape.  They are so powerful in their shape and their bearing , though little of their ornament remains.  What landscape would do justice to them?

Garden Sculpture

I love sculpture in a garden. Plants in a landscape, beautifully grown, can evoke awe, pleasure and respect for the beauty of nature. But like no other element of a landscape , sculpture is a product of human intelligence, imagination, and emotion, in a physical form.  This sculpture I made  for a community fundraiser;  each participant was given a fiberglas tiger as a starting point for a sculpture, which would then be auctioned. I looked at the building-its color and its form, for an idea that would help me place it in that particular landscape.  jun5

My tiger is camouflaged in varying heights of tall, grass-like, enameled steel rods. It looks right at home sitting in that ocean of steel and concrete-or does it?  There is the additional  suggestion that an urban landscape can imprison, or send running for shelter,  all manner of living things-not just tigers.   This is my imaginative construct, not a process of nature.
Thus I try to design spaces for sculpture that augment gracefully whatever feeling they elicit from me. I may design a small perennial meadow for a client who remembers growing up in a rural area, and has good memories of their relationship to that landscape-but one  small sculpture may have the power to conjure that time , and imbue the landscape around it with that memory.   I always ask clients what resonated with them, what precipitated their choice of sculpture. This helps to design the space for them in a way that has emotional meaning-not just horticultural meaning.
This beautiful pair of 19th century iron bloodhounds, cast by Alfred Jacquemart for Barbezat & Cie at the Val D’Osne foundry in France, circa 1865, are regal and elegant in their own right.  The landscape designed for them is is tall, and thickly planted; the property is screened from any view, save straight up the drive.  This pair stands watch at the driveway entrance; they speak to the emotional issues of refuge, privacy, and the safety of home.

The table and chairs reminiscent of gingko leaves and steel twigs and vines go far beyond utility to sculpture. Sculpted of steel, concrete and mortar,  this is not just a place to sit.  The viewer can imagine who might sit there, and for what reason.   A crisply and simply designed landscape , with a beautiful shape of lawn, gives space to a sculpture that lets us see the world through the eyes of that artist.  A table for 2, waiting for company and conversation-that’s a good description of of sculpture in a garden.

The Music of the Spheres

sphereThough I am fond of almost every geometric shape, I am especially enamored of spheres.  Spheres in any material or arrangement.
I manufacture large garden spheres, thanks to the conceptual and fabrication talents of one Buck Moffat.  An architect for 30 years, he now fabricates pergolas, boxes, furniture-and these spheres, from welded steel.  We galvanize and acid-wash the raw steel, which produces a finish not unlike the look of lead.
This finish is as close to permanent and maintenance-free of any exterior finish on steel that I have seen.  Although I recognize that anything to do with gardening, or life for that matter, requires maintenance, I like these things that quietly and effective resist the elements.
Designing and fabricating these spheres was his idea.  Only after he built the first one, did he do a CAD drawing of it.  Its a gift, to be able to conceptualize like this. He’s a person who loves old industrial steel in any form-bridges, buildings, gears and the like.  He thinks the old factories along the Rouge River in Detroit are gorgeous. One of his favorite possessions is a collection of the fabrication drawings for the Eiffel Tower.
It’s quite a feat, building these spheres.  The strap steel is rolled, hoisted up on a bridge crane, then each strap is placed on a specially made jig- in order to spin the steel ribs in the round without having to lift  them.   Each juncture is hand riveted, so the finished shape is precisely spherical.  They have mass and presence with no mass.  They describe a  specific volume of air. They are all the more compelling for what isn’t there.  I have seen them roll off in a wind.
The rod steel spheres approximate a perfect sphere in a believable way, and are less labor intensive to construct. We hang them from trees, set them in very large containers, or simply roll them onto a lawn. Most large spheres I see are constructed in two hemispheres. This just isn’t the same, as a sphere all of a piece.�
Jonathon Hofley owns the Michigan Gardener Magazine, and Motor City Publishing;  he has done all of my advertising and PR for many years.  He kindly agreed to photograph the spheres for me in the tall grass which came with the property where Buck makes these spheres;  thanks, Jonathon.sphere7

Like a good landscape, these spheres look all the better for the environment in which they are placed .sphere8

That garden sculpture can energize a landscape space with a particular point of view is a given. But I hear music when I look at these spheres.