Artful Gardens

A conversation with Shirley Alexandra Watts

In an age of computer screens, digital imagery, and instant communication, gardens hold the ability to reconnect us to the tangible world of changing seasons, actual time, and untamed forces. In a word: Wonder.

A conversation between editor Lorene Edwards Forkner and Shirley Alexandra Watts, Bay Area artist and garden designer.

Lamps in the garden illuminate text from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Photo: MB Maher

Lamps in the garden illuminate text from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Photo: MB Maher

LEF: What came first—the garden or your art?  Were you always a gardener? Or did you move to making art that lives in the garden from a more traditional art platform.

SAW: I grew up in a house with a large garden that was wild and wonderful, mostly shrubs and trees with some beds of iris, peonies, and pink lily of the valley. I studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then attended the Ècole du Louvre, which is a school of art history and museum administration. So art came first, but I don’t really think of it as separate. My art training impacts and develops the vision for every project I take on.

LEF: How has your personal landscape evolved?

Renovations on the typical craftsman bungalow integrate house and garden and have changed the way Watts and her husband live in both spaces. Photo: MB Maher

Renovations on the typical craftsman bungalow integrate house and garden and have changed the way Watts and her husband live in both spaces. Photo: MB Maher

SAW: Our house was a typical craftsman bungalow. Access to the garden was from the kitchen, through a door to the laundry room, out onto the back porch, and down seven stairs. My brother, Harvey Watts, an architect based in LA, helped us remodel the house and open it up to the garden. His brilliant plan involved adding a 92-square-foot room to the back of the house, two steps down from the existing level, with large windows on two sides. Harvey understands these houses and works well with their small quirky spaces. This small but very important change to the house was an eye opening experience that changed the way we live here. I love the new room and spend most of my time there.

LEF: Visiting your garden last summer was like entering a cabinet of natural curiosities—a blend of beautiful plant combinations and art. Talk about how your landscape is both a laboratory for trying new ideas and a scrapbook/repository of past projects.

This view through the back garden reveals borders bursting with layered plantings and 
numerous artful hardscape installations. Photo: MB Maher

This view through the back garden reveals borders bursting with layered plantings and 
numerous artful hardscape installations. Photo: MB Maher

SAW: I am very interested in the cabinet of curiosities, museums, how we display collections and the impulse to collect. My own garden contains pieces of many different projects. It’s a place to play and a place to practice “survivalist horticulture” so I know what plants I can count on when I make gardens for others. Over the years it has grown in depth and now has many layers, the Frankenstein lamps with text from the book, the billboard fence, the Petrarch poem, and plants that reseed in wonderful ways.

LEF: What’s next? Where is the garden taking your art? Or vice versa…

 The best an artist can hope to do is to persuade those who have eyes to look also. —Georges Sand 

SAW: I have several projects on the horizon. I am working on an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Arboretum that is a continuation of “Natural Discourse: Artists, Architects, Scientists & Poets in the Garden” which started at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in 2012. Hosted by the Arboretum, “Natural Discourse: Light & Image” takes place on October 18, 2104. The day-long symposium with speakers including Marion Brenner and the curator of Harvard’s glass flower collection also features a show of site-specific artwork at the Arboretum and other LA institutions. I am also working on designs for some private gardens and have some ideas about making changes in my own garden.