At the gentle urging of garden diva Diane Laird, the authors share their personal thoughts on design and on the collaboration behind their garden and the garden sculpture of Little and Lewis, a Bainbridge Island treasure.
I often reflect on the past in order to plan the future. In the years that I’ve been a part of Little and Lewis, I’ve watched thousands of people wander through our small, intimate garden and get lost among the tall plants and dripping fountains. They stop and stare at bright, color-washed, concrete sculptures and dip their hands in still reflective mirrors of water. They pause. They murmur. They contemplate these gifts to the senses.
David and I formed a partnership about nine years ago on Bainbridge Island, Washington, designing and installing water gardens. We loved fountains—and still do—and wanted to use our own sculptures in our jobs as often as possibile; sculpting and painting, we quickly discovered, were our main passions. Water plays an important role in our garden sculpture to this day. Though we no longer design water gardens, we work with landscape designers to create water elements utilizing our sculptures, which are made of concrete in various forms.
We had set out to make our work evoke ancient times by the use of weathered textures and transparent color washes. We both have a love of Greek and Roman architecture and painting, and are drawn to the incredible color and texture seen on the walls of ancient homes and palaces. We are also fascinated by natural forms seen in leaves, growth patterns, and “architectural” plants such as those of the tropics. Our garden reflects this as we use huge plants at every opportunity to creat rooms and to screen one part of our small garden from another.
I’m most often asked by visitors how two artists, obviously different in many ways, have managed to forge such a passionate and harmonious working relationship. We sign everything we create with both our names, a testament to the bond of Little and Lewis. We share a strong desire for beauty and tranquility in the garden and in our work. We are committed to trying new techniques and ideas. Above all, we are dedicated to continuing the growth of our business and friendship. The secret, though, lies in our differences.
My strength (sometimes to George’s dismay and frustration) is control. I’m a great time manager, bill payer, and resource directory—in a sense, the “business manager.” I plan the work schedule for our commissions and order the necessary supplies. I handle most of the phone calls and coordinate the garden tours and appointments. George’s strength lies in his creativity; he’s the “creative director”—the catalyst for our ideas, techniques, and in a sense, the image that is Little and Lewis. He is constantly drawing and conceptualizing new sculptures and installations. Through his creativity and my management, our ideas are brought to reality.
Nearly all of our work is collaborative, if not physically, then through frequent verbal input and suggestion. The large concrete mirrors, often used to bring reflective light into shadowy areas of the garden, are good examples of this team effort. I first sculpt the mirror in clay and then pour it in concrete. After it cures, George washes the mirror in color and fits the glass into place. Likewise, our three-dimensional sculptures are worked on by both of us, simultaneously, from start to finish.
There are areas on which we never see eye to eye. One is color. Once I acknowledged my weakness in this area, the bickering stopped. My early attempts to color-wash our sculpture resulted in pieces that looked like cheap souvenirs from some tropical resort. Many of these early works still sit behind our studio as a humorous reminder. I may have thought I was getting better in subsequent years, but, alas, I’ve put my ego aside and now let George color all of our works.
The other sensitive area is our garden. We both are avid gardeners and love the challenge of working in such a small space. I suffer from the same affliction plaguing many gardeners: I can never let go of a plant. Regardless of its inappropriateness, health, noxiousness, or nauseating color, I simply cannot pull it up. George is more ruthless, constantly reminding me that space is at a premium here, and undesirable or unhealthy plants need to be replaced with things new, healthy, and perhaps exotic. When I’m away on errands, he digs up and replaces offending plants. (He thinks I’m unaware of his trick.) The change always looks better, but it’s difficult for me to admit it.
As I reflect over the last eight years of this dynamic and exciting collaboration with George, I feel truly blessed. Through our different strengths and weaknesses, we’ve built a partnership in both work and friendship. The result is Little and Lewis.
It seems to me that gardening nurtures reflection. It creates images of who we are, how we work, and how we commune. Gardening is an expression not only of our natures, but also of the ways in which the activity in turn shapes us. The element of water, used in so many ways in a garden, is powerful as a metaphor for the reflective quality of gardening. We seek in gardens, and in gardening, a certain meditative mood—a kind of release from our frenetic world into a place of heart’s ease. A dear friend once said, “We garden because we remember Paradise.” It must always have been so.
So our gardens—as ground of our Selves—are mirrors of the archetypal first world, something we may never have actually seen, but cannot remove from our memories. To move our hands in the soil, to place living things enthusiastically in the earth, and to breathe in the patience of growth—all of these activities are reflective of our lives. What is planted, grows, flowers, dies, and then returns in time. The water we provide percolates down to greater waters. We are the mirror of nature. I cannot think of a greater gift than to know this. And it is this gift that we, as gardeners, can offer others. We communicate this in a kind of language of growth—ephemeral and tender, beautiful and strong—when we have the courage to be true gardeners.
The collaborative work that David and I do has been a great teacher for us. Working together has meant holding up a mirror to each other, and living with our differences—sometimes difficult, but usually rewarding. Through the years, what we have learned is the importance of the mirroring we do for each other; whether it’s painful or joyful, it is the essence of working together and has become the personality of Little and Lewis.
The Artists’ Eye
Playing with Scale: Though their lot is small, Little and Lewis have deliberately chosen plants with large, even huge, structural leaves, such as Gunnera, Rodgersia, and Ligularia, and massed them near the house or used them as focal points in beds. Similarly they display outsized cast-concrete art objects throughout the garden—columns with exaggeratedly large capitals or shafts that are wider than they are “supposed” to be relative to their height. An impossibly tall column rises next to one that has been truncated; a garden chair in the shape of an enormous soft golden orange morel mushroom looms like a curved fungal throne, with fluted spines up its base and along its back. The effect of these distortions and juxtapositions is to intrigue and amuse by throwing us off balance rather like a surrealistic canvas by Dalí or a collage by Max Ernst. As Little puts it, “Little crowded beds with oversized plants make people feel childlike.” In this garden, it’s impossible to resist the temptation to wander down fuzzy paths, peer around corners, follow the sound of water across bridges that span tiny rivers. There’s a festive, Fellini-esque quality to this garden, a feeling of having stepped into a wonderfully alien world and being enveloped by pleasingly grotesque shapes and textures. Little and Lewis accomplish this quite deftly by playing with scale in subtle and fantastic ways.
New Twists with Containers: Little and Lewis love containers, but they eschew the current fashion of cramming pots with miniature jungles of intertwining plants in harmonious colors and textures. “We just do lovely specimen plants,” says Little. “One plant to a pot. It’s much calmer and less flashy.” It also allows the individual plant to reach perfection of form and culture. For the most part they limit themselves to fairly standard terra-cotta pots, along with their own handmade concrete containers. But though the pots themselves are simple and straightforward, considerable artistry has been lavished on the massing, grouping, and arranging of the containers. On the patio near their front door Little and Lewis have created a marvelous container tableau of a very large bird-of-paradise plant (Caesalpinia gilliesii), Acidanthera bicolor, Epiphyllum (a tropical orchid cactus), Ensete ventricosum (which looks like a banana tree, with 10- to 20-foot-long leaves), and various types of bromeliads. The plants, extraordinarily lush and healthy, are placed so that they complement and comment on each other perfectly. You notice each plant in each pot: the shape and texture of the leaves; the shadows the plant and its container cast; the play of color. Little and Lewis use columns to elevate and highlight individual plants and to lend scale and variety to the groupings of containers. The overall effect is a living composition—a kind of large-scale mosaic in which each piece is as important as the whole.
Fearless, Unconventional Use of Color: Little and Lewis often spend winters in a little town in central Mexico and they freely use the bold, bright colors of the desert to accent the lush green foliage of their garden. Wolflike masks painted in saturated shades of turquoise, orange, violet, hot pink, and terra-cotta grace the garden’s thickly textured sculptural leaves, fountains, and frescoes. Foliage and flowers are equally riotous. A bright blue bench draws the eye to a bridge inset with pink medallions, with a cobalt jug beyond it. These are not the pastels that Northwest gardeners inherited from their British gardening forebears and have grown accustomed to using under soft gray skies: rather, they are the antithesis of gray, and they spark and enhance all the greenness of the Northwest environment
Making the Most of a Small, Shady Corner: Between the rear of the house and the greenhouse is a shady, rather cramped passage that many gardeners would have chosen to ignore or neglect. But Little and Lewis have worked wonders here by employing cool colors and a limited plant palette in strong contrast to the rest of the property. They have hidden the house foundation behind a row of deeply veined blue-leafed Hosta sieboldiana fringed with a groundcover of oxalis; staghorn ferns and a climbing hydrangea decorate the back wall of the house and tie in nicely with the color and texture of the hostas; and off to the side stands a stately black elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Harmony and restraint are the main notes here—a relief from (and an interesting comment on) the rest of the property and a soothing transition into the hushed, humid, dappled greenhouse.
Adapted, with permission, from Artists in their Gardens, a beautiful and thoroughly engaging new book by Val Easton and David Laskin, with photography by Allan Mandell. It is published by Sasquatch Books in 2001.