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Art and Perception



Lately I’ve been ruminating about art. What is it? What is art for? Who makes it? What makes art ART? A science major in college, I never even had an art appreciation class, let alone training in art history or technique, and as a child was never exposed to the concept of art as a subject worthy of contemplation. Practical and function-oriented to a fault, I am that person whose favored “art” has function or purpose beyond simple appreciation of its beauty.

I have always thought the creation of art is something others are good at, seemingly innately able to make it ethereally form out of thin air. My own lack of education, imagination, appreciation and self confidence as a creator has shaped the notion that I am not and never should consider myself an artist.

A few weeks ago, the Bainbridge In Bloom garden tour happened. I missed it, otherwise occupied in the quiet zen place of spending time in my own garden, seeing, encouraging, shaping, planting and nurturing this intensely personal place we call home. I love to garden. I love beautiful flowers, beautiful leaves, beautiful plant and tree shapes. I love the amazing variations of colors, scents and compositions and noticing how art in nature replicates itself in the minute bits that make up plants, shells, rocks and all things, really. Being in my own or someone else’s garden makes my heart sing.

I heard there were lovely gardens on the tour, and admire people willing to expose their gardens to thousands of mostly thoughtful, mostly admiring fellow gardeners. I am always grateful for opportunities to see, share and feel inspired by other people's gardens. To me, they are artists whose palette is their garden, and mother nature lets them play with her toys.

I read a couple of articles by a local garden writer about two gardens she had recently visited. The first was in a local paper just before the tour, contrasting an informal garden with an formal one. Right from the start the author’s bias was apparent: ‘“one lovingly maintained, one tidied within an inch of its life.” The first was described as “a companionable garden,” complete with chickens, while the second was considered one of those “super-tidy gardens where cleanliness seems valued above the natural,” unachievable without pesticides or outside help, and uninvitingly landscaped to appeal only to those who read Architectural Digest. Of course there were no accompanying pictures of said gardens, but my imagination filled in the gaps. Are both garden styles art? Is one more beautiful or appealing than the other?

The second article was written by the same author, after the tour, chastising tour-goers for making unkind comments about the garden of a friend where she had been a docent. She went on to list rules of etiquette for behavior in other people’s gardens, kind of like how we learned to properly set a table in middle school home-ec.

There is so much of my (our) time, and so many pieces of me planted in my own garden, yet as imperfect and unfinished as it will always seem to me, it feeds my soul in so many ways. I got a knot in my stomach reading those two articles, thinking about what it must feel like to expose that labor of love to the critical eye of people paying to see garden bling, with unspoken standards for what the garden could, and ought to be to deem it worthy of public view. There is-always-beauty to behold in a garden, every glimpse of I get of people via their expression of themselves through their gardens fills me with awe and gratitude. Does that make it art?

I thought of the Sweetlife garden-not formal, without preconceived plan, and certainly not perfectly groomed, even though we obsessively strive to make the entire garden neat and tidy all at the same time, and we do have help during the growing season. Our garden is not likely to attract the admiration of professional garden types, whatever their style preference. Is it art?

Whether viewed with the eye of a credentialed critic or through the lens of a complete novice, I am reminded that gardens are intensely personal places serving a wide variety of needs, for order, quiet contemplation, communing with nature, for feeding a family or an artistic outlet. They are inherently beautiful whether impeccably neat or abundantly messy, food functional or purely decorative, filled with common varieties, native plants or rare collectibles. Are they art?

I’ll never forget proudly sharing one of my early soap making victories with a gifted local pottery artist. I had cracked the code of how to layer raw soap tinted with different colors while still in liquid form into a preformed mold, and later embellished the finished soaps to create beautiful soaps. A mutual friend sent me to the potter to collaborate about soap and soap dish gift ideas. The potter took one look at my soap and said dismissively, “oh THAT’s not art.” It was humiliating, and needless to say she never made dishes to go with my soap. 

I’ve made soap for more than fifteen years now: I have played, perfected recipes, explored new techniques, colors, ingredients, shapes and packaging, all the while being careful not to consider myself an artist—defined by a verifiable artist, I am a merely a crafter. Interestingly, the absence of being labeled an artist has in no way diminished the pure joy I feel when creating soap or playing in my garden.

The other night, we attended the opening of the World of WearableArt exhibition at the Experience Music Project. The World of WearableArt®, known as WOW®, is a renowned international design competition that attracts hundreds of entries from all over the world. We were privileged to visit the museum that houses selections from previous competitions in New Zealand a number of years ago, and it made a profound impression on us. This is the first traveling exhibition, and Seattle is the first stop; we jumped at the chance to experience it again. The depth of craft, medium and expression is mind blowing, and at the same time empowering. 

Recently (to me) the word “maker” has been defined as a noun as well as a verb. I’ve decided that’s what I am: a maker. Whether what I make is art, craft, or beautiful-by mine or anyone else’s definition, is not relevant. Art is inspiration, food for the soul, perception, creativity, and can also be function. Its design can evolve from skill acquired from the imagination or education-or both. Art is everywhere. I was talking to a young aeronautical engineer yesterday, who was poking fun at herself for mistakenly nurturing the beautiful weeds in her first garden, and lamenting that she isn’t an “artist.” I was dumbfounded, since we had just been learning about her design of the cockpit of a new Boeing airplane. Isn’t that art?