By Christine Darnell

Image of From Art to landscape

On a wintry weekend in January, a former student and I traveled to Swarthmore Arboretum in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to hear W. Gary Smith lecture on his superb book, From Art To Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design  (Timber Press 2010).  The premise of the book is to break down the shroud of mystery surrounding the creative process and to approach the landscape with an artist’s eye. For Smith there is inspiration and pure delight in observing patterns in nature, which he does by visual note taking.  From Art to Landscape breaks the entire universe down to nine basic patterns and explores drawing, painting, sculpture, poetry, dance, and meditation, as ways to create personal connections to the landscape, and end in garden designs that tell a story and have meaning.

Smith is best known for his work in public gardens like Enchanted Woods at Winterthur in Winterthur, Delaware, and the Santa Fe Botanical garden. (He was featured last year in a delightful article in the Times entitled Where The Wild Things Are Nowabout a residential landscape in Middlebury, Virginia, and a terrific collaboration with the owners.) While listening to him talk about making visual connections and creative conclusions, I was reminded about how important putting pen to paper is, how visual note taking and on-site sketching causes us to see and take notice of natural formations and patterns. We make visual connections we would not normally make otherwise. Putting ourselves in the landscape and using a sharpie instead of a camera forces us to focus, concentrate and really look.

Smith’s warm personality and encouraging voice come through in his book as he encourages us to build our own visual vocabulary of shapes, forms and patterns. He invites us to be free and not critical as we draw, and to use pedestrian materials not precious ones (No pencils either—erasing is censoring!) The book is full of his quick drawings and recorded observations by which he sees a place. Drawing and looking begin to happen simultaneously. The time spent making each sketch is in fact laying the foundation for the relationship he forms with a particular place.


Smith jots down brief notes on these sketches, and they are as important as the drawings themselves. The notes help him remember the design ideas or thoughts for specific plantings that come to him as he is quickly recording. From Art to Landscape shares years of observation, experience, and reflection, as well as beautiful drawings. Smith walks us through his process of simplifying what he sees and explains how to abstract landscape elements down to their most essential form as a springboard for design.

As a creative tool he suggests superimposing any two patterns; for instance take a scattered pattern and a mosaic pattern (a pattern which can happen over a big space) to get a lush, rich tapestry of planting. I tried this in approachinga wetland design over a large space where a scattered pattern over a mosaic pattern might happen naturally, and it lent a freedom to the planting design I might not have found otherwise.


The Carpinus Walk by W. Gary Smith

The Carpinus Walk by W. Gary Smith

Smith’s goal is to create ‘luminous moments’ as he aspires to tell a story and create an emotional response in the viewer, much as being in the presence of art and nature do. “Every place has a narrative,” he says in the Times article. From Art to Landscape gives us a bag of tools to use to help us discover that narrative, that sense of place that makes gardens so meaningful to be in, so alive with feeling and emotion.


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