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.

Lecture Review – Kim Wilkie at NYBG: Sculpting the Land

Posted by APLDCT member Lucy Van Liew.

The NYBG winter lecture series is a welcome shot in the arm in the middle of a seemingly unrelenting winter. I am always tempted by the interesting and varied speakers, often from outside the USA. The star turn last year was Tom Stuart Smith, Garden designer and winner of many Gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show.

This year it was Kim Wilkie, who lured me to face I-95 during the rush hour. Again, he is British, but his specialty (in his own words), is working with mud. He sculpts huge landforms out of clay and chalk, and clothes them with grass. Enchantingly, these are not always closely mown, and certainly not irrigated or fertilized as the English climate is “made for growing grass”. His talk illustrated several of his best know projects such as the ‘ Orpheus landform’ , in which he matched an 18th century truncated pyramid  mound with another that was inverted and based on harmonic proportions, in an historically sensitive landscape.

Orpheus Landform

Orpheus Landform

At another stately home in England, he replaced a cramped and poorly conceived Victorian parterre garden on the south side of an elegant Georgian house, with a 150 ft reflecting pool and a series of sweeping grass terraces. Again geometry played a part, with the design being based on the Golden Section spiral.

Sweeping Grass Terraces

Sweeping Grass Terraces

His talk illustrated his profound understanding and appreciation of the history and ecology of the land on which he works. His book Led by the Land (Frances Lincoln 2012) illustrates many fascinating projects including; a project in Solovki, on the edge of the Arctic circle in Russia, and another in the Transylvania region of Romania, preserving medieval villages and their landscapes.

He also works in small urban spaces, and illustrated his concepts in miniature at his house in Richmond in South London, where ribbons of snowdrops punctuate a foot of elevation of lawn before leading to a cobalt blue crushed glass parking space.

He spoke wisely on the contrasts between the historical foundations and philosophies of managing the land in the UK and USA, and how these differences are expressed in designing gardens and landscapes. He charmed us, with an English self deprecation, when describing the anxieties associated with construction of some of his projects. Many mounds have been created of out of necessity when faced with surplus soil. Many of the houses and landscapes he has worked with have strong historical associations but his earthworks and landforms bring a contemporary feel.


Wilkie has inspired me to be bolder with my approach to sculpting the earth and has already caused me to rethink a design for a client. I recommend his book and website

Lucy Van Liew

March 2014