It seems that gardeners resist ornaments no better than they resist plants. In quiet, leafy corners of the garden, these silent inhabitants can be found: Kwan Yin, the Madonna, Hebe and St. Francis of Assisi; columns, whirligigs, sundials, weather vanes and gazing balls; bird baths, bird houses and bird feeders; swans, flamingos, herons and cranes; and, not to be forgotten, garden gnomes.
The sweet birds pictured at left can be found sheltering just inside the entrance of a friend’s garden. They are hidden from the street, but always catch my eye just as I am leaving – as I walk down the front steps, along the path and out of the garden. Their form, colour and texture make a subtle, beautiful contrast to the board which secures them in their airy position. How convivial these five birds look, nestling so close together.
Garden ornaments can be true works of art. These stately cranes can be found alongside a pond in the Portland Japanese Garden. How convincing they seem in this peaceful setting, with the pale pebbles under foot. The Japanese regard the crane as a symbol of good fortune and longevity, as this bird is believed to live a thousand years.
On the other hand, garden ornaments can be unabashed kitsch. In this category, the garden gnome springs to mind immediately.
Garden gnomes have become a popular accessory in many gardens. They are often the target of pranks, known collectively as gnoming: people have been known to return garden gnomes “to the wild”, most notably France’s “Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardins” and Italy’s “MALAG” (Garden Gnome Liberation Front). Some kidnapped garden gnomes have been sent on trips around the world (the travelling gnome prank; this later became the basis forTravelocity’s “Roaming Gnome”). In 2008, a 53-year-old French man in Brittany was arrested on suspicion of stealing upwards of 170 garden gnomes.
–Wikipedia, “Garden Gnomes“
The painting at the very end of this post includes three garden ornaments that reside in my own garden: a horse, a frog and a snail. I don’t know why the snail is so often represented as a small statue in the garden. Yes, snails have a certain beauty, but they are one of the banes of the gardener’s existence. A family of snails can devastate a vegetable crop or perennial bed within a matter of days. Perhaps, the snail as garden ornament is meant to propitiate the real snails. Or, it could be an attempt to render the snails harmless through a process of Disneyfication, wherein unpleasant or savage creatures are made to look more human or cute in order to water them down, making them more pleasant or less frightening.
My painting is based on an assignment from a workshop I took at the end of August with Wendy Welch at the Vancouver Island School of Art. The three-day workshop was entitled “Drawing Today: Memory and Nostalgia”. Although it was a drawing course, one of the assignments was done in graphite and watercolour, a combination that I’ve always found particularly pleasing, especially when the watercolour is used in a restrained manner, as in the drawings of Christine Bourdette.
I decided that I wanted to do another drawing/painting using Wendy’s instructions from the workshop and choosing objects having to do with the garden. It was only when I had completed the drawings of all three garden ornaments that I realized that I had used the image of the Frog Prince in both paintings. The story of the Frog Prince is another example of Disneyfication, though the watering down of the story took place before Disney came along. In modern versions of the story, the frog retrieves a golden ball from a pond and returns it to a princess. She rewards him with a kiss, and he is transformed into a charming prince. In the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm, however, the transformation takes place after the princess has thrown the frog against the wall in disgust. To stray far from the subject of this blog, I’ll just mention that the Frog Prince story has been interpreted by Jungian psychologists in very interesting ways.
Robert Bly tells us that “the golden ball represents that unity of personality we had as children – a kind of radiance, or wholeness, before we split into male and female, rich and poor, bad and good.” It is like living in paradise, before life suddenly expels us and we find ourselves confronted with the harsh realities of the world. It’s like riding and sleeping in the back seat of the car, before suddenly finding ourselves behind the wheel and assuming responsibility for determining speed and direction. It’s like living in a fairy tale, before the psyche suddenly awakens and we realize that the world is more vast, wonderful and frightening than we ever imagined. The golden ball represents that undifferentiated wholeness that children possess before they lose their innocence.
Perhaps this aside is not so far from the topic of gardens, after all, for isn’t the garden itself a metaphor for the world before innocence was lost?