The Artist As Gardener

In the beginning of human existence, Genesis tells us that God set humans in a garden. How might imagining our art practice and life as a garden, and our self as a gardener help us? How do you see the artist as gardener?

Throughout the world, gardens have taken on various forms and significance. The most ancient form is very probably how the storytellers of the Bible understood what a garden is. The paradise garden is of Persian (Old Iranian) origin. Enclosure is a fundamental element of a Paradise Garden as it offers an inner tranquil haven from the harsh desert environment. The word ‘Paradise’ actually means ‘enclosed by walls’. The other vital element is water, often contained in ponds, and flowing in canals and fountains. Fruit bearing trees and flowers provide nourishment and scent, and are ordered within geometric structures, walls and pathways.

“Baburnama” by Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) (Author). 10th century AH/AD 16th century (Mughal). Ink and pigments on re-margined paper covered with limp dark green goatskin. Provenance: Henry Walters, Baltimore [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; Walters Art Museum, 1931, by bequest.

I thought about some characteristics gardens and the arts have in common.

Within a garden and an art practice, the work of God, humans and nature meet and combine to make something new according to their relationship. Both gardens and the Arts are ‘cultivated’ in that they show evidence of human activity upon what they find in God’s creation.

Gardens need compost -the integration of all sorts of matter in order to be healthy; artists take the raw material of our human experience and make it into something that enriches the life of our communities. Diversity thrives in gardens and the Arts; homogeneity brings death to a garden, as it does to human society.

The artist as gardener needs to be attentive, patient, humble, knowledgeable, trusting, respectful; dedicated and devoted; equally appreciative of hard work and rest. There is an acceptance of the rhythms of life, providing for a time for the growth of Spring, the abundance of Summer, the harvest of Autumn, the fallow of Winter.

“The Tangled Garden” by J.E.H. MacDonald, 1916 oil painting on fiberboard, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada

Sometimes we are stuck as artists, or overwhelmed or lost or uninspired.

We can be tempted to give up on art making altogether, when perhaps if we examined our lives and practice we might be able to bring some adjustment or nourishment, just as a Gardener might add some fertiliser, or water, or move a plant to a better position.

As I continued with my musings, I came up with a personal check-in based on an analogy of a garden.

Garden Check-in

A simple diagram from my journal illustrates most of what a garden needs in order to be healthy. A visual prompt helps us focus our thinking and may help us narrow down where the need is. Any image might have positive associations, sometimes negative, and can change according to where you are at. Listen to what comes to mind when you think of each element. It might apply to your art practice, it might apply to your life in general.

I have made a list for what these elements represent to me. Do you relate to these or is there something you might add that is essential to your garden? I invite you to write a list or draw your own diagram and free flow ideas that come to mind about each garden element and what these mean for you.

Rain, softness, quiet, refreshment, rest, tears, cleansing, bathing. Might I see grey days as nourishing? Tears as rain? Do I need to refresh my life with some quiet, or give into a sorrow I have been holding back? Maybe I have too much rain in my life and need to bring some balance with some sunshine.

Sunshine, joy, getting out into the world, laughter, dancing, light, exuberance, exercise, just enjoying life- “the livin’ is easy.” Do I need to open up my life and allow some spaciousness? Maybe there is need for “Shedding some light on the matter” Do I need simply to bathe in the light and love of God as I would in the sun on a beautiful summer’s day?

Distractions, trivialities, constant chatter, too much talking, social media (eg Twitter) Or birds might represent friends, encouragers, inspiration, explorations, traveling. Little things that bring me joy. Birds are also pest control. Birds know the time to stay close to the nest and when to fly.

Pollinators, hard working, finding the sweetness in life, making sweetness, essential, attracted to scent, colour, lots of different flowers and plants, travellers, community, co-operation, small but mighty. Vulnerable. Do I need to feel more connected to community to feel safe and productive? Do I need to move through life a little more gently and lightly?

Transferring, uprooting, pruning, digging deep. Helpful tools when I feel I am not enough on my own. Pruning dead branches. Opening up canopy for more light. Removing obstructions, making room for growth. Adding new plants, taking away old or unnecessary plants. I might have drawn a wheelbarrow to help me carry a heavy load.

Boundaries, protection, permissions- this is where you can go as much as where you can’t. Limits. Do I need more structure? Do I need to separate, distinguish, make obvious? Decide on some parameters? Have I been too undefined in my time management? Is my life just one big blur?

Could be deer, raccoons instead. Disruptors, distractions, nasty neighbours, people who don’t have respect for my time, who don’t support my work, who undermine my confidence. Loud and insistent demands OR it being a dog in this picture, it could represent friendship, devotion, supporters

Pests, small attitudes that undermine and eat away- thoughts, actions, small habits, almost invisible, Are there small but constant energy drains in my life that contribute to my weariness or lack of motivation? Do I tend to my life or art enough to notice these pests? Do I need to do some self examination?

Earthing, going into the dark, finding my ground, going deep. Do I need to feel more solid in my life? Am I feeling insecure? Do I need to anchor myself more in the present. Finding nourishment from depth. Going into a subject more thoroughly.

Celebration, attraction, prettiness, exuberance, dancing, joy, receiving, showing forth, vitality. Being open with who I am, showing my art to others, allowing bees to visit and people to see my work. Do I need to be open to new experiences, ‘smell the roses’, pull together a bouquet of loveliness and lightness?

Coming to fruition, ready to go out into the world, nourishment, distribution, harvest, potential, taking in and digesting ideas. Do I need to take time and enjoy the fruits of my labour? Do I need to share my blessings with others?

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lost ourselves at the same time.” – Thomas Merton

Cornelia van Voorst is a visual artist and theopoetic practitioner with a studio practice in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her recent work honours stories of endurance and compassion in the face of both personal and collective adversity.  Living with a complex form of PTSD influences van Voorst’s engagement with intergenerational trauma. Her work is an empathetic integration of the personal with the historical that resonates within our contemporary context.