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The Little & Lewis Garden: An Appreciation

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By July Hays

Huge lime-gold Gunnera leaves dripping water into pools, cobalt blue columns supporting turquoise beams, mirrors of glass and water and the startling rictus of the Stalactite Man, all with the patina of antiquity, of ruins buried under giant, tropical leaves—these unlikely images have seeped into our gardening consciousness. For more than a decade and a half, Bainbridge Island artists David Lewis and George Little invented these devices and a hundred others that convey a vision of a garden utterly different from the Northwest natural, Japanese and English influences that came before. They gave us a fantasy archaeology of concrete columns, sculptured fountains, tiles, masks and wall paintings that struck a completely novel chord.

The garden that Little and Lewis created has passed into private hands now, but it is not really gone—it already has entered our Northwest mythos.  In 2005, the definitive picture book about the garden, A Garden Gallery, was published by Timber Press, with stunning photos by Barbara Denk and a marvelous text by Little and Lewis themselves. But the rankest amateur could get photographs in that garden that would amaze their friends and inspire them forever after.

The garden was small, just about a regular city lot, with the back space given over to a small house and a work area. There were permanent elements such as the dug pools, the painted pergola, the Fuschia Tree and Banana Family and other in-ground trees and shrubs. But much of the garden seemed to be re-invented each year from an astonishing array of potted specimen plants, along with the stock of fountains and sculptures that were (mostly) for sale. It was a revelation for the plant-o-holic to see so many beauties fitted into such a small space. Plants stood overhead on columns, perched and hung on walls, dangled in trees, lurked under other plants—the stranger their location, the more glamorous they looked!

The garden consisted of a series of smaller gardens (“rooms”), interconnected in a kind of braid that let the visitor choose freely which way to go, inevitably to forget the sequence taken. One might pass through each part from several different directions, and the genius of this arrangement was that each approach could, and did, reveal something new and astonishing.

The sound of water quietened the garden. No rushing waterfalls here! Small bubblers in basins (some with slight echoes) and various dripping fountains acted like whispers, making the visitor’s ears prick up. The most remarkable effect was the smallest fountain—slow drops of water falling into a basin from high above. The mystery of these water drops never failed to captivate. (They came from a tiny irrigation tube, fastened to a high branch.)

As sculptors, Little and Lewis were naturally fond of sculptural plants, which led them to grow many tender tropicals that were beyond the average gardener. This exotic element had the effect of awakening our curiosity, part of the charm of our fling with Zonal Denial this past decade or so. The strange colors and textures of tropical plants such as Elephant Ears (Colocasia) and Tree Ferns (Dicksonia) were combined with the colors and textures of familiar hardy plants, making those seem new also.

Mysteries in the garden abounded. Each scene had its obvious attractive shapes and colors, but looking a little longer, the visitor would discover more and more elements—a fountain obscured by the ivy on a tree trunk, an odd dark space that turned out to be a mirror (that later in the day reflected a picture), a shrub with the “wrong” flowers, borrowed from another plant tucked under it. Mysteries like these can emerge only from intimate knowledge of and interaction with one’s own garden. Their only prerequisite is a playful, exploring mind.

Although the garden is described here in the past tense, David Little and George Lewis are far from gone. They continue to produce custom art pieces. Their schedule now can include more time at their house and workshop in Mexico and traveling to places they love, leading small groups of fellow adventurers.

They have given so much to us, gardener to gardener—their fascination with plant forms and archaeology and their perspective on decorative objects as ancient artifacts, their development of concrete-working techniques, of color washing and their unique colors—the list is long! We can only thank them and wish them well, hoping we hear of future wonders from their prolific imaginations.

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photo by July Hays

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photo by Mary Gutierrez

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