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Finding Art in the Garden

Posted on 20 August 2010

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By Francesca Normile

“‘What’s behind those hedges?’ is everyone’s favorite guessing game [out here],” quips garden ‘stylist,’ as she prefers to be called, Dianne Benson. Benson, who designed the Appel Garden in East Hampton, is one of six garden designers being showcased in the upcoming Guild Hall event, ‘The Garden as Art.’

“Everyone in the Hamptons is so paranoid about privacy, it gives it an element of surprise [to go past the hedges], like ‘wow, I didn’t know that was back there,’” agrees fellow garden designer Eric Groft, whose work on the Rifkind Garden in Amagansett is also featured in the event.

In addition to touring six East End gardens, which showcase the design talent of five, celebrated designers, the event will include illustrated lectures by Groft himself as well as the president of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, whom, according to the co-chair of the event’s committee, Nina Gillman, will be talking about the 100 history of that garden’s design.

Gillman, who has been a part of Guild Hall’s Garden as Art committee for five years now, got involved in the event after attending the museum’s first garden tour six years ago.

“And this year’s tour is the best one yet,” she says with confidence. “There is a unique blend of designer and gardens that reflect the personalities of their owners. It is like a great collection of people from all different walks of life, ranging from the very dramatic to the more… normal.”

“I am an amateur gardener,” says Gillman laughing, “and I saw [garden designer, Victoria Fensterer’s] work in that first garden tour and fell in love with it. I asked her to work on something small with me and it just evolved.”

Gillman’s own Amagansett garden, which showcases Fensterer’s design, is included in the tour.

It is her garden that fellow committee member, Elena Glinn— who refers to this year’s garden tour as “one treat after another”— says was the highlight of the tour for her.

“It is like something out of Alice in Wonderland,” describes Glinn. “A magical, secret garden on Windmill Lane. And the owner is also a passionate gardener. So it is a very special space.”

And it seems that Fensterer’s calling to the art of garden design was just as mystical as the gardens she creates.

“I’ve always loved trees,” Fensterer explains. “Even as a child, when I was climbing them, I was crazy about trees and well, I see them as sculptures really. When I was younger, a psychic woman saw these really large wooden sculptures [in me] and since then, I’ve started planting really large trees. I think that’s what those were.”

Fensterer, who describes her aesthetic as ‘controlled abandon,’ adds that she studied sculpture in school, had an art studio when she first came out here and that she does a lot of drawing. It has been in garden design, however, that Fensterer, who is the designer of the current Grey Gardens, has found her niche.

“I wasn’t as happy in the art world as I am in the natural world. This is really my art form,” she explains.

In regards to the Garden as Art event itself, Fensterer expresses her appreciation, saying,

“The design of gardens is an important art form, and it’s good that it’s being recognized and celebrated this way.”

Finding a similar artistry in the act of designing gardens, her contemporary, Groft, explains that arriving at a site is something akin to arriving before a canvas.

“We take the installation very seriously,” he says of his Washington, DC-based Company, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Inc. “When we get on site it’s very painterly— we are assimilating the design palette [into the space].”

Benson then proceeds to describe her style as dramatic and stylized, noting that her work on the Appel Garden was mainly a transfer from annuals to perennials, and so was an introduction to the garden of a new color scheme.

Placing an emphasis on the artistry of their design, Glinn considers this year’s collection to be particularly impressive.

“These are really great, world class examples of gardens,” she says. “From the un-pretentious to the very majestic, it really shows all the different lifestyles out here.”

The other two designers being showcased in the event are Craig James Socia, designer of the Caiola & McGill Garden in Amagansett and Edmund Hollander, designer of the Further Lane Garden and the Lynne Garden in East Hampton.

Glinn described Hollander’s Lynne Garden as an example of one of the more dramatic gardens, saying,

“It is very large and majestic, with cascading levels moving with the slope of the land. There is the orchard, the stone walls, a very special rose garden… You are moving from one terrace level to another. It is truly, truly memorable, and so surprising! The way a grand garden should be.”

The garden event takes place on the evening of Friday, August 27 and during the say of Saturday, August 28. The event opens with a garden, cocktail party on Main Street in East Hampton, hosted at the historic home of Mary Jane and Charles Brock.

“It was at one point, I believe, the postmaster’s home,” says Glinn of the Brock’s place. “And now it’s Greek revival style, with its porches and verandas.”

On Saturday morning, at 9:30 a.m. at Guild Hall, is the continental breakfast followed by the lectures. In addition to this, there is also a luncheon at Hook Pond on Saturday, hosted by Dorian and Gary Fuhrman. The touring of the six gardens will take place between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturday and includes a visit to Jack Larson’s Longhouse.

The ‘Garden Lover’ ticket costs $75 for members and $100 for non-members and that includes the continental breakfast and the lectures on Saturday, in addition to the tour. The ‘Patron’ ticket costs $250 and includes the Friday night cocktail reception, in addition to what the Garden Lover ticket enables. And the ‘Benefactor’ ticket costs $500 and includes all the aforementioned events in addition to the luncheon at Hook Pond.

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