Art Inspired by Nature: The Work of Vermont Artist Dan Snow…

January 3rd, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

Archer’s Pavilion

As an enthusiastic fan of stone sculpture, environmental art and three-dimensional landscape features, I have been long planning an article about Vermont artist Dan Snow and his work. But finding the time to actually visit and photograph the artist’s creations, and coordinate two seasonal workers during the busy summer months, seemed all but impossible. Dan Snow keeps a busy schedule. In addition to creating master works of art for both private clients and public collections, Dan has authored two of his own books —In the Company of Stone and Listening to Stone with photographs by Peter Mauss— and has contributed to several others. He also regularly writes beautiful essays for his blog, In the Company of Stone. In addition to these artistic pursuits, as a DSWA*of Great Britain- certified Mastercraftsman and DSWA*-certified instructor, Dan Snow leads workshops, talks and presentations —both here in North America and abroad— passing along his drystone walling and artistic knowledge to eager students the world over.

Fortunately, Dan is as generous with his time and talents as he is a gifted and sought-after artist and teacher. I caught up with the artist recently —on a blisteringly-cold December afternoon a couple of weeks back— and asked about visiting a few of his works for a blog-feature. Much to my surprise, Dan offered me the very enviable opportunity to take a local, personally guided tour of his work. Visiting these amazing works of art —and having the opportunity to skip, hop, crawl, walk in, on and around them with their creator— was more fun than I can possibly describe. In addition to his many talents, Dan Snow is also just-plain-good company, and his playful, unassuming nature —so evident in all of his work— made the afternoon both a delightful and educational experience.

The Beautifully Framed View from Within ‘Archer’s Pavilion’

My tour began and ended with stone work created by Dan Snow over a twenty-five-year time span, for three different collectors. Although Dan has built numerous freestanding stone walls, retaining walls, and other practical landscape features (many documented here on this blog) our tour focused on his stone sculpture and land art. Many of the artist’s stone constructions invite physical participation, and ‘Archer’s Pavilion’ (pictured at the top of the page and just above) is a perfect example of this. Although located on private property, this piece sits near the edge of the road, and is well-known and much-loved by locals; particularly children. In his book Listening to Stone, Dan notes that some of his young fans refer to this sculpture as “The Tooth Fairy’s House” when they pass it on their way to and from school. I’m certain that these daily views of ‘Archer’s Pavilion’ inspire a great deal of day dreaming throughout the school day. This fantastical creation is one of my favorites as well. While seated inside the tiny stone tent, reflecting upon the beautifully framed landscape beyond, it occurred to me how —much like other master works of art— the piece seems both impossibly complex and maddeningly effortless. Despite the weight of the stone and the hours of intense physical labor involved in their construction, Dan’s creations always appear as if magically dreamed into existence. It’s a wonderful, and completely mind-boggling paradox.

Stone Sphere. A hollow-centered orb sitting at the far edge of a wind-swept field.

Star Shrine. Inspired by Japanese ‘Hoshi Jinja’, created to house and worship fallen meteors, this is also one of my favorite pieces.

Pyramid. The bright red-orange color of bittersweet berries adds a bit of natural poetry to this study in contrasts. Here, Dan has used round field stone to create a remarkable work of geometry; all straight planes and angles.

Because he works in stone, and his pieces are anchored to the land, the connection to nature is inseparable from Dan Snow’s work. But many other elements and influences are also at play, as evidenced by the diverse works pictured here. Stories about the inspiration and creation of the individual pieces, collected in Dan’s books, are as fascinating as the stonework itself.  “Star Shrine” (above) and “The Keep” (below) were both created in response to works of land art in other cultures. As Dan and I walked to the far end of a stark and barren field —the perfect gallery for his work— a large grouping of boulders called out. I remembered hearing about this piece long ago, and I had the vague recollection that there was some connection to historic tombs.

As it turns out, Dan’s collectors had been traveling in Ireland when they encountered what he describes as a ‘megalithic tomb’. Upon their return, they asked Dan if he would construct a similar structure for them on their property. Portal tombs, or stone burial chambers, exist throughout the world and are known by a variety of common names; including dolmens, stazzone, hunebed, cromlech, dysse and others. These structures share some common characteristics, such as upright stone ‘orthostats’ and large, cap-stone roofs. There are no human remains located in ‘The Keep’, though it is a fantastic and haunting work of art, as well as a fabulous playground for the living.

Entrance – The Keep

The Keep

Inside ‘The Keep’, Looking Out at Woodland’s Edge

Although Dan is often commissioned to create functional objects —benches, fire pits and bridges among them— the utilitarian purpose of these projects is merely a launch point for this artist’s imaginative interpretation of the structure. A bench is simply a place to sit, but a work of art designed for seating is an entirely different thing. The gravity-defying beauty of Dan’s arched, stone foot-bridge, and the fascinating, flame-mimicking points of his fire sculpture, make it clear that in the hands of a master, art need never play second fiddle to craft.

Stone Seating Area

Fire Sculpture

Arched Footbridge

Not only do Dan’s stone creations blur the culturally designated line between art and craft, but many of his environmental art pieces also challenge conventional, Western ideas about what it means to have a garden. Located on the same Brookside property as the ‘Arched Footbridge’ and ‘Star Shrine’, a beautiful and meticulously maintained dry garden sits at woodland’s edge. Most European and American gardeners and landscape designers have fixed ideas about what defines a garden. For many such traditionalists, horticulture must be the primary focus in an outdoor space in order to meet the definition of ‘garden’. And although xeriscaping and rock gardens have become more commonplace over the past twenty years —mostly in response to ecological factors like water conservation and the rise of minimalist aesthetics— dry gardens are still relatively scarce in North America.

Of course in the larger world, ideas about gardening are as varied as the cultures in which this activity takes place. Japanese gardeners mastered the art the dry garden long ago, and in the traditional Zen garden —where the stone itself becomes a distilled, symbolic landscape— these three-dimensional, highly disciplined works of art become the focus, not the backdrop, of the garden. In Listening to Stone, Dan describes how he came to accept a commission for an Asian-inspired dry garden in Vermont, and an inspirational encounter with his Japanese friend and former student, Taheshi Hammana. This is one of my favorite essays in the collection; perfectly describing the yin-yang relationship between student and teacher, and how in the best of circumstances, the learning flows both ways. Like many of Snow’s stories, this one reveals an essential part of the multilayered process art making, and how individual experiences develop and shape that process, and the artist himself.

Dry Garden Detail – In a traditional Zen garden, each object within the composition represents a corresponding object in nature.

Dan Snow’s Modern American Dry Garden, Inspired by Japanese Tradition

Dry Garden Detail. Vertically set stones represent the edge of the raked stone ‘water’.

As daylight began to fade, Dan and I made our way to the last stop on our short tour. Located on this private property are two large, physically engaging works. Dan’s ‘Walking Wall’, which spans the length of the field and is comprised of both restoration and new stone work, and ‘Rock Shelter’ were created to draw the landowner out for a stroll. The story of how these two related pieces came to be, and their connection to the history of the place, adds to the poetic beauty of both works. Does the collector stroll upon the ‘Walking Wall’, and pause for a rest beneath the roof of ‘Rock Shelter’? Based upon my experience there, scrambling atop the stone lean-to roof with Dan and skipping along the trio of bridges at the start of the long wall, I imagine the owner must regularly visit and delight in his private playground…

Walking Wall

Walking Wall

Rock Shelter at Twilight

Rock Shelter – Front Side View

Rock Shelter – Backside View

Dan Snow atop his ‘Rock Shelter’ piece in Vermont – December, 2010

This amazing collection of stone work offers only the tiniest of peeks into the world and work of Dan Snow. But if this short, virtual tour has sparked your interest and imagination, you may be interested in viewing ‘Stone Rising’, a beautifully filmed documentary of Dan’s work and process, available for purchase through Fuzzy Slippers Productions (online here). Dan’s schedule of workshops and lectures can be found on his blog (here), and his books, “In the Company of Stone” and “Listening to Stone” are both available online from Amazon.com as well as at Barnes & Noble, Borders and most independent book stores.

Although much of Dan’s work is held in private collections —with some properties occasionally opened for tours of the artist’s work— several pieces exist in public locations; including collaborative works at Kansas State University, and the English Harbor Arts Centre, Newfoundland, Canada. Recently, Dan created a stone seating sculpture, “Rock Rest” (pictured below) for the new Brattleboro Museum and Art Center Sculpture Garden. This new public garden —which I designed as part of a volunteer project honoring Linda Rubinstein and Dan Freed for their life-long contributions to the arts in this community— will break ground in spring of this year. Dan is currently seeking a sponsor for this work of art, in hopes that it will be installed for the enjoyment of the public (the Brattleboro Museum is located at the far, southeast corner of the state; where the Vermont line meets the southwestern tip of New Hampshire and the northwest boundary of Massachusetts). If you are interested in sponsoring this work of art (pictured below) —or know of a potential sponsor— please contact Dan Snow via his website, In the Company of Stone.

Rock Rest – Photograph ⓒ Dan Snow

Notes and Links of Interest:

* DSWA is an acronym for the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, linked here.

The Drystone Conservancy – Lexington, Kentucky

The Drystone Guild of Canada

“Stone Rising” Clip on YouTube

Dan Snow’s Blog – In the Company of Stone

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A Very Special, Heart-Felt Thank You to Dan Snow and Elin Waagen, for Your Time, Generosity and Friendship.

Article and Photographs (exception noted) are copyright 2010, Michaela Medina at The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used for any purpose without my consent.

All content on this site, with noted exceptions, is the property of The Gardener’s Eden Online Journal, and my not be used or reproduced without express written permission.

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Design Inspiration: A lesson in planning, editing and restraint… my visit to the private garden of Phyllis Odessey and Peter Mauss.

July 24th, 2009 § Comments Off on Design Inspiration: A lesson in planning, editing and restraint… my visit to the private garden of Phyllis Odessey and Peter Mauss. § permalink

phyllis' garden

~ The Stone Garden House sculpture, by artist Dan Snow, at the  Mauss~Odessey Garden

Beautiful, isn’t it? Visiting this magical garden last weekend, created by my friends Phyllis and Peter, was truly inspirational. Phyllis Odessey is an incredibly talented garden designer with a knack for making large open spaces seem both intimate and calm. Her beautiful garden seduces with serpentine, alluring paths, dramatic sculpture, unusual specimen trees and shrubs, and sweeping plantings in a serene palette. Over the course of many years, Phyllis and Peter have created a living work of art on their property. This is my favorite kind of garden; designed with a singular vision, and developed patiently over time. It seems that each time I visit, a new area has been developed or refined, and yet the garden always retains its overall harmony. This garden is a perfect example of how to grow a space slowly, while maintaining an overall sense of garden style.

Even for professional gardeners and designers, it is difficult to practice restraint with plantings. Phyllis is an excellent editor, and this is one of the reasons her garden is such a success. While strolling down her newly laid stone path, (yes, she did it herself), I was impressed with the artistry of the flowing line, and the way the new walkway was planned to separate and edge a sweep of bearberry, (arctostaphylos uva-ursi), from the rest of the garden. Overall, this garden is large, and yet it is never overwhelming to the eye. Why is this? Careful observation reveals one of the keys to success is mass plantings of carefully chosen perennials in a limited palette. The Mauss-Odessey garden is a perfect example of how to successfully manage a large space.

I visit many private gardens as a consultant, and the most common design dilemma I encounter is a lack of over-all structure and flow. Many gardeners have a habit of visiting nurseries and plant sales on impulse, falling in love with a half dozen or more plants, and bringing them all home. Once back in the garden, things are hastily planted without a plan and quickly forgotten. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The end result of this compulsive shopping is often a patchwork quilt carved out of lawn; a chaotic hodge-podge rather than a soothing garden. Sometimes, a gardener is lucky enough to have an intuitive sense of space. When this happens, (and it is rare), the plant collecting becomes a whimsical but orderly garden. For most people however, it is essential to plan out a space before planting gardens, in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed and disappointed later on.

When trying to create a sense of calm in your garden, it is wise to take a cue from successful designers like Phyllis Odessey. Look at your space carefully before you head out to the garden center. Are you in the habit of buying one of this or two of that on impulse? The next time you are tempted by a plant sale, try to remind yourself of the photographs pictured here. When shopping for plants, instead of buying 14 different perennials, try buying at least seven of one kind. In order to do this, of course, you will need to do a bit of planning first. Know the size of your space. Take measurements and sketch an outline of your garden. Check your soil condition and sunlight.  Make a rough plan to help guide you in your purchases and keep it in your wallet. This will be the first step in training yourself to practice the kind of restraint you need to in order to create a garden like the one pictured here.

Considering vertical space is another important aspect of successful garden design. In a garden of any size, it is critical to think beyond ground level. Shrubs, trees, vines and structures are essential to three dimensional garden space. Many works of art are included in Phyllis and Peter’s garden. Some of the artistic structures were created by the gardeners themselves, and other pieces were created by friends. There are hydrangea-wound pergolas and kiwi vine-clad-huts throughout the garden to stroll through and pause beneath. Living works of art, such as a weeping larch and pendulous beech, are used as dramatic focal points, drawing the eye up and out. Weight and substance are given to this garden with the addition of stonework. A large sculpture, pictured above, was created as a major garden feature by artist Dan Snow.  The mass of this dark and mysterious shelter is softened by airy cat mint (nepeta), sage and delicate meadow rue (thalictrum). Climbing hydrangea, (h. petiolaris), planted on the reverse of the structure, is slowly winding its way over the top, lending an organic touch to the stone.

When I returned home from this spectacular garden I was filled with a sense of calm, (I am sure the champagne helped with this as well), and a determination to practice more restraint in my own space through careful editing. I have resolved to look around with a critical eye. Is something weak or dying? Time to get ruthless. And what about that long, chaotic border/holding tank? Time for some editing this fall.  Visiting a well-designed garden is always an inspiration, and a great-way to jump-start new plans for your own space.

phyllis garden 3

~ Masses of perennials in rich colors make for a dynamic, yet soothing garden experience ~

phyllis garden 2

~  One of the softly curving paths winding through the Mauss-Odessey garden ~

phyllis garden, upside down leaf

~ Turned~Leaf Sculpture by artist Dan Snow ~

For more information about Phyllis Odessey, and her design process, visit her website and blog at www.phyllisodessey.com. Peter Mauss and Dan Snow have collaborated on two beautiful and inspirational books, In the Company of Stone, and Listening to Stone. Both of these books are available through independent book sellers, and Amazon online. Interested in reading more about stone work? I hope to feature an article on the subject later this year. Stay tuned.

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~ Article and photographs copyright Michaela H. 2009 ~

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