In a twist of fate, I had not realized that the Kate who had waited on our table during my February trip in Portland was a talented artist herself! Only a month later did I happened on her floral prints in her Instagram account. Her webpage is as colorful and cheerful as her personality, and Kate recently launched her online shop selling a few prints (I particularly like the Euphorbia print).
I’m Preston Montague, and I describe myself as an artist who designs experiences in the landscape. Horticulture is one of the tools I use to make them happen.
For those that don’t know, can you share a bit of your background?
I developed a passion for the natural world while growing up in the foothills of Virginia and now work as an artist, educator, and landscape designer. I learned to express myself as a child through the visual arts and focused mostly on drawing the landforms, plants, and animals of the Shenandoah Valley. I was introduced to gardening in my 20’s while pursuing a degree in painting. At the time my gardening friends were interior designers, punks, and Quakers. They taught me that a gardener aught to have a sense of taste, a suspicion of convention, and an interest in social responsibility. Since those formative gardening years I’ve attained degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture, and have begun a career in landscape design. Though the latter takes up a lot of my bandwidth, I also make time to teach botanical illustration and environmental awareness. I like to think that so many of our ills and woes come from a lack of meaningful, physical contact with nature. Encouraging contact with nature, particularly through the exploration of art, design, and gardening, helps me understand myself and has turned me into a proselytizer for the outdoors. I recognize nature’s ability to moderate the dangerous gift of digital life, and I advocate for an equal investment in one’s visceral contact with the biotic world.
One of my most treasured gardening memories has to be my first designed landscape. When I was six, I had a place under a dogwood tree where I played with Star Wars figures. I transformed that little space into an alien planet by digging craters in the blood‐red soil and transplanting cedar seedlings from the surrounding forest along their edges. I often dragged the hose to the spot and filled the craters with water, making frothy lakes that somewhat resembled Yoda’s home planet. During these intergalactic episodes, snacks were inevitably dropped and left to compost as well as leaves brought in to bury characters that had died. I haven’t visited the spot in twenty years, but I’m sure there’s a handsome cedar growing there that benefited from the enrichment of soil and a child’s imagination. Perhaps Chewbacca is still there too half‐embedded in that tree.
What about the first time you were captivated by a piece of Art or a color?
I’m really bad at convention. As an approach to life it has never really worked for me. I remember being very suspicious of convention early on when I learned that boys weren’t supposed to like pink. I remember making a big deal about pink being my favorite color one time at a birthday party. I explained the many outstanding qualities of the color to the other boys, but they weren’t convinced. I’d like to think I was fighting the good fight for critical thinking, but I was probably just enjoying being contrary.
You first became a painter and then, later, turned to horticulture. In what way was this progression beneficial, how do you feel the former help shape the latter?
I was raised a painter. Though I was technically gifted, I didn’t feel like my early work said anything more than, “hey, isn’t this pretty.” When I left school I was deeply self-conscious about that and hesitated to paint for fear of only being able to produce beautiful one-liners.
Looking back, I realize that I was always depicting the gorgeousness of the landscape or some natural phenomena from a distance. Horticulture forced me to zoom in and understand not only the large processes of nature, but the minute ones as well. With new insight into the machinations of nature, I felt like my work had more to add to the conversation. Horticulture gave my artwork a much bigger vocabulary. Conversely, art training informed my landscape design and this reciprocal relationship between art and horticulture caused both to grow and bloom.
In creating a space of your own, in what order of importance do you place the following design principles from a visual standpoint. Color, shape, texture, space, form, scale/proportion. What is the foremost important principle to you in descending order to the least?
- Shape, form, scale/proportion
When painting, what subjects catch your eye most?
Light has a funny way of creating relationships between things. It zooms in from the sky at… well, the speed of light I suppose. The photons crash into things without any artistic sensibility and we create meaning from the interplay of forms, colors, and textures that then bounce against our retinas. It’s extraordinary our ability as humans to abstract this phenomenon into stories and elicit a desired response. As a visual artist, I’m most interested in light as a subject.
When painting a landscape, what must it possess or what qualities are necessary for it to become your subject?
With any painting, landscape or otherwise, the subject(s) must inspire an emotional response in me. Additionally, communicating that feeling must also be appropriate through painting. If painting is the wrong language, I just take a photograph or log the experience in my journal.
You have an incredible talent for botanical Illustration and I love looking at the work you create. What is the Old North Alphabet and what prompted you to create this series?
Thank you, James. The Old North Alphabet is a series of 26 botanical illustrations featuring plants historically native to North Carolina that have traditionally been used for food or medicine (view here). Loosely shaped into the first letter of their common name, each plant exhibits its seasonality as well as associated animals and insects. I draw the plants from life, usually scouting them out with friends first and then camping by them for a weekend. Spending that sort of time with a plant in the wild yields surprise encounters with wildlife that often find their way into the illustrations.
The Old North Alphabet is part of a larger initiative designed to foster environmental awareness and natural science literacy through art and storytelling. The project emerged out of a budding interest in ethnobotany, which is the study of relationships between humans and plants. As an aspiring landscape architect primarily interested in how plants shape places and experiences, ethnobotany (particularly the folklore of plants) provides me some insight into how plants have historically impacted our imaginations. Evoking the imagination is my primary goal in landscape design, and is a priority largely inspired by my background as an artist.
Drawing and painting in plein air come with its own set of variables, so when you find a particular plant that you do want to sit and sketch, do you have a process, routine or formula that that you have found over time works best for you? Certain materials that you prefer to work with?
Many of the plants I draw require stable, mature environments to thrive in and simply aren’t found in the urban and suburban places I choose to live. Because of this circumstance, I usually have to travel long distances and into rather tough terrain to find specimens. Hiking into these environments and setting up a studio can be very challenging, so I choose colored pencils as a medium because of their portability and resistance to rain and humidity.
Before I embark on my journey I do loads of research on the plant as well as some preliminary sketches from photographs to become familiar with the plant’s structure and habits. Rarely do I find a specimen exhibiting a range of seasonal characteristics, so I try and catch them at some sort of peak (flowering, fall color, etc.) and work the composition around that moment. Drawing the specimen en plein air can be like a performance. You have to be in the “now” and ready to react to all sorts of surprises as nature rarely allows for an entire day without some sort of weather-related interruption. Often I’ll bring a stack of photographs gathered from books and the Internet to help guide my drawing. But, I rely on the plant in situ to provide me with the story.
There are many images in my head in my head when you talk about these surprise encounters you have had while working on your illustrations. Can you share a favorite memorable experience you like to revisit in your mind from time to time?
When I first began the project, I envisioned it as a very strict, academic study of plant structures. But, as I began drawing the plants from life I realized that each specimen had layers upon layers of structures that related to one another and to the environment in which they grew. Isolating a plant from its surrounding environment soon began to feel artificial, fundamentalist, and less engaging. So, I began considering the addition of companion plants, or even the visualization of invisible forces like wind and time. But, as I was sitting beside a mountain stream drawing Yellowroot and considering how to relate my subjects to their surrounding environment, a chance encounter happened.
After four hours of quiet drawing I had become essentially invisible and at one with the forest and the stream. The clouds broke and the pounding sunlight summoned a swarm of metallic-green damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) to the scene. With complete disregard to my presence they began to chase one another in dizzying patterns, the males stopping occasionally to slowly flap their wings in a contrived manner that resembled bicep-flexing. At one point a damselfly alighted on my drawing, had a “gun show” moment, then turned to me as if to say, “C’mon dude, wake up. There’s more to life than just plants.” A few moments passed and the clouds returned, swallowing the sun and shutting down the disco that had suddenly erupted around me. In that moment I realized that I was doing a disservice to the project’s narrative by illustrating plants in a vacuum. The point of the project is not the subjugation of plants with an interesting stories. Instead, this is a project about the evolving relationship between people and plants.
In regards to ethnobotany, can you share with us a plant that has interesting folklore and a surprising story to tell?
The project involves a great deal of storytelling, and one of my favorite stories is about the mysterious indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). Indian pipes emerge from the forest floor as translucent, scaly fingers with a characteristic bend that resembles Native American peace pipes. Often confused with fungi, these plants are actually related to azaleas. Indian pipes are parasitic and get their food not from sunlight as most plants do, but from the roots of Beech trees. This strategy limits their range to that of their host, but allows them to grow in dark, understory conditions that other plants might not be able to survive. Because they feed on surplus nutrients from the Beech, indian pipes do not need to grow branches and leaves, further separating them from their more familiar relatives. The part of the plant you see is actually the flower, and has historically been harvested as an ointment for eye infections. The Cherokee believed them to grow in a place where a quarrel happened and a peace pipe smoked before a resolution over the disagreement was made. Wild, right?!
Gardens public or private, what inspires you?
I am most inspired now by landscapes where man’s intervention is reduced to suggestion and whose experiences are too powerful, too complicated, and too nuanced to have been designed in CAD. Nature, take the wheel (or in this case, the mouse). My favorite garden is a 10,000‐acre granite bowl in the southern mountains of North Carolina called Panthertown Valley. The generous precipitation and temperate climate of the area makes plant life in the valley explode with the diversity of a tropical rainforest. The terrain is equally diverse, leaping from squishy lowland bogs to soaring granite cliffs in a matter of yards. Panthertown is a nature mirrorball. The diversity of Panthertown’s terrain yields a wide range of experiences, and has a rhythm between them quick enough to compete with the highstimulus circus of digital life. Because of these factors, I consider Panthertown on par with the greatest of the world’s botanical gardens. Though considered by most to be “wild,” Panthertown is a garden. It is just as planned and cultivated as any other environment in North Carolina (the world, for that matter). But, the only traces of man are the odd trail marker and footbridge. Otherwise, the garden is left to evolve on its own and exhibit the great, ever‐solving math equation I believe nature to be.
You are left alone on an island and can choose one plant and one piece of art to keep with you, what would you choose?
I’d be content to spend my time on a deserted island whistling and growing strawberries.
My dream project is my career: working to improve public health through art, environmental education, and landscape design.
Do you have specific sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?
I like to express myself creatively in the outdoors. The truths there seem somehow truthier, and nature’s indifference to my little version of reality gives me the freedom to just “be.” That’s a powerful state, and from “being” I find the encouragement and inspiration to risk self‐expression.
Hmm… an enduring legacy, let’s see… I’d like to say, “…help people live healthier lives through education and increased activity outdoors.” Honestly though, all my work may simply be motivated by an inner ten-year-old trying to encourage people to love nature more so they’ll come poke around the forests and creeks with me.
Leave us with a quote you admire often..
I have a running list of quotes in my journal that I could share, but perhaps the most important one to me at the moment is a popular meme making rounds on the Internet that reads, “Old ways won’t open new doors.” I’ve scrawled this on the inside of my front door recently so that I read it every time I leave the house. I haven’t heard any feedback on it from guests yet, but the UPS man said it made me look crazy. “Crazy for change,” I told him.
Thank you Preston for your time and openness during this interview, it was a pleasure to learn more about you, your motivations and your passions. Thanks for inspiring the rest of us.. – James
All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the city is grim.- Christopher Morley, an American novelist, journalist, essayist and poet.
We met through a mutual friend during my time as a student at the Jerusalem Botanic Garden in Israel. Bonding instantly, we often spoke excitedly about many topics, creativity, art, plants and of course, Israel. Shortly after meeting, Shira and I discovered we shared the same birthday and she has been a talented friend and inspiration ever since.
How was it that you came to the realization you had a passion for jewelry design?
My passion for jewellery and adornment has been present since childhood. I was making pieces from whatever materials were available, from beads to threads and used colorful electric wires. But there was an ideal I grew up with; my maternal grandfather was a jeweler, never professionally, but that was his dream. His life was too hard to follow on it, though. You see, he was born in Poland and as an adolescent he went through the Holocaust. He moved to Israel as a young man, the country itself was very young and poor too, and he needed to get a proper job. So he became a blacksmith and as a hobby he also made some beautiful metal work, as well as some jewellery for my grandmother and mother. I, myself, never knew him, he died before I turned a year old, but I was always surrounded by things that I knew that he made. The idea then fascinated me, so I went on to study it, both to feel closer to that man I didn’t know and to understand how I can create such magical, shiny things myself.
What was the progression from studying at school to arriving at Vanilla Ink Studios?
I graduated with a BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, in 2008 but five years passed and I was not doing anything jewellery-wise. My degree show was called “A pearl necklace” and it confronts modern ideas of femininity by contradicting materials and ideas of beauty. This project was very successful and was showcased in different locations worldwide. I then moved to London for three years, and had a job at an enamel goods gallery in Mayfair. After London I was living in Israel again, a bit discouraged with life and art, so I studied another profession and got an MA in Gerontology, the study of old age.
Moving to St Andrews was another new start and while checking opportunities available in the area, I found out about Vanilla Ink (click for link) a Dundee based jewellery collective, where we get a bench at a workshop, and receive business development sessions. I was very surprised to get accepted to it as I’m one of eight girls, all the others are Scottish, but I’m sure they liked me being exotic and I saw this as my opportunity to get back into creating.
What current project you are working on?
Being part of Vanilla Ink made me realize I love the craft of jewellery making, but the commercial side of it freaks me out completely…
So this is me trying to get back into art jewellery. It is something I’m still working on, a project called “31”, made of 31 brass beads (I’m now up to 14), each one is hand made individually to the same sort of pod shape, but each one is different in design.
This is a very personal project (I am 31), through which I am trying to grow up and embrace my age and my journeys, drawing inspiration from what I have done in my life, and sort of try and pull myself together. (Video of the bead making process at Vanilla Ink)
At the beginning of the creative process, how does it take shape for you, is it an idea, a series of ideas for a collection, or does it come from organically like seeing an object or image that sets it off?
When I start the creative process usually there is one idea that’s always in the background: to show beauty in imperfections, because nothing is perfect, each of us and each piece should be unique. I collect visual inspiration from different places, Jerusalem, my city of birth, is completely diverse and very inspiring and I’m influenced by the shapes and colors I find in nature, flowers, leafs, seedpods are all part of it; no two are completely alike.
With having moved a number of times in your life and experiencing different countries and cultures, has this affected your design process? Israel is a small but very beautiful country, and I was amazed with how quickly the landscape changes there. With the Mediterranean Sea, the Jerusalem Mountains, the Negev desert and Dead Sea in your presence growing up,have any of these landscapes influenced choice of color and materials? Some designs, like those in the pearl necklace series, reminded me of the flora I had seen in the Negev desert, so do you think there is any subconscious connection to your home?
I think most artists reflect in their works the places they come from and feel most attached to. Israel is very beautiful and has a great variety of landscapes for such a small place, but it can also be quite intense and a difficult place to grow up. Jerusalem and the surrounding mountains have always been a main inspiration. Until I was 26, I never left Jerusalem for more than 3 weeks, and its views and colors are very much with me. Living in London for three years, then the Negev desert for two years, and now in Scotland, I feel I keep coming back to those beloved views of my complex home town, probably in a desperate effort to define and form my identity, which is harder when you keep moving around. I find that the different landscapes, people and culture influence me and my design process, and have added much depth to my creative (and non-creative…) thinking; but in essence I’m still trying to realize where I come from, who I really am, and what I would like to be.
It is interesting how the colors of my pearl necklace collection have reminded you of the Negev desert flora, if I meant it, I am sure it was quite unconsciously done, but I do like that idea! On this project I was working on conflicts and contradictions (which do very much connect to the place I come from), and with working with superb materials such as sterling silver, lovely pearls and raw white wool, part of the conflict needed to come from the choice of colors and materials, and I wanted to contrast them with something that will look almost dirty, something that will take away all their freshness, and that’s when brown, hairy looking materials were brought into the designs.
Has the local landscape or culture in England and Scotland influenced your way of arriving at your ideas or materials?
Since I moved to London, the British culture has been a major influence on me but while living there the only creations I made were baskets. To Scotland I arrived five years after finishing my BFA in Jewellery design, in those five years I was not having anything to do with jewellery, so I am very grateful to Scotland and to Vanilla Ink who accepted me and gave me the opportunity to get back into the world of jewellery and silversmiths. As I returned to this line of work in Scotland, I really think it has influenced my ideas and choices I make; a lot of it comes from comparisons to different places I have lived. Here is the first time in my life that I live right by the sea, so it is bound to have some kind of influence on me in the long term.
Is there a favorite garden, public or private, that you know you will walk away from feeling inspired?
My parents’ garden in Jerusalem, is a pretty little wilderness, with different trees and plants, amazing for such a small garden, but it has everything – from the most fragrant climbing Jasmine, a lovely vine with sweet green grapes, a fig, a cherry and a lemon tree, a great rose with massive white flowers. In springtime, tulips, freesias, narcissus, loads of cyclamens and much more. My family moved to that house just before I was born, and I grew alongside that garden.
The Jerusalem botanical garden is also a lovely gem, with beautiful native plats alongside more exotic ones. In the spring there is an extraordinary display of anemones that will make your heart leap with joy.
But my ultimate public garden simply has to be Great Dixter, since no other place can ever be as beautiful to me as Dixter, which is magical in each and every season. It is very easy to love in the spring when the magnificent tulips are everywhere and everything looks so charming, during summer with the long border just so full of colors and excitement, and autumn with the dahlias and that fantastic mulberry tree they have there. It is in winter when it’s at its most magical, when you can really see how the garden is built and all the trees are just beautiful skeletons.
If you were to be left alone on an island and could have only take one plant and piece of art with you, what would you choose?
It depends; do I need them for survival? I will assume it’s a no and choose pelargonium, as it can sometimes blossom all year long, has bright colors and reminds me of Jerusalem. A work of art is so hard to choose, as I’m not even sure about which medium I would like it to be. I guess it should be a painting, an impressionist work surely, possibly one of Degas ballet dancers or maybe Monet’s poppies field, with the mother and child walking down the hill? They always cheer me up and reaffirm my will to live, but it’s difficult to choose
When not working with jewellery, do you have other creative outlets do you turn to?
I weave baskets, twining and coiling them from soft materials, and find it to be very relaxing. I like photography too, always have, recently joining instagram, which brought back this old love of mine. I enjoy painting, colored pencils and acrylics, sewing, loads of stuff apparently. If I really need a creative outlet and none of the above are available – then I usually bake a banana-chocolate cake…
Thank you Shira for a view into your creative skills and thoughts. If you would like to see more work or contact Shira here is where she can be found:
Film director, stage designer, author, gay rights activist, artist and gardener, Derek Jarman, was a man of many hats. Born in London, 1942 , Jarman was interested in art, poetry and stories, he went on to study at King’s College, Slade School of Fine Art and the University College London. He directed music videos for bands such as The Sex Pistols, Pet Shop Boys, and The Smiths, while also shooting short and feature films. While establishing himself as a film director, Derek Jarman, gave his longtime muse and collaborator, Tilda Swinton, her first role in his film Caravaggio (1986). This is the same year that Derek Jarman was diagnosed as H.I.V. positive, with his illness causing him to leave London and move to Prospect Cottage, a converted fishing hut on the coast of Kent in Dungeness. His paintings sometimes focused on linear compositions and geometric forms within a limited color palette, using only three colors at times (here). Later in his life, his paintings became more dark with heavy color, paint covered the canvas in a less controlled manner and words were scratched into or painted on, words that usually expressed his thoughts and emotions about him being ill. His illness later caused him to go blind, but it did not deter him from continuing to create more work, making a film called Blue, (click to listen while you read), consisting of a blue screen background with a soundtrack overlaying voices, sound effects, and music.
Prospect Cottage is located in the atmospheric surroundings of Dungeness , situated on the coast of Kent, and lays claim to having the largest expanse of shingle in the world. It is not a place for the faint- hearted, and I am sure this is why he loved it, as it is a place for solitude, with not much around except a few fishing huts, the continuous whistling of the wind, the ever present sea spray and the constant humming of the nearby nuclear power plant.
The wooden cottage is a dark timber frame made slightly more enticing by the color yellow painted on windows and door frames. Seen clearly from the road, it arises like a desert mirage, easily standing out against its stark surroundings, with much help from the candy colored garden. The garden, limited by choices of what he was able to grow here, uses a cast of plants content with sharp drainage and that respond well to the warmth of the stones when basking in warm sun. He echoes the simple color palettes of some of his earlier paintings . The front garden is very formal and symmetrical, which lines up with the house, and makes order of an environment that could easily be disproportionate to the vast and open surrounding landscape. Symmetry plays a very important role in some of his works in film and this trick is seen crossing over here into the design of his garden layout.
Liking the magic of surprise, he paid homage to his admiration for poetry on one side of the cottage where raised letters bear the first stanza and the last five lines of John Donne’s poem The Sun Rising , a love poem to the sun in which the sun is reprimanded by the poet.
The Sun Rising
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere
English poet and satirist
Jarman tirelessly carried found objects and flotsam from the beach and shingle dunes back to his garden, creating another layer of character in an already other worldly environment. By installing these wooden pieces upright, we see a continued correlation to his earlier paintings, in which the canvas is pierced with vertical lines painted against the horizon. This correlation is seen in the link provided earlier of his paintings (here – see Avebury Series No. 4, Avebury Series II (1973), Landscape, and Landscape II). The date of completion on some of these paintings predates the design of the garden at Prospect Cottage, and though these wooden pieces are found objects that he did not create, the compositions created in both the paintings and garden are very similar.
Helping to create a natural sense of divide from the garden to the landscape beyond is the yellow blooming shrub, Ulex europea, which only slightly keeps the ominous Dungeness nuclear power plant at bay. Other shrubs played a role here, specifically Santolina, Helichrysum and Ruta graveolens, all silver leafed plants that have adopted a windswept look.
Skeletons of old fisherman boats seemingly buoyant litter the surrounding shingle, stirring up memories of the past, causing you to wonder if there used to be more life and activity in this area at some point. The pink blooms of Centranthus ruber and Crambe maritima, which is found in Dungeness more than anywhere else in the world, help soften the cold harsh landscape.
After encircling the whole of the cottage, you see the front garden again, with Eschscholzia californica creating a carpet of blooms, reseeding enough here that it is almost considered a weed. Derek Jarman, clearly enjoying his new medium, saw his garden as a form of therapy, even asking to leave the hospital at times when he was very sick so he could visit his garden at Prospect Cottage. In February of 1994, Derek Jarman passed away in London due to complications of his illness.
“Paradise haunts garden, and some gardens are paradise. Mine is one of them….”- Derek Jarman, 1942-1994