Anyone who’s attempted to coax a plot of barren soil into a verdant landscape has struggled with garden design. The overall scheme crumbles, or the end result is not what was intended. While there’s no easy path to success, thoughtful planning is a must—along with observation and patience.
But here’s something to ponder: Eye-pleasing private gardens often belong to artists who love plants. Perhaps if we approached landscape projects like a painter with a blank canvas, we’d be more successful at our horticultural endeavors.
Artist Townsend Davidson (townsenddavidson.com) nurtures a small garden that he created in downtown Charleston. Whether he’s tending his plants or creating botanical paintings in his studio, Davidson’s approach to both is always artistically deliberate and extremely thoughtful. He intentionally renders plant characteristics to their most basic form, which enables him to carefully consider line and shape. “The exquisite hand of nature is my main interest,” says Davidson. “Because I can never really render them as nature would, I can at least honor them by studying them.”
Davidson grew up in Virginia’s New River Valley in a bucolic, unincorporated community named Childress. Surrounded by Blue Ridge Mountain flora and a nurturing family, who taught him how to garden, he learned “to become attuned to the power and beauty of the natural world.” He also taught himself how to draw from instructional books given to him by his mother. Visits to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond with his grandmother were always an adventure. However, pressure to become an artist was nonexistent. Instead, it was therapeutic.
After graduating from the College of Charleston (CofC) with degrees in studio art and art history, Davidson maintained a studio at Redux Contemporary Art Center for several years. Since 2009, he has worked from a small studio in his home during the day, and in the evening, he is the CofC photography department’s darkroom lab technician. This arrangement gives him the daytime freedom to study plants, whether in front of the easel or in his garden. (Although he considers himself a painter, Davidson’s studio art degree also includes an academic concentration in photography. He later studied at the Maine Media Workshops + College and Penland School of Craft in North Carolina.)
Describing his garden as “just a little pocket,” Davidson believes that size doesn’t matter. “The concept of interest to me is finding freedom in the prison. The backyard can be tiny, but you can make it enormous. It just takes imagination. It’s similar in the studio. The studio is the garden of the mind, and the garden is where you also cultivate something in the studio. The two are inseparable,” he says.
He paints botanicals on white birch panel, preferring white because it’s neutral. He’s selective about color choices for the plants he paints because “color is saturated with meaning.” Davidson employs a glazing technique where many layers of thin, almost inky oil are applied to the drawing. This process requires unmitigated patience.
Like any serious gardener, Davidson appreciates the importance of correct plant identification. Learning to do this on one’s own takes concerted effort, but he believes that doing so eventually enhances the artistic merit in his work. It also allows him to appreciate the subtle differences of line and form between plant species.
Davidson offers the following advice for anyone who desires to extend their connections with nature: First, even when there is no room for a garden, bring nature to you. Collect pictures, paintings, take up photography or drawing. Explore books about artists, especially ones about Japanese artist Tawaraya Sotatsu (c. 1570 – 1640). Davidson admires the beauty of the natural forms and composition in Sotatsu’s folding screen designs and paintings.
When creating a garden, what should one do first? He suggests taking walks through the neighborhood and staying open to the idea of copying design ideas from other gardens. Become more engaged with the natural world. “Go to forests to see what nature has created,” he says. “There’s a sort of beautiful, random pattern that’s manifest.” But more importantly, take the time to notice what’s growing around you. “Gardening is not necessarily about the outcome. It’s the process. It’s a lifelong activity. The fun is in the doing.”
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.