Artist Gardens: How Plants Are Helping Artists Get Through The Pandemic

Artist Gardens: How Plants Are Helping Artists Get Through The Pandemic

It may be month five of the unending apocalypse, but my plants look wonderful. As the outside world gets more chaotic and cynical, I’ve felt an intense need to withdraw within and have found refuge with my plants and books of the great artist gardens of the past. As I flip between social media apps, I notice I’m not the only artist feeling this way.

Artists have always created their own flora-filled sanctuaries. Artist gardens can often be key to understanding a creative's true aesthetic vision.

Frida Kahlo’s home garden at Casa Azul in Mexico is still filled with the fruit trees that she often used as references for her paintings. Georgia O’Keefe’s organic garden at Ghost Ranch, planted out of necessity in New Mexico, thrives to this day. And who can forget Monet’s iconic sprawling gardens at Giverny?

So, what is it about planting and gardening that makes it so appealing to artists? I asked some local artists their thoughts on the power of plants. (But first, myself).

Artist Rachel O'Donnell with her plants
Rachel + Her Plants

Neither of my parents work in a creative field, however, my mother always spent hours planting in our backyard during the weekend growing up. Gardening has now become a great way for us to find common ground and connect when we have such different lives and interests.

Artist Garden: Cheyne Ellett

California artist, Cheyne Ellett, has also found that gardening is a great way to connect with his family history.

“…my great grandfather was a sugar beet farmer in Montana, my grandfather had a large variety of citrus trees here in Southern California before he passed, and my mom had a huge garden before she divorced. The tactility of moving material with my hands, be it pigment or soil, is something I definitely love”.

Old family photo of artist Cheyne Ellet's family farm
Old family photo of artist Cheyne Ellett's family farm

Artist Gardens: Luke Pelletier

There is also a true sense of self-care with nurturing plants. Artist and musician, Luke Pelletier, has found a new interest with his two-year-old lime tree named, Elvis, and a lemon tree (grown from a cocktail lemon’s seed) named, Lisa, during quarantine.

Luke Pelletier + HIs Plant Elvis
Luke Pelletier + HIs Plants Elvis and Lisa

“I’m at home every day. It’s just nice to see something grow and change a little every day. It’s become part of my daily ritual”. — Luke Pelletier

For myself, creating routine, (I.e. get up and water the plants before 10am) has become a very positive force in my life as I float aimlessly, laid off from work and with all art world events and shows circling the drain.

To fully air out my crazy, 2020 has further underlined how dependent I am on unreliable systems. With America tearing at the seams, I can’t help but consider how and if I could survive without modern conveniences. I often semi-jokingly tell my friends that I’m going to move to the woods if “x” happens and create a raccoon rescue and farm. But do I even know how to keep a plant alive, never mind, raise crops? My basil, cilantro and tomato plants (and soon my pumpkins) give me small comfort that I can create my own food source. These are dark times and I’m happy to soothe my fears, even if only superficially with thriving potted plants. It’s also very satisfying to be able to feed my favorite bun-bun, Bob, with plants I have lovingly grown just for him.

Plants by painter and sculptor, Orrin Whalen
Plants by painter and sculptor, Orrin Whalen

Artist Gardens: Orrin Whalen

Planting and nurturing a garden is deeply therapeutic and meditative. Painter and sculptor, Orrin Whalen, has filled his apartment with a variety of succulents and homey house plants and jokes

"…I got into plants because they're easier than children”. He also adds, “I think the state of the world we live in right now is obviously torn with chaos. I find my plants help bring moments of stillness and peace to my life. Here are these living things that don't seem to be alive since they aren't living or breathing yet they react to the environment and resources provided. Ever so slowly you can see their progress. I'm also fascinated with the different processes by which plants pollinate and keep themselves alive”.

Why Artist Gardens

So, why am I talking about artists and plants instead of giving timely artistic advice? The art world has taken massive hit from the pandemic. Many art galleries were already struggling in a world that has shifted buying power from brick and mortar to the online world. Mega-money art world events like Art Baseland Frieze will find it difficult to fill convention centers for art fairs. As an artist, I can only say that we are still in the free fall of historic changes and I cannot offer advice on advancing an art career when I, myself, feel that my art career is simply treading water.

I wrote about plants this month because I wanted to share one of the few life-preservers I’ve been able to find with my fellow creatives. Yes, I’m still painting and making work, as are the three artists I mentioned in this piece, but the outlook has shifted. My mornings start with watering the plants and making peace with patience before heading to the studio to create work that may never see a gallery wall or in-person opening for years. I still tend to my artistic practice, not knowing when or if there will be a ‘harvest’ and gardening has taught me how to how to be okay with that.

Paintings inspired by Cheyne Ellet's Sunflowers
Paintings inspired by Cheyne Ellet's Sunflowers