February 18, 2010


An Exotic Landscape by Henri Rousseau

A Primitive Landscape by Mother Nature

A primitive landscape by moi

I'm what is known in the art world as a primitive , or self-taught painter. You can also call me a primitive garden designer because I don't have a diploma in that field either.

One of my early influences was primitive French artist Henri Rousseau, who also held a day job and didn't start painting until he retired. I did a kinda Rousseau-like painting as a gift to my daughter, Cathy, the floral designer, and she hung it on the wall of her shop. A regular customer admired it and asked if it was for sale. She was told no but continued to press Cathy until she was at her wit's end, and thinking to stop it once and for all , said okay it's yours for $400. Plop. Four crisp new one hundred dollar bills. Sold!

Cathy brought the proceeds to me and told me the story. I was flabbergasted but a little light went off in my head that gave me the idea that I'd better get serious with my art. Which I did and although I'll probably never be famous I am happy that I as an emerging artist got my own one-woman show that sold a large body of my work. I've been painting and exhibiting in the off-season ( winter ) ever since.

I've been a gardener and artist since I was very young but life kind of got in the way -marriage, kids, a full-time job and my two passions were put on the back burner. But then kids grow up and move away and you suddenly find you have time of your own. So off I go to the UK on a tour and got to see so many wonderful gardens. My favorites were the simple but beautiful cottage gardens in the countryside.

I came back to the dull landscapes of many a frontyard in Chicago with the determination to do mine over, starting with the backyard which was a burial ground for my German Shepherd's favorite bones. After finishing my new garden I made a photo of it and sent it in to the highly competitive Chicago Tribune's " Glorious Gardens " contest. One Sunday morning while reading the garden section I was stunned to see that I had been given the " Garden as Canvas " award for garden artistry.

And then the phone started ringing and people wanted advice and help , which I gave. Then another light went off in my head ( yeah I know, the electric company's gonna start billing soon ) and I thought, I can do this. After all, the most popular and beloved artist in the world , Monet, planted gardens just so he could paint them and they still remains one of his greatest masterpieces. So I feverishly pursued the knowledge of plants and garden design .

I've learned so much working at the nearby garden center and mingling with other designers. I take great pride in doing a job well and will never resort to the "cookie cutter" designs that some do to just to make a fast buck. From youth, I was taught that maintaining a good reputation is important and I've always done my best to live by that tenet . As a result I've never had to advertise.

I've visited gardens I installed when I first started my business years ago and the client is still as happy with them as the day they were done. I'm a real stickler for correctly placing plants so they won't out- grow their space. I also go for a garden with maximum year-round interest (and yes, that means evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs ) as well as plants that are not only hardy for our harsh winters but go double-duty with colorful foliage and flowers.

I'm not ready to slow down even though I retired from my day job almost 12 years ago and took up garden design and art. I've just been temporarily sidelined by the arrival of my first grandchild, an adorable little girl named Lea who I call " sweetpea ". Looking after an infant full-time is quite frankly, a demanding job but one that I've enjoyed for the past year. If you want to keep young try running after a 15-month-old 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.

It is time for me to train the next generation in the fine art of gardening and painting. Is there anything more charming than the primitive art of children or a colorful wildflower garden sprung up from seeds a young child broadcast in early Spring.

Written by Carolyngail at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago
All rights reserved


  1. Carolyn, how timely,I was just at the Art Institute and saw several paintings by Henri Rousseau. From my art history days I remember him as being from the wild side, not just in his paintings. The Matisse collection is on tap for next month.

    Keep up the great job relating art to the garden!


  2. Way to go, Caroline! I need to get serious, too... I've been "hankering" a lot, lately!

  3. Thanks, Eileen. Gotta catch that Matisse for sure.

  4. Hankering and aiming, Shady is what we Southerners do best :-)

  5. It needs a better adjective than 'primitive' -- for now we'll make do with beautiful.


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