Where do ideas come from?
Recently I’ve been working on a talk about using reflecting surfaces in gardens – things like mirrors, water, metal and glass. In the process, I’ve been thinking about gardens in a general way. What is the point of adding a reflecting surface to a garden – a piece of shiny metal, for example? Are the risks of a reflected glare worth whatever magic happens when you see the real thing and its reflection simultaneously?
More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a reflection, both the literal and the metaphoric kind. And doing that, I’ve been thinking about my own garden, remembering why I made this choice or that, thinking about what I still hope to do, and why.
In other words, I’ve been reflecting.
When I first began work on the garden at Glen Villa, I had very few ideas of what I wanted to accomplish. I knew I didn’t want a formal garden – that seemed out of place in a rural setting — so the existing rose garden was turned into lawn. I thought I was aiming for a natural landscape. (I now believe such things are fictions.) but what looked natural was vaguely dissatisfying. I wanted more. I wanted to improve on nature, to make it more floriferous, prettier. The trouble was, I didn’t know how.
So I began to read – books, magazines, garden catalogues, anything I could get my hands on. What I read was inspirational. What I saw was even more so. The photo on the front of a garden catalogue inspired the colour combination that became the dragon’s tail.
The sinuous curves of Fletcher Steele’s rose beds at Naumkeag inspired the shape.
An article in the Montreal Gazette show-cased a new area at the Montreal Botanical Garden. As soon as I saw it, I knew how to use the pieces of broken and burnt china I had found exploring the woods.
Those shards became part of the China Terrace, a re-imagined version of the hotel that burned down in 1909.
I always knew that my ideas were inspired by the work of others. At first this embarrassed me. I felt I was cheating somehow, not being original enough. But soon I realized that using other people’s ideas wasn’t cheating. It was doing what people have done for millenia, taking one idea and transforming it into another. Copying didn’t produce a duplicate, it produced something new, something that was my own.
Almost anything can be an inspiration if we open our minds to the possibilities. (I rule out muses, however.) Shadows on a sidewalk made me wonder if I could incorporate fleeting sensations into a garden setting in a permanent way. ( I haven’t yet figured out how. Something to do with sound might work.) An Australian novel whose name I forget inspired me to think about a sign we see in malls or on place maps all over the world. The little red dot that indicates ‘You Are Here’ determined the colour and shape of the place-making signs that became guides for the art installation In Transit/En Route.
Copying other people’s ideas is a long and honourable tradition in garden design — and in many other spheres. The dining table at Villa Lante in Italy was inspired by descriptions of ancient Roman gardens.
Did that table in turn inspire a similar one at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania?
The source of inspiration seems less important to me now than what it leads to. A column is a traditional way to recognize and honour a hero. Think of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, or any one of many other memorializing columns around the world.
When my husband retired as a journalist, after many years of writing a newspaper column, I was inspired to make a column for him. The shape is traditional, the materials contemporary. And appropriate — the glass column is filled with a stack of newspapers.
I made it for him, but what it reflects is me.
Reflecting on reflections, I remember the old saying, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation, copying, duplication: what are they except different types of reflections?
And perhaps, more interesting than the literal ones.