Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Garden of Souls in the Utopian Heights Neighborhood

Asked to write about the garden of Seattle artists Nancy Mee and Dennis Evans, I was invited to their home and garden last Friday. The visit has kept my thoughts occupied ever since. Filled with art by themselves, their artist friends and artisans from faraway cultures around the world, Nancy's and Dennis's home, ateliers and garden were a visual and intellectual synthesis that merged their passions, interests and work into one seamless, harmonious whole. 

Nancy and Dennis  have been living and making art in their Utopian Heights Studios in the Bryant-Assumption neighborhood in Seattle since 1976. Both are successful, well-established artists - Nancy a sculptor and Dennis a painter - and their creativity touches everything around them.

Nancy and Dennis believe that art is about sharing. Around their home and ateliers, they have put this belief into practice, transforming their garden, the surrounding parking strips and an adjacent lot into the Utopian Heights Neighborhood, complete with a very official-looking (but unofficial) sign stating the name. Here, forty bright pink Prunus 'Thundercloud' trees, carefully selected stones and sculptures, bronze plaques with philosophical passages and minimalistic benches offer nourishment and rest for the eyes, minds and legs of the occasional passers-by and residents of the area.

On the parking strips, Dennis has placed several, beautiful limestones from North Dakota. These were formed  and partly turned into marble by high pressure under the snow masses during the ice-age. They form contemplative focal points and invite to touching and closer examination, evoking thoughts of petrified trees or waterfalls. A seasonal dial (instead of a sun dial) tells when it is time to celebrate the spring and autumn equinoxes, or summer and winter solstices, and sometimes Nancy and Dennis arrange a celebration together with their neighbors. Along the sidewalks, Dennis's bronze plaques bear messages like "A permanent state of transition is man's most noble condition" or "The wise man changes his mind - the fool, never"; a gentle poke on the minds of even the most hurried walkers.

From the sidewalk, there is an opening into the Garden of Souls, a secluded garden that is open to the public. Here,  in a setting of several small rooms filled with plants and water features, Nancy's large glass and metal sculptures meet the visitors, looking like beautiful hybrids between ancient Japanese Torii-gates and sea marks that radiate both strength and fragility at the same time.

The Garden of Souls was begun - inadvertently, as Nancy and Dennis say - on September 11, 2001, and it was completed within six weeks out of pure frustration with the acts of terror happening that day. It has evolved during the bygone decade, with Dennis planting and shaping the structure and Nancy working with the sculptures, but it still functions as a place for contemplation and reflection, and as a memorial for all souls that were lost - or passed forward, as Dennis and Nancy say - during that single day. 

In their neighborhood park, Nancy and Dennis have even included a small, wooden shrine, where passers-by can leave their thoughts and prayers. These are gathered and burned every six months, and so joined with the universe. Small presents are often left on the little altar, and someone even carried a bright green Buddha here; now, it welcomes visitors with a broad smile among the lush ivy under the altar. The most private and touching little notes filled the shrine when I visited, reminding of the deep need of spirituality in our daily lives. And maybe the park and shrine are especially protected, as they so far have been safe from graffiti and other foul deeds.

As number three of Dennis's bronze plagues by the sidewalk says: "Be happy with what you have and are, be generous with both, and you won't have to hunt for happiness." In my mind, no-one fulfills that better than Nancy and Dennis themselves, who are happily doing what they love and so generously sharing it all with us others.

More about Nancy's and Dennis's art: Utopian Heights Studios.


James Golden said...

Thanks for this. I feel drawn to this garden. We were in Victoria, BC on 9/11 and made it to Seattle the next day, and were stranded there for a few days, experienced an outpouring of emotion from the people of Seattle. It was a special time.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

James, this is gardening at its best; creating an oasis for the eyes and minds, and sharing it without any interest in getting anything back. I loved meeting Nancy and Dennis, and was completely taken by their generosity and creativity. If you ever come to Seattle, do visit this garden and the neighborhood around; it is at the corner of 37th Ave NE and NE 62nd Street in Seattle; always open for anyone to enjoy.

Liz Hattemer said...

I thought this was such a great description of their garden and art – linked your page to my latest blog posting so Seattle Chinese Garden readers would have a chance to read.