'Garden art should have a soul,' says aficionado

At Michael Petrie's Handmade Gardens in Downingtown, a detail of the whirligig made from the blades of a fan.
At Michael Petrie's Handmade Gardens in Downingtown, a detail of the whirligig made from the blades of a fan. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 06, 2011

Michael Petrie tried to go to art school twice in the 1970s, but frankly, he couldn't stand it.

"I just couldn't get my head around the idea of going to art school to paint, while sitting in a room with a bunch of people and a dumb model," he says.

Now 58, Petrie officially switched from art to horticulture years ago. But here's the interesting thing: He seems most comfortable at the curious intersection of trash and treasure, a place many gardeners - artists, too - find confusing and discomforting.

That's because it's so hard to define trash and treasure and, for that matter, art. And, Petrie says, because "garden art, as a concept, has been watered down by the mass merchandisers.

"People should understand, art is put into a garden because you have a connection to it. Garden art should have soul. It should have personality. You can't just go out and buy stuff and plunk it in your yard."

You can't?

"It would look like you just plunked it there, with no connection," says Petrie, whose horticulture career began in 1978 with a job watering plants at a Rose Valley garden center and blossomed during 21 years at the old J. Franklin Styer Nurseries in Concordville.

In 2008, he opened Michael Petrie's Handmade Gardens in Downingtown. Here, in the two-acre nursery and garden store, he indulges his affinity for objets trouves, or found objects. They're rescued from the curb, bought at auctions and estate sales, or discovered by chance, to be used as art in the garden or as inspiration in the creation of something new.

Such as: galvanized-steel watering cans and weathered wood doors, old-fashioned washing machines and silverware wind chimes; glass-doorknob hose guards, and curlicue trellises made from wrought-iron balustrades and rusted-out bed springs.

"These bed springs . . . how fabulous. They have line and rhythm and movement," says Petrie, who also makes bird baths out of floor-lamp stands and trash-can lids.

Objets trouves garden art appeals to Lisa Brumbaugh Hill, too. Last week, she bought five of Berwyn artist David Gerbstadt's "critters," doglike sculptures up to four feet tall, made of scavenged wood.

Hill, who lives in Media with her husband, Jason, and two young daughters, says the funky artwork "adds an old, crafty feeling" to their 140-year-old house, which is "kind of old and crafty, too."

Curious - and delighted - neighbors stop to ask what the pieces are and who made them. "I like the found-objectness of them," Hill says. "They're very whimsical, handmade, very different. They're topics of conversation, and nobody else has them."

Gerbstadt's lawn and porches are festooned with "critters," which he sells for $1 each. They're made from scrap wood he finds around the neighborhood and molding left over from remodeling projects.

"It's art. I say it's art. That's all I have to do, and now it's in my garden," Gerbstadt says, when asked if "critters" equal "garden art."

It's a tricky business, for sure.

Petrie has a knack for discovering what he calls vernacular art, pieces that are more primitive than traditional art.

There's the piece he bought about 10 years ago in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., from a disabled Vietnam War vet who used a fan propeller and wheel bearings to make a one-of-a-kind whirligig that whips around in the wind.

It was not a quick trip to the cash register.

"They never want to sell you the good stuff. You have to have a relationship with the guy," says Petrie, who contends he "had to buy 10 things before I could get that one."

Great garden art always has a story, and usually a character, behind it, Petrie adds, citing the guy in Lancaster County who made stainless-steel "flowers," and the vintage - and still functional - washing machine with rollers that he bought at a Wilkes-Barre garage sale. He plants flowers in the tub.

There's no forgetting the piles of tin-roofed birdhouses stacked along the Black Horse Pike in South Jersey. Petrie spotted them on his way to Atlantic City, and for the next four hours, chatted up their owner, who made them by the hundreds.

"He was selling his birdhouses for $4 a hole," recalls Petrie, who bought literally a truckload and used them in one of two displays he designed for the 2011 Philadelphia International Flower Show.

Hard to imagine anything mass-produced competing with that.

"You can buy so many dopey trellises and fleur-de-lis this and that, but do you live in a French provincial house?" Petrie asks, tacking on, "You know what they say. . . ."

Yes: One man's trash is another man's treasure, an adage that could have been inspired by Becky Cooper.

Cooper, a diehard devotee of the popular "garden-junk" online forum http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/junk/, recently caused a flutter by posting photos of her homemade wind chime.

No big deal, you might think, but her wind chime was made from a metal bed pan bought five years ago at a garage sale.

"It was neat. In my area, you don't see metal ones for sale very often, and I just figured, one day I'll do something with that," says Cooper, who lives in Luling, Texas, home of the Watermelon Thump, an annual festival known for its watermelon seed-spitting contests.

Cooper's husband drilled holes in the bed pan so she could string old silverware to make the chimes. Now her piece de resistance hangs on the front porch.

"My husband says, 'I'm the only man in America with a wind chime-bed pan on my front porch,' but I decorated it with marbles and made it pretty," Cooper says.

So, is it art or junk, trash or treasure?

"It's my work of art. I look for things that are unique," Cooper says, which certainly describes her other oeuvres - totems made of vases and other knickknacks; glass-plate "flowers"; gazing balls made of marble-covered bowling balls; landscape-timber "trees" decorated with bottles from the liquor store next door; and a beloved wooden-watermelon wind chime that evokes the Thump.

Cooper hopes to start selling her garden art - everything except for her favorite piece, that is.

"The bed pan," she says, "ain't for sale."

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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