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Art Takes Root : Landscape Architects Give Rise to Serious Sculpture in Garden

July 20, 1991|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a small but growing number of homeowners bringing Art intotheir gardens. Not a piece of statuary installed as an afterthought, but serious sculpture and murals specifically designed for a specific landscaping project.

Art with a capital A, in other words.

Artists see a world the rest of us don't, but they make you wish you did, says Mike Chierney, who employed several artists in designing the landscaping of his Huntington Beach home. "When Leah (Vasquez) and Jana (Ruzicka) first talked about painting a seascape on our block wall that would look like the wall was breaking away, I thought they were both lunatics," he says.

"But then when Leah looked at my concrete fireplace and said she could make it look like marble and she could make this really dull bathroom we have more interesting by painting in a fake window with a view of birds flying off in the distance, I realized she sees a whole world I don't.

"I'd like to, though. So I told them to go ahead. I guess I started to believe in their world."

Ruzicka, a landscape architect based in Laguna Beach, does have a way of drawing even the most timid clients into the imagined world she and her artist collaborators invent.

"I don't think I'm one of these stubborn, egotistical architects who push clients against their will," Ruzicka says. "But I do push when I want to show them something I don't think they see."

Often what Ruzicka sees and clients don't--at least initially--is an opportunity to incorporate art into the garden. There's hardly a project she sees that Ruzicka doesn't think would be improved by the addition of a mural or piece of sculpture.

Maybe Ruzicka sees these opportunities because she has an artist's point of view herself.

"Jana is just as much of an artist as I am," says Vasquez of Laguna Beach, her most frequent collaborator.

Another collaborator, Irvine ceramic artist Julia Klemek, says Ruzicka sees opportunities for art because she treats plants the way an artist would. "She's aware of the sounds plants make in the wind, and the way light strikes them (as well as) their shape and color. There's a whole aesthetic to plant materials I'm learning about from working with Jana."

Ruzicka's background may play a part, too. In addition to her degree in architecture, the Czechoslovakian emigre learned about plants in her father's nursery and attended horticultural school.

"I always wanted to be a landscape architect," she says, "but I wanted a broader background in design first."

European architectural programs are more general than those in the United States and include more art and art history classes, says Ruzicka. "Czechoslovakia is a small country, so our schools are less specialized than here, which, I think, is a good thing. It makes you a more flexible person."

Simonne and Jim Highland did not know about Ruzicka's passion for using art in her landscaping projects when they approached her about a small side yard at their Tustin Hills home.

"What I'd heard about Jana was that she was really good at using your surroundings and embellishing on them, and that's what I wanted," says Simonne Highland. "I wanted something that looked like it belonged here."

The challenge the Highlands presented was to come up with landscaping that would not only be compatible with the red rock outcroppings in the steep hill behind their house, but also would look appropriate against the imposing backdrop of the Italianate villa next door. (The Highland home is quite large, too, but, being burrowed into the hill a la Frank Lloyd Wright, is very different in style from its neighbor.)

Ruzicka immediately pictured a piece of sculpture on the site to draw the eye downward, away from the overshadowing villa, and she called in Vasquez to design it. Though Ruzicka had originally pictured pillars or something equally classical in shape to blend in with the house, Vasquez came up with something that suggests an even earlier time.

Her solution was a tri-part sculpture that looks like three ruin fragments. The base of each structure is composed of the same split concrete block used in the retaining wall to the Highland's house--tying the two elements together--and is topped with a slab painted with stylized animals reminiscent of cave paintings. Only, if you look closely, you see that some of the animals--cats and rabbits--are reflections of the Highlands' domesticated pets.

Red rocks and a mini-rockslide, plus succulents, pampas grass, honeysuckle and other plants create the illusion that these "ruins" are remnants of a larger structure dating back to antiquity, destroyed in an earthquake perhaps.

The modestly scaled sculpture looks perfectly comfortable next to its towering Italianate companion. And it will look even more so when the Italian cypress trees Ruzicka planted on the hillside mature.

Though Highland confirms she got just what she wanted--"something that looked like it belonged there"--she was initially apprehensive when Ruzicka suggested sculpture.

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