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The Inner and Outer Landscapes

For 30 years, Astrid Preston's garden and paintings have evolved together

April 16, 2006|Susan Heeger | Susan Heeger is a staff writer for Martha Stewart Living and has covered gardens for The Times.

In her sun hat and jeans, Astrid Preston could be just another backyard gardener. Armed with clippers, she starts her day "creating little moments of order," she explains, snipping spent blooms off her freesia, daffodil and ranunculus plants. But by the time Preston finishes tidying up, she has filed away images in her mind--sweeps of yellows, reds and greens, the play of sunlight on the leaves--to take to the studio on the first floor of her Santa Monica home.

"I don't literally record what I see," says Preston, who for 30 years has painted landscapes suffused with California light, rich with mystery and meaning. "I look for images that express what I feel and can't verbalize, the emotional equivalents of my inner world."

Preston lives in the house her architect father designed in 1959. As a teen, she watched her parents plant citrus trees, yuccas and gold-striped century plants on the hillside where she now gardens. In 1976, she moved back to this house with her husband, Howard, a former physicist, and her garden and work have evolved together ever since.

In the early years, she did watercolors of the century plants and oil paintings of her neighborhood as seen through the pines and eucalyptus outside her studio window. In the 1980s, after her son, Max, was born, she dug out most of the spiny succulents and planted vegetables and roses, lavender and salvia. Subsequently, she found herself painting fruit, "a reflection of my nurturing impulse," she says.

Preston began to work that into her garden too, planting apple and pomegranate trees and bringing their fruit indoors to paint. (She says painting outdoors is distracting.) About the same time, her colorful hillside, with its steep paths and rough retaining walls, started showing up in her work, which, during the 1990s, included formal landscapes thick with fanciful urban forests. Partly in response to those, she introduced more structure to her hillside, building new broken-concrete walls and a stone stairway that help move the eye through the almost vertical scene. "In a garden," she says, "which is so shaped by randomness and change, you need visual guidelines that stay constant."

Preston's current work, recently featured in a show at Santa Monica's Craig Krull Gallery, depicts dense thickets of leaves, among them, pittosporums and lantanas from her garden. "I wouldn't have thought to paint lantana, but I had planted it and there it was," she says.

She started the leaf paintings several years ago, after Max left for college and she and her husband became empty-nesters. Her attention then shifted from the big pictures of her nurturing hill to the small details of light-refracting foliage, barren of fruit, almost abstract in their dance of color and shadow.

Like works of art, she observes, "Gardens are constructs. They help us make order and sense from the chaos around us. They're not 'nature.' They're born in our imaginations."

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