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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Orphan plants' new life

A colony turns salvage greenery and containers into living art.

April 03, 2008|Paula Panich | Special to The Times

DUMPSTER-diving, garden-tending. Which is on your to-do list this week? Well, at the Brewery, the cluster of artists' studios and residences wedged between a freeway and rail yard downtown in the heart of old industrial Los Angeles, both are part of life.

"There's a joke that nothing ever leaves the Brewery," says Gretchen Zalkind, resin artist, gardener and resident since 1996.

"The theme of the Brewery is finding industrial things, making then pretty -- and making them your own," she says, surveying her pocket-sized garden with its painted cobalt-blue bathtub (inherited) planted with hot-pink and creamy-white bougainvillea. To the right of her lipstick-red front door is a rusting sculpture (rescued) that she and her husband, David, think of as the headless garden goddess.

This artists village practices a gift economy: Currency (read: rubbish) is deposited in public places and awaits withdrawal. It's an intriguing formula: One-part community-making, one part art-making.

Plant rescue, though, seems to be the source of the fiercest pride among the artist-gardeners. Zalkind credits her husband with "moving the garden forward," but when it comes to plants, she says, "David goes to garden stores, but I go to the Dumpster."

The Brewery container gardens -- and they are all in containers, sitting on tiny aprons of concrete -- seem to belt out an unexpected song of passionate and inventive ways of gardening.

These gardens -- many open during the Brewery Art Walk this weekend -- aren't just expressions of art from living material or a relaxing hobby. They seem to be planted and nurtured in hot opposition to the loud, edgy surroundings of the Brewery.

"One of the lessons in my decades of research into gardens is that what might be ordinary in one situation becomes extraordinary in a different context," says Kenneth Helphand, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon.

"The more dramatic the contrast, the more we become aware of gardens as works of art because they are in an inhospitable environment."

"So what looks better to a person living between two Dumpsters: concrete, or a forest?" asks sculptor and painter Bruce Gray, standing on the threshold between his live/work industrial space and his garden. When you take a hard look, you can see his point.

Gray's "forest," one of the largest Brewery gardens at 25 by 40 feet, is a tangled and delightful compilation of 200 planters and hundreds of riotous plants snaking up sculpture, trellises and each other. About half his plants and all his pots have been rescues, and he's not averse to attacking scale on a foundling plant with a toothbrush.

He has been gardening, working and living here since 1991; he moved in as a non-gardening artist with "one piece of cactus." Since then he has rescued palms, innumerable succulents and cactus, tree of heaven and others; he's also grown avocado trees from seed, pineapple from his breakfast and lemon and lime trees. He's watched baby Madagascar palms grow into husky specimens.

Carnivorous plants? They are protected in a handmade outdoor cabinet of curiosities.

Besides being places of reuse, recycling and rescue, gardens at the Brewery scrub the air, says Holly Tempo, a painter, installation artist and 11-year resident. She presides over a small but aesthetically balanced and ordered garden of specimen plants in well-chosen metallic containers. Her flowering palette begins with yellows and oranges and reds and moves to purple as the seasons change.

"I love to garden here," says the associate professor of painting at Otis College of Art and Design.

"It's a great way to unwind. Plus, plants absorb toxic air -- and they are, really, visible joy."

Tempo's neighbors are metal sculptor James Hill and his wife, Shari Lee, a mixed-media artist. They moved in a dozen years ago with a few plants, but, Hill says, "there was nothing here. The sun was brutal." Only succulents and cactus survived, but as young poplar trees grew up to provide shade, Hill and Lee became adoptive parents to rescued Brewery plants. Now the 40-foot poplars provide shade for Hill, too, as he works outdoors, protective gear in place.

Gardens everywhere are defined by the idea of enclosure, and the boundary-keeping practices at the Brewery are unusually inventive. Some residents have enclosed front "terraces" using woven bamboo and other materials; Bruce Gray's garden is fenced with recycled metal left over from a film shoot; Hill has welded together dividers from scrap metal; and well-known painter and musician Llyn Foulkes has grown living walls to enclose his patio-garden room.

"It's my oasis," Foulkes says of his recycled-brick patio. "And it's shaded by this huge poplar -- the oldest one in the Brewery. I'm trying to train it to shelter even more of the patio."

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