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On the cutting hedge

One couple takes topiary beyond the table-sized chicken wire forms and thinks big. No, really big.

January 03, 2008|Nan Sterman | Special to The Times

ELFIN FOREST — The road to Charles and Jennifer Coburn's home meanders through the hills north and east of San Diego. Their property is a quick left off the main road and up a winding drive that ends in a field filled with animals. An older gent stands on a ladder to groom a handsome stallion. His clippers make a snap, snap, snapping sound as he trims bright green privet leaves along the stallion's spine. Giant steel bird skeletons flank the horse, waiting to be planted with gray-leaved olive trees and red-berried Pyracantha bushes.

The Coburns practice topiary, an art that goes back to ancient Roman gardeners who clipped and shaped shrubs into animal forms and geometric shapes. Today, most topiaries are tabletop-sized chicken wire forms filled with sphagnum moss and planted in ivy. But the owners of Coburn Topiary & Garden Art have taken the garden art in a different direction. They design huge, sculptural metal frames and plant them with full-sized trees and shrubs. Their pieces decorate estates, resorts, commercial properties and public spaces such as Disneyland and Legoland, and cities including Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and Nagoya, Japan.

In Westwind Park at Playa Vista, for example, stands a pair of giant topiary warblers. Paul Haden, president and founder of the Collaborative West landscape architecture firm of San Clemente, asked the Coburns to create topiary that would make the small, pocket park adjacent to Ballona Wetlands feel playful and fanciful. The result? "The Coburns' style and ability gave wings to our ideas," Haden says. "I have gotten untold calls from people telling us that the topiary birds put a smile on their faces."

Jennifer emerges from the giant, barn-like studio and greets her stepfather, on the ladder, as she leads a visitor inside. The space is filled with steel frames in various stages of construction. Some are larger-than-life animals -- 6-foot-tall dogs and cats for a pet supply store; two giant swans for a Beverly Hills residence; and enormous geometrics including two "pyramisques," combination pyramid-obelisks made for the streetscape along Rodeo Drive south of Wilshire Boulevard.

Jennifer Coburn has been making topiary since the 1980s. She started with ivy and sphagnum moss. Then, working with her sister who is a horticulturist, Jennifer started experimenting with woody trees and shrubs. It wasn't until Jennifer married Charles, however, that the horticulture component of her art fully bloomed.

The couple met in 1991, when Charles was the head of horticulture at the San Diego Zoo. For the zoo's 75th anniversary, he organized a conference of topiary artists, which Jennifer attended. The two connected and, three months later, were married.

"It was the perfect union," Jennifer says. "He was at the zoo working with plants and animals, and I was making animals out of plants."

For a time, they maintained their individual professions, with Jennifer building a stable of residential and commercial clients. Then, Legoland commissioned a small herd of life-sized topiary buffalo, several sheep, an 18-foot-tall Jack and the Beanstalk and assorted geometric shapes.

It was such a big job that Charles took early retirement from the zoo to work with her full time. Right away, he took charge of plants -- selection and acquisition, planting and ongoing care.

In a way, Charles was returning to his roots in joining the topiary business. As a younger man, he did ironwork and blacksmithing but found it challenging to make a living. So, he went into horticulture. All those years, however, he longed both to create art and to bring artists into gardens. Then he met his future wife. "Jennifer was the incarnation of art," Charles says, "and here was my opportunity to do what I'd been talking about. It has been a learning process ever since."

Part of that learning has to do with exploring new ideas, new tools and new technologies. Their topiary components were once cut by hand, but now they are formed with a computer-controlled plasma cutter. The plasma cutter slices quarter-inch thick sheets of steel plate into parts that the Coburns hand-weld into topiary frames.

Each topiary starts out as one of Jennifer's sketches, which she scans into the computer. Using AutoCAD, she transforms a sketch into multilayered schematics. For each cutting plan, she has to specify a number of variables, including where to make the first cut and how to lay parts out to make the most efficient use of materials.

The plasma cutter does its work on flat steel, but topiaries are three-dimensional, with curvature and substance. How do the Coburns do that? With careful planning Jennifer explains: "I see all three dimensions in my mind as I generate the design," she says. "That is where I have an advantage over other topiary artists."

Jennifer demonstrates the massive plasma cutter at work. She starts up the on-board computer and searches through files of forms -- globes, alligator, cowboy, Pegasus and Dumbo, to name a few.

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