The Crafty Gardener

Art makes a Chadds Ford garden bloom with the totally unexpected.

Sigwarth Glass globes, a ceramic snail, and metal sculptures rest among shrubs and annuals. Photograph by John LewisArt is one of those things we simply must do so  that our spirit may continue to grow.” So reads the inscription on a sculpture by Jeffrey Manpearl at the entrance of Grayce and Sid Hess’ home in Chadds Ford.

As both an art collector and a gardener, Grayce Hess takes this message to heart—inside and outside her home. The exterior of her cedar and stone rambler explodes with contemporary art.

Original art isn’t inexpensive, which is why some homeowners would gasp at the thought of leaving pricey pieces vulnerable to the elements. Hess thrives on it. A beautifully manicured landscape, to her, isn’t something to be admired. It’s something to be decorated.

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Hess and Mother Nature have been partners in crime since Hess visited Nelson Rockefeller’s sculpture garden in New York in the 1980s. She couldn’t buy the big-ticket items then, but she could afford to support the work of emerging artists, many of them from the Delaware Valley.

Artist Pat Staby of Lewes believes “it says something about a person who is willing to support local artists.” Not only is that person buying a one-of-a-kind piece, “she is also helping us make a living here.”

Art adds dimension to any landscape, whether lush and large or tiny and sparse. And mixing art with nature is good for the soul, says Hess, whose sense of humor is evident the moment you turn into her driveway, when your eye is drawn to The General.

A metal face stalks the azaleas. Photograph by John LewisThe General is from Xi’an in central China. While visiting there in 2000, the Hesses discovered the underground Army of Terracotta Warriors of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. Hess saw four duplicates at a nearby museum and, after being told the 800-pound general could handle the weather, she bought it, had it crated, then shipped it to Philadelphia. As it turned out, The General wore only a thin coat of ceramic over plaster of Paris.

The General is disintegrating, but he’s still a gripping prelude to this botanical play. At his feet is cherry laurel, a low spreading shrub. Horticulturists claim the broadleaved evergreen is not delicious to deer, “except that the deer have eaten most of them,” says Hess.

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At The General’s side is a sail by David Ti of Oregon. In spring, Ti’s feathers, accented with blues and pinks, are tied to branches. In winter, Hess exchanges them for reds and purples to add drama to bare branches. The General’s sail remains vibrantly pink, green, blue and red all year.

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To the right of the front porch, next to a rhododendron with lavender blooms, is a series of 6-foot copper flowers by Jeffrey Thomas Bell of Expressions In Metal in Kennett Square. “The flowers were treated with chemicals to survive outside,” says Bell. “But they will always be changing slightly.”

The fact that there are six flowers is unusual for Hess. “I prefer odd numbers,” she says. “I don’t like matching things.” Note the shrubs at the front entrance, one a Hinoki cypress, the other a Japanese andromeda. “I think it’s important to surprise your eye at every turn of your head.”

Also in front are hand-blown globes by Douglas and Renee Sigwarth of Sigwarth Glass in Wisconsin. A few glass squiggles purchased at a local art show snuggle against a stoneware ceramic bench by Eric O’Leary of Tariki in New Hampshire. Hess met O’Leary during his show at Carspecken-Scott Gallery in Wilmington.

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The General, an 800-pound ceramic from China, salutes a wind feather by David Ti. Photograph by John LewisThe bench, part of a family whose siblings live in several museums, was glazed and fired in a kiln. Hess surrounded the bench with begonias to bring out its reds. Begonias thrive in the summer sun.

The bench blends well with the delicate structures around it, but to further soften the piece, Hess used planters with more begonias and spikes.

“Spikes add an airy look,” she says. “The ground cover is pretty solid, as are the bushes. The spikes give you a much lighter feeling. And I’m one for looking through something for something else.”

The small ceramic cat in front is a decorative ground spout given to Hess by her daughter Diana. Such whimsical down spouts are hard to find. Try a flea market or visit

The backyard meadow is planted with flowering viburnum shrubs. At its right stands “Damusi: The Mesopotamian God of Agriculture,” by John Dickinson, a Wilmington native. Ordained a god by Hess and Dickinson, Damusi is a metal and glass piece made from old tractor parts. Its head is a cultivator wheel, the arms are plow blades, and the pelvis is a tractor seat. Behind Damusi is a cedar totem pole carved by Steve Jensen. Hess discovered Jensen at the Philadelphia Furniture and Furnishings Show in 2003.

Ceramic cats, designed by Sara Meadows of Kennett Square, guard O’Leary’s 9-foot ceramic tower on the deck. The trees are fake, but there’s nothing phony about the two pots beneath them.

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Sarah Meadows’ cats guard Eric O’Leary’s ceramic tower, which is complemented with pots thrown by Paul and Tonya Romanick. Photograph by John LewisUnusually large for hand-thrown pieces, the pots “take a whole day to make with a potter’s wheel and about 60 pounds of clay,” says Paul Romanick, who created the pieces with his wife, Tonya. They own Romanick Pottery in Newark.

A metal dragonfly by Bell hovers over more of his flowers in the meadow. A set of boulders by Greg Wenz, a former art professor at the University of Delaware, were his last project before moving to Arizona.

The rocks, named “No More Biting, Scratching or Kicking: Goodbye to Academia,” were actually kicked, bitten and scratched by Wenz. His motivation? Boredom. “In academia, everything was always the same,” he says. “Life is too short not to be enjoyed.”

Hess bought the rocks for $800 at the Brandywine Arts Festival in 1994. She gave her daughter, Debra Hess Norris, a small Wenz piece, which, ironically, sits in Debra’s office at the university.

Hess enhances blooming shrubs such  as azaleas and dogwood trees with glass. Sadly, the fungus anthracnose is threatening indigenous dogwoods, so Hess is forced to spray hers with a fungicide in late spring, after the trees have bloomed.

Hess is an expert, but neophytes can enjoy creative gardens, too.  Start small, says Hess. Buy a birdbath. “They come in all shapes and sizes at Home and Garden Culture in Kennett Square.”

Christian Tauber, landscape designer at Old Country Gardens in Wilmington, advises clients to mix white flowers with bright and shiny artwork. “White is elegant and blends with all shades and textures of perennials,” he says.

Choose perennials wisely. “If you’re using art, learn what the foliage looks like before and after the bloom,” Tauber says. “Surround art with a healthy mix of indigenous evergreen shrubs and trees.”

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A sculpture garden features Greg Wenz’s boulders and Jeff Bell’s metal dragonfly and flowers.  Photograph by John LewisBuy pieces that can stand the elements. “Ask the artist if the piece is fired at a mature temperature so that it’s dense,” says Wenz. If it’s not, moisture gets trapped, “and then you have freeze and thaw.” Pick up a piece of clay and tap it. If the piece rings, it’s dense. If it thuds, it’s porous ceramic. Porous will be a problem outdoors.

Art is subjective. Design your way. “It’s about passion and energy,” says Wenz. “The artist transfers that from himself to what he’s made. I believe that energy continues where the piece is placed.”

Art should never be confined to the inside of a home, nor should it ever be predictable, says Hess. “You don’t expect shrubs to die, but they do. You don’t expect deer to eat your geraniums, but they do that, too. Art is the same thing. Go for the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to move pieces around.”

It’s a nice thing to look out your window and see sculpture among the blooms. “When art is added to the landscape,” says Hess, “it makes you appreciate that Mother Nature and man are working hand in hand.”

  • Buy pieces that can stand the elements. Ask the artist if a work is fired at a mature temperature so that it’s dense. Or pick up a piece of clay and tap it. If the piece rings, it’s dense. If it thuds, it’s porous, so it shouldn’t stay outdoors.
  • Choose perennials wisely. Learn what foliage looks like before and after the bloom. Surround art with a healthy mix of indigenous evergreen shrubs and trees.
  • Go for the unexpected. Don’t be afraid to move pieces around until they work for you.
  • Start small, perhaps with a birdbath. They come in all shapes and sizes at local yard and garden centers.


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