The Lot is Her Canvas
For more than 50 years, artist Kathleen Williams has made her Chevy Chase backyard a living work of art.
When Chevy Chase artist Kathleen Williams inherited her backyard in the 1950s, she didn’t have a landscaper make an “instant” neatly manicured garden of flowerbeds bordered by shrubs and accented with decorative trees. Instead, Williams created a garden incorporating the natural elements already there-undulating slopes, a creek, large shade trees and railroad tracks just beyond her property line. Over the years, she has deftly combined texture, color, form and structure-as well as nature’s quirky additions-with her own sculpture. No landscaper could dream up the personal statement and work of art Williams’ garden is today.
“The lot is your canvas,” she says. “You have givens…Necessity controls certain designs.” Being able to incorporate what nature provides is “how design develops, how a theme develops,” Williams explains.
The culmination of decades of passion and artistic endeavor, Williams’ showplace backyard has been the site of at least six weddings, a few funerals and countless parties and gatherings. As focal points throughout the garden, she used several pieces of her own sculpture, most of which have been shown in galleries and museums, including the Corcoran and the Smithsonian. She’s not the only artist in her family. Her brother is noted British artist Michael Kidner. “He’s big time; I’m small time,” Williams says.
The 97-year-old artist and former art teacher is still busy-the second edition of her book, Wearable Magic, about the jewelry she makes, came out in December with a signing party at the Torpedo Factory. And her passion for her garden remains as strong as ever. “It’s my biggest work of art,” she says.
When Williams moved into her house with her husband, David (who is now deceased), and children on Christmas Eve in 1951, she says she hated it. “It was a wreck,” she says. The redeeming virtue was the large backyard-shared with their next-door neighbors. It had an in-ground swimming pool her three kids loved. Moreover, their neighbors had three children the same age as Williams’. “We had so many kids here in that pool at times,” she says. They hired an Eagle Scout as a lifeguard and opened the pool to neighborhood kids. Though daughter Pamela Roddy Morrow of Bethesda remembers playing badminton and baseball in the garden, she says the pool was the heart of the yard.
The sound of running water was another draw for Williams, who loves the ravine cutting through the center of her yard. It attracts ducks, geese, butterflies and wildlife. Beyond the creek was an area of the yard that Williams originally referred to as “no-man’s-land,” an area that ran adjacent to the B&O Railroad. The Williamses eventually acquired the land, expanding the yard to half an acre. Barely visible today through Williams’ stand of bamboo are bikers and joggers on the Capital Crescent Trail, the former path of the old railroad.
Williams says that when they moved in, the yard looked nothing like the spectacular retreat it is today. The unkempt hilly yard had a series of sloping terraces, and the creek threatened to erode into the surrounding banks of land. “These terraces were denuded. This place had no green. It was in terrible shape,” says Williams. She took on most of the gardening chores herself. “I mowed the grass, everything. We didn’t have power mowers. We had push mowers,” she says. For big projects, she brought in help. With contractors, Williams built a bridge across the ravine and a retaining wall around the pool, which she says was poorly constructed and threatening to sink into the creek. They girded it with railroad ties thrown into the yard by rail workers and added a cement patio around the pool.
As trees fell victim to storms, Williams’ sculptures took their place. “Nature tends to be too green,” she says. Finding ways to break up the green, she says, “is the basis of garden design.” Williams strategically placed several of her works of art around the garden to take the eye from one point to the next. She also accented each space with driftwood, flowers or large stones, often using tree stumps as pedestals for art or natural objects. “Whenever you place something, you place it for a reason,” she says. “There must be structure. But it shouldn’t look controlled.”
Williams especially likes the view of her garden from her raised deck. As visitors overlook the yard, they can enjoy the interplay of sculptures, trees, plants and wildlife as an audience member would enjoy a play. “It’s a continual theater,” she says, pointing out the sunlight shining on the figures. “[Imagination] is everywhere for anyone to take. It comes from observing.”
As a child in England, Williams loved books featuring artist Arthur Rackham, who illustrated Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (Williams modeled her birdbath in her front yard on the statue of Peter Pan installed in Kensington Gardens in 1912.)
Just beyond the deck is the rounded, reclining female form of a sculpture named “Lucretia.” Once ensconced at the Smithsonian, the cement figure now rests on the stump of a sweet gum tree and is accented by driftwood Williams picked up at a yard sale. Nearby is a birdbath Williams created from a World War I shell casing, another yard sale find. Down narrow stone steps that lead through the slope into the garden are the whimsical “three ladies” who seem to laugh and giggle as they peek out from their curved perch. Named “See no evil,” “Hear no evil” and “Speak no evil,” the ceramic figures have spent time at the Corcoran.
The sculptures sit among banks of shrubs with surprises of color from lilies, hellebores, impatiens, Japanese anemone and begonias. Striking spires of snakeroot plants reach toward the sky. Every flower is precious to Williams, but her favorites are fragrant. “A flower without a scent is like a kiss without a squeeze,” she says. She has a potted gardenia that she has lovingly tended for 30 years, but large shade trees keep the sun out of most parts of the garden. “Flowers don’t like shade.I had to design with other things.” Williams likes to plant different kinds of leaves-“they can be giant, curly, small,” and combines dwarf bamboo, hosta, oakleaf hydrangea, evergreens and maidenhair ferns that she and a friend dug up from the side of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington years ago.
A delicate blue Atlantic cedar that Williams refers to as the “Blue Princess” is a focal point in the garden just beyond the three ladies. The tree would be more than 60 feet tall if Williams hadn’t pruned it. “She was in the way and I had to bonsai her,” Williams says. “She was the first piece of sculpture in the garden. There’s no reason you can’t bonsai big [plants].” Williams also uses topiary to shape up large shrubs and believes in heavy pruning. Other trees placed strategically in the garden are a Japanese Stewartia, a Japanese maple and a katsura.
Williams’ garden has been featured on Chevy Chase Garden Club tours and is a good example of organic gardening. She has two compost piles that she lets mature into natural food for her plants. Although it is au courant now, Williams has composted for years-a sign of her early appreciation for the life cycle of nature. She remembers when Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring came out in 1962. Williams had used a pesticide spray one time: “Then I learned about Silent Spring and that was it,” she says.
Eleanor Hillegeist of Bethesda, who helps in Williams’ garden, recalls the two women dabbing a chemical on each leaf of an invasive weed so as not to spread the pesticide anywhere else in the garden. “Imagine two ladies down on their hands and knees in the garden dabbing plants with Q-tips,” says Hillegeist. “If you use pesticides, birds won’t come; butterflies won’t come.” Hillegeist, a former mathematics professor at Gallaudet University, heads up Environmentally Sensitive Gardens, a company that helps seniors with their gardens.
A chirping, noisy flock of birds whizzing through the trees brings a contented smile to Williams’ face. “Just listen to that. There you have the orchestra, the music. What could be better than nature? There isn’t a day that I come down here that I don’t feel better by the time I come back.I don’t know what the magic is, but it’s there.”
The Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of exceptional gardens, recently chose Williams’ garden to be included in its Open Days spring 2009 tour, a nationwide event that opens select private gardens to the public (www.opendaysprogram.org).
Karen A. Watkins is contributing editor of Bethesda Magazine.