Although I live in Calgary, in an infill house, I don’t exactly have a huge front or backyard, I didn’t let that stop me.
“What is an infill,” you ask? It is a new home in a popular, older neighborhood, replaced with an old, tired house. Generally, it is 2 homes on a lot that had 1 home, but it can be more depending on the size of the lot.
Infills are very popular in Calgary’s inner-city neighborhoods – hundreds are built each year. In my case, it was a 100-foot wide lot that was divided into two 30-foot expansive lots and one 40-foot wide lot. I live on one of the 30-foot lots.
Over the years 25 years, I enhanced (in my opinion) our front and back yards with artworks, creating what some might consider a mini art park.
It first started with the front yard. When designing the garden, I sourced two large sandstone rocks to be the centerpiece, where a huge cottonwood tree had been removed.
Each rock was chosen because of its sculptural qualities – one oblong (figure-like) and the other more rounded (egg-like).
Directing the crane operator, they were placed, so the elliptical one stood tall and leaned on the smaller rounded one to create an ambiguous narrative between them.
The front yard also has two pieces of vintage metal “rocker animal” playground equipment (one from the ‘50s and the other from the ‘60s) that young children used to sit on and rock back and forth.
One looks a bit like McDonald’s “Hamburglar,” and the other is a turtle. Both no longer have the spring that allowed them to rock.
They are still popular with the young children getting dropped off at the daycare across the street. They love to wander into the garden to see and sit on them.
Another artwork in the front yard is a funky birdhouse created by Calgary artist Cecilia Gossen. She has made hundreds of them over the years, often for fundraisers.
Admiring them in her studio when at an open house, she insisted I take one. FYI: These are not birdhouses, she was quick to point out. Instead, they are nesting boxes (as the birds don’t live there).
Gossen’s nesting houses are unique in that these boldly painted houses have legs, arms, and feet. It is hung in the Mayday tree dangling from a branch on a rope and has been a nesting home to a pair of chickadees each summer.
It has weathered nicely. Some of the colors have faded away entirely, while others remain as bright as the installed day.
The front porch is a bit of an art gallery too. We love to simply prop up an artwork against the house, though I have seen some people hang art on the side of the house.
For a while, we even had a paper-mache folk art piece (I rescued it on one of my back alley walks) on the porch welcoming visitors and those passing by on the street.
The backyard includes several artworks. The oldest is a 6.5-foot sentinel-like piece made of ceramic and steel by Neil Shaw, titled “Totem.”
Perhaps the only “true” sculpture piece was purchased from a Red Deer College art exhibition at Calgary’s Muttart Public Art Gallery in 1986. I had the artist weld it onto a low steel pedestal with wheels so we could roll it around the backyard concrete patio.
Our backyard dining table often serves as a pedestal for artwork. Currently, I have a glass piece (by an unknown artist) that we rescued from a funky, about-to-be demolished art installation (the house would be torn down for a new infill, so an artist used it as a studio exhibition space for about a month).
This fun piece even glows in the evening light, looking like a molecular chemistry demonstration model or a smash-up of Mickey Mouse figures.
The backyard is also home to two Picasso-inspired colorful birdhouses (oops – I mean nesting boxes). When visiting friends in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I admired their cubist-looking birdhouses.
The host was kind enough to arrange a studio visit with the artist (a retired developer, who incorporated a large workshop in a downtown condo, where he and volunteers, primarily seniors, built unique nesting boxes with all funds going to the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation).
Two came home with us on the airplane. Sparrows nest in them every summer.
And the backyard has a third playground rocker, this time one purchased from a garage sale, who owned an antiquities store.
A very strange, almost alien-looking animal is still attached to a spring with a heavy metal plate for the base. The neighbor kids love to rock on it!
While on vacation in Guadalajara, Mexico, we took a day trip to Ajijic, a famous retirement town on Lake Chapala.
While exploring, we stumbled upon Barbara’s Bazaar full of used furniture, home décor, and art. We found and brought home a well-weathered red metal gong on a stand that I thought would be perfect for the garden. Today it sits in a prime spot, next to the garage door.
Several small found stone “sculptures” I brought home from our 1980 trip to Haida Gwaii on British Columbia’s coast have found homes in the garden.
I was so struck by how wind and water had shaped the stone into beautiful miniature sculptures. They had to travel home with me. They are positioned in the garden in different places every year.
As you can see, I have combined my love of travel, art, and gardening to create a garden art park that represents my life. With a bit of imagination and savvy, anyone can become the curator of their art park.