Fish In Happiness Garden

I know: it sounds like an expensive dinner item in a fancy Chinese restaurant menu. Really fancy. After my travels through Asia, I can imagine such a dinner item.

However, the subject is a new arrangement of Densaburo Oku’s glass and metal fish sculptures. We decided to bring them closer to the viewers for this, our 135 th anniversary of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the owner of Heronswood Nursery. We expect a lot of guests on Friday, August 19 th and Saturday, the 20 th at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA. So we fished them out of their former sites deeper in the garden’s beds. Also, we brought them together in a “school”, just as they would be in the ocean. Then we chose to have them swimming around the center of the garden where we have two coral-like clay sculptures by Steve Tobin. Fish often lurk in coral reefs so it seemed to make poetic sense, as well as add a more surreal element to the core of the peaceful garden.

Here’s a selection of photographs by Mary Kliwinski:

I adore this mask-like image. It seems like a goat or reindeer as much as a fish. A dancer in a performance of ‘The Rites of Spring’. Densaburo Oku’s art with metal and paint is a fine match to his glass art, which is hidden in this photograph. Each piece of our Fordhook Farm art collection has a horticultural reference of some kind. The fish skeletons symbolize the Native American use of fish guts as fertilizer. They’d dig a hole, drop in the entrails—sometimes the bones or heads as well, depending on the crop or the soil—fill in most of the dirt, sow the seed (corn, beans, squash, etc.), then lightly cover it. The roots would eventually reach a vein of ripened fertilizer, well-integrated into the surrounding soil—a motherlode. Off to the races.

One of my favorites. The spine is made of cast glass cable transducers strung along a metal stem. Attached to each are the “bones”, which are cast glass that is allowed to draw out from a loose mold. Oku also mixes pigments into the molten glass to match the metal head and dragging fin-like parts. Sometimes he puts in glass eyes—sometimes not. I agree; in this case the dark, large eye contrasts well with the colors of the head.

At first I was bothered by the rust—“What’s happening to my investment?” Then I remembered—another time—that art is an absolutely horrible investment. Sort of a knee-jerk reaction. Still it bugged me. But a few years later I realized that—like real fish—it was aging around the mouth—the same place you often see scars and other injuries or simply signs of age on large ocean fishes’ faces. While this may sound like a rationalization—and may partly be—it isn’t, at least not to me. My fish are almost twelve now. And keep in mind, it has been not only outside the whole time, but “out of water”. So I cut it a lot of slack.

Side view. Here Oku is using a gorgeous white ceramic style of glass.

Here they are—approaching the “coral”.

This jolly-headed one is coming up to the opposite side of the grassy pool.

Another view. Lots of weed problems already this year.

“Mr. Shark”. I love him very much.


In the back is the row of remnant pines from the old days that still separates the “working” part of the farm from the “domestic” (gardened) part. The only difference now is that both places are working parts—the older is phase one or “alpha” row trials, while the traditional family home is pre-introduction test, or “beta”—phase two. Each phase lasts about 1-2 years before a cultivar is chosen for the catalogue.

This was Densaburo Oku’s first massive fish. It is about eight feet tall. The head is made of cast-off parts from a metal fabrication plant near Allentown. The special glass is a kind of obsidian. There is one chipped bone but you hardly notice it. This was my first Oku fish. It is so massive that we thought it best to be vertical. It looks like it would be “planted”, and has a slightly corn stalk-like appearance.

Marvelous photo of one of our fish gliding out of a little jungle of Penstemon digitalis ‘Mystica’, looking somewhat like seaweed at a carnival. This sense of fun and play is at the heart of the Happiness Garden. This image captures the spirit and meaning of “happiness”.

Close up. Glass eye works here.

Gazing down at us from about 10 feet high is Daisuke Shintani’s “Untitled”, which is made of crude or raw (sometimes called “black”) iron. That is the “tree”. The eyes are composed of both cast and blown glass and each is thoroughly unique. Each has a personality. The kids at Delaware Valley College decided to use one as a senior class trophy about ten years ago. Somehow it turned up at our doorstep one day a couple years later. Bit like a science fiction movie.

Also gracing “Happiness” is one of Eric Finnerty’s first bronze busts of Rhea, the mother of Zeus. She was a Titaness. Divine giants or “super gods”. (Please Google her for the whole story.) Finnerty does several extraordinary things here: first, the bronze is made of hundreds of cast bronze plant parts, each of which was bent to shape the form of the head, neck, et al. Behind her right ear is a woodland orchid—exactly which we do not know—cast in bronze. The face, ears, neck, nape and shoulders are made of individually cast fern fronds, again which exact kind we do not know. Her hair is composed of deciduous leaves, again all cast bronze, many of them from beech trees, but others unknown. Finnerty used several patinas and washes in the process in order to give the hair, skin and orchid parts distinct colors.

The other achievement is his use of his model, an Afro-Asian woman. The Greeks and Romans were well-known for using Germanic and Nordic captives for their figurative sculpture. Not only were they larger and more muscular than the Greeks and Romans, they were “foreign”, alien—from another world—appropriate to portray deities. Finnerty is “playing” with this historical reality by bringing it into the present.

Close up. Finnerty uses the same model for all of his portraits of Rhea, varying only in the “line” and through the use of various plant parts. Very intriguing work.

Exotic and weird. All of the elements are from tropical plants. The mushrooms add a strange twist. A favorite of children.

Detail; all bronze!

Though neither fish nor sculpture, this Oriental Poppy might as well be, now that everything is cooking here at today’s bloggie.

Think it might have inspired some artists? I certainly do. Note the early Spring bee—this is from mid-May—bottom left.

Back to the ocean. We haven’t moved this happy fellow yet. Not sure we want to disturb him!

A glass and cast bronze sculpture by Daisuke Shintani, the artist who made the eyed tree. A philodendron leaf, cast in bronze, rests on a metal Romanesque pillar I bought locally. Off the leaf pours a dollop of rainwater made from both blown and cast glass in a complicated process at which Shintani excels. There is also a drop already fallen on a rock, also cast in bronze, that rests on the ground. Peaceful artwork that uses the space and context well.

Close-up on detail of the total effect.

Back to Shintani’s untitled eyed tree. This is the first sculpture I ever bought. I used to spend a lot of time evaluating research trials or inspecting production crops. Such work involves looking closely at plants, even staring at them at times. I visited an artist’s studio and there it was—a plant staring at me. Big one too!

Close up of the top eye.

Off goes the bird to another sculpture, no doubt.

And back to work we go. Such a roller-coaster spring here in the Mid-Atlantic region. Typical in form—lots of ups and downs—but extreme. Incredible abundance of pollen in a short period of time. But the wide swings of stresses will make for a revealing look at the experimental plants when they meet the first hot blasts of the coming summer, about a week away.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011 at 4:23 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Follow Comments:
RSS Feed for This Post

11 Responses to “Fish In Happiness Garden”

  1. LMarsh said:

    enjoyed your appreciation of sculpture within the

    • George said:

      Thanks much. Please post again.

  2. luise h. said:

    The fish, well, they leave me cold. But the leaf with the glass “water”,what a stunner! And the faces, I just love them. Thank you for sharing these incredible sculptures.

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Luise. The water-and-leaf sculpture is by Daisuke Shintani, as you suggest, breathtaking. Also, there are two more Rhea sculptures that I shall portray on the blog in a future article. Eric Finnerty does some amazing work.

  3. debbie grant said:

    Heronswood must be a most fascinating place. I’d love to visit. The Voice is written clearly and descriptively accompanied by the best pictures. It’s possible to get the whole feel of the tale. The fish are the best!

    • George said:

      Thank you very much for the kind compliments. Please come and visit us in Doylestown, PA—or at the remaining 3 open days at “Heronswood West”, June 26, July 16 and September 10. Thanks again.

  4. Jason Jones said:

    I think all of this sculpture is atrocious and undermines what the intent of the original Heronswood set out to do. Bring to the American public interesting plant material not found at a box store or local nursery. This is disgusting and disappointing. True gardeners and plantsmen see this kind of display distracting from the elevated place a garden should transport ones soul to. Heronswood, “Unusually Great Plants” hiding behind chewing on the scenery fish PROPS!

    • George said:

      Thanks for posting. The “original Heronswood” was sold 11 years ago, 100%. We have maintained not only the gardens in Kingston, but also the philosophy of providing highly unusual plants to the public. If you take exception with one of 300 articles that appear on a company blog, please tell me what bothers you about the actual contents of the blog, rather than what it symbolizes to you. The “original Heronswood” has many pieces of artwork, still there! Also, the original gardens have been “photo- blogged” several times in the recent past, since we have had many open days in the last five years. You can see several large “props”, as you call them, that Dan and Robert used for “chewing”, whenever you visit the gardens in Kingston. They are mainly by Little and Lewis, but there is one other sculptor there whose name escapes me now. Unoriginal? I think not—like Oku’s fish, the prominent, and in some cases huge, painted cement sculptures are very interesting and many people adore them, as many do the sculptures at Fordhook Farm. Like the original owners, we remain dedicated gardeners and plant collectors. Thanks again.

  5. Cindy said:

    It is nice to see photos. Thank you for sharing. I will not see your garden in person. Don’t live East Coast. So, it is fun to share with you in the garden through photos. Our gardens are such personal places on a certain level, and adding artwork is a playful thing. Wonderful, thanks.

  6. dianedigsplants said:

    George, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these sculptures! Fish have always been a favorite of mine, and I relished your descriptions and the photos of Oku’s work in your collection! Your reference to the native’s use of the entrails as fertilizer was great… it brought back the memory of my mother telling us kids how natives used the discarded fish parts as fertilizer and she instructed us to bury our yield of bluegill and crappie bits under her shrubs! It was an early lesson in ecology. Finnerty’s bronze works are stunning when you think of his process, and I’m sure the photos don’t do them justice. They deserve close scrutiny, as does Shintani’s… um… “oculardendron.” Tobin is also a favorite, AND he’s a local artist. I hope folks will take time to look up his work as well, as it is very notable! Thank you, George, for schooling us on your garden art!

  7. terri said:

    I am very intrigued by the glass raindrop falling off the bronze philodendron leaf. I would love to see a photo taken when the sunlight is pouring through the glass. Please take one for a future post. Thank you

Follow Comments:
RSS Feed for This Post