Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Urban Topiaries

I've never had the slightest interest in topiary until I wandered into a small cemetery one evening last May in the tiny village of Goult in the south of France.  The drawing above is a pen and watercolor sketch that I made of two of the trees.  What made these topiaries spectacular and eerie and unsettling and wonderful was the scale of them:  when I walked under these two trees I was a good three feet shorter than the lowest foliage.  There were dozens of them throughout the cemetery, lining the alleys, punctuating the rows of tombs, pressed up against the walls.  I asked a woman who was putting flowers on a grave who was responsible for them, and she said they had been made in the early 20th century and kept up all this time by people in the village.

When I came back home I began to notice, of all things, topiaries in Asheville.  For a few weeks I sought them out, then lost interest.  Nothing here came near to the craziness of those French topiaries.

Then this afternoon I was idling at a long red light in north Asheville and looking around to check out what was new and interesting, and I spied a topiary!  In the upper left of the left hand page, is a drawing of a tree perched outside of a little roadside antiques store.  It is a rather large, not quite symmetrical, rather flat-iron-shaped topiary!  I pulled over into the parking lot of a shop and quickly sketched it.  As I continued down the road I saw more and more topiaries.  Most bordered on the murky line between trimmed bushes and true topiaries, but many seemed to me to all be topiaries (which I am defining as trees and bushes shaped with some kind of expressive intention). At every red light (and there are many, and for once I was happy to catch them all) I found either a topiary or something really close to one.   There were twin towers, about 5 feet tall, on the edge of the parking lot of a drive-in burrito place.  The McDonald's had muffin-shaped bushes, perfectly carved and lining the parking area.  A lawyer's office had a nice collection along the brick front of the building.  These were of geometric shapes that incorporated the mailbox.

Gas stations seemed to be good sites for topiaries.  Some imaginative person with a hedge trimmer had made a double decker split level something out in front of a Shell station.  There was a pair of breasts in front of a small framing gallery.  And a funeral home had a line of shot glasses.  Or maybe they were urns.   I drew really fast, kept my notebook and pen opened on the seat next to me, and as soon as I pulled up to the light I sketched in the barest outlines of the shapes of the topiaries.  I filled in the textures later at home.

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