Q&A/Impressionist painting comes to life in Columbus
Downtown Columbus, Ohio, is home to the world’s only existing topiary interpretation of a painting. Visitors to Old Deaf School Park — the site of a school that burned down in 1981 — can walk through a topiary garden modeled on Georges Seurat’s famous work “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884.” The garden, about the size of a football field, is filled with 54 people, eight boats, three dogs, a monkey and a cat sculpted in Japanese yew trees. The largest figure is 12 feet tall. The garden is a project of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department and was created by James and Elaine Mason. James, a lifelong resident of Columbus, has taught sculpture in the department since 1967.
Q: How did you get the idea to build a topiary garden?
A: I was at Longwood [Gardens in Philadelphia where] they have a very nice classical topiary. It was a fall day in October, late afternoon, kind of hazy. The light and the shapes reminded me of an Impressionist painting.
[My wife and I] were going to do a topiary in our backyard. I flippantly said, “I’d like to do Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ in topiary,” and we both laughed because it was a big project. So we forgot about it, but my wife later was in [a Recreation and Parks Department] meeting. After the meeting, she said, “I’ve got this really crazy idea,” and [the director] thought it was great. He said, “Fine. Get it together. I know exactly where to put it.”
We got a package together and [met with] Motorists Insurance, which borders the north side of the park. It turned out that they liked it too, which was a bit of luck because nobody in the Midwest really knows what topiaries are. You can find them on the West Coast, but they’re mainly on the East Coast. [Motorists] did the initial funding, and it took two years to put it together. I think it was in the fall of 1987 that we started putting the first bushes in.
Q: Did you consider any other paintings to do in topiary?
A: There are a lot of them you could do, but this just happened to be the perfect painting. It’s a painting of people in a park. The idea behind the thing is a pun. It’s a landscape of a painting as opposed to a painting of a landscape. It’s a play on the whole Impressionist period.
Q: What is involved in creating the topiaries?
A: First of all, you have to build a framework of the shape you want. You anchor that on the ground, and you put your plant on the inside of it. We use taxus plant (Japanese Yew) because it is very hardy for this area. As the tree grows, you shape it to the form of the armature. It’s clipped into shape.
Q: So, the figures are not fully grown when you install them?
A: No. I’ll probably not live long enough to see the whole thing actually fully grown, which is why you don’t see too many of them in the Midwest. Nobody stays in the same place long enough.
Q: Is there anything about the painting that you left out because it wouldn’t work as a topiary?
A: The idea was not actually to reproduce the painting exactly. The idea was to get a reasonable facsimile so you feel like you’re walking into the painting. It didn’t have to be an exact interpretation. We left a little bit of room for dealing with the realities of the park.
The question I get asked most often is, “Do I get impatient for the figures to fill out?” Well, yes and no. Actually, what I’m impatient for are the other trees to get big so we get the vertical scale. But there’s no fast way to do that, you just have to wait for the trees to grow.
Q: What kind of maintenance is required to keep up the figures?
A: Just general park maintenance. [Volunteers] mow the lawn and plant flowers, and the topiaries need to be clipped. The big clipping is generally in June. They’re clipped throughout the summer, and we do some clipping in September, too.
Q: What do you think the park contributes to Columbus?
A: It gives us a certain amount of sophistication. Uniqueness. I don’t know of any other place like it. We’ve been published [in periodicals] all over the world, so there’s a PR value. The most important thing, though, is that it’s a real nice place to go and have lunch.