Arcadia

April 18, 2012

Given that flowers, their forms and associative meanings, have fairly
obsessed me in the studio and have been the center of my passion for
the last umpteen years –it often strikes me as preternatural, perhaps
contrived and even humorous that I grew up in a Southern California
town with the temerity to call itself Arcadia.

arcadia-garden-1arcadia-garden-3

Even though in literature, Arcadia was an imaginary Grecian locale
that may or may not have existed, utopian in nature, prone to bucolic
reveries, the Arcadia I grew up in was a stranger hybrid. Yes, it was
beautiful. Before there was smog, the San Gabriel mountains loomed
majestic and violet above our back yard. As with many older Angelino
suburbs, there was a lot of space in my Arcadia. My parents had bought
a working chicken ranch in 1952. Our neighbors kept horses. Our house
was on a full acre: our old farm house, my grandparents small house
(in the East it would be called a cottage) complete with a star
jasmine arbor and a long row of climbing rose bushes, and then at the
back of the property various large chicken barns and open spaces.
After several years, Arcadia, desirous of a more upscale reputation,
made the inescapable fragrance of chicken farming illegal and my
father sold the chickens and went into other lines of work. But my
family remained. The biggest barn, with some inner walls removed,
became my mother’s painting studio. It was the real center of the
place. She painted seriously every morning. There were periodic
meetings of her “Group” a loose-knit gathering of 15-20 like minded
women abstract painters who would gather to critique each other’s
current works. When I was able to sit in on these meetings, I was in
heaven–listening, trying to guess what formal advice would be offered
to improve one painting or another. There was a small kitchen in one
corner of the studio, and any sizable extended family parties were
held in the studio. The large painting table was cleared off, huge
Mexican bowls and platters of food, prepared in the main house,
magically transported themselves to this bohemian locale in the middle
of suburbia. A large, rustic, open room, with rough wood rafters, huge
space heaters, that had been used for keeping baby chicks warm, and
glassine-covered windows that opened every summer and closed in the
winter, her studio was always a locus for enchantment. Everything at
that Arcadia property was slightly falling apart, which did not seem
to bother my parents, and I rather liked its contrast to the suburban
neatness of the rest of the town.

Bobby Kushner, 1954

Bobby Kushner, 1954

My domain was the yard. It was a yard, one could hardly call it a
garden, mostly a large weedy field, surrounded by trees, and the
stubborn perennial plants that could survive California heat and
drought. There were no fences between our neighbor’s houses, only
permeable rows of bushes and I could readily slip through them with
free reign to roam. I knew where all the fruit trees were and
monitored them with care. Everyone had planted fruit trees in this
climate where everything seemed to thrive. We had rather few: blood
red satsuma plums, damson plums (only good for jam as they were very
bitter), mirabelle plums, an ancient saucer peach and an even more
recalcitrant tangerine, but there were tons of avocados. The various
neighbors had a vast array: grapefruit (so bitter!), navel as well as
valencia oranges, kumquats, loquats, “Prince Rupert” plums, white
Babcock peaches, yellow peaches, green gage plums, pomegranates
(spectacular when their red fullness would burst in the fall and the
tiny leaves would turn cadmium yellow), even white pomegranates, and
several huge mature apricot trees, big enough to climb quite high,
where the birds and I could all eat our fill, and there would still be
more than enough for the table and for preserves. Most mornings after
my proper breakfast, I would make a tour, steal fruit and would hide
in a stand of giant bamboo (the Hollywood studios would pay our
neighbor to cut bamboo for Tarzan movies), particularly when I was mad
at my parents. Perhaps I thought that I was invisible there. I
certainly felt that way, eating kumquats and drawing with my finger
nails on the pliant, silky husks of the bamboo stalks, but I suspect
everyone knew where I was. From time to time when a guest came by the
house that I did not know or did not like so much, I would head for
the bushes and hide out until they left. My mother must have been
embarrassed but I was not punished for this.

1954-2

Bobby Kushner, 1954

 

There was a row of deep purple iris outside my grandparents’ back
door. They led to a nectarine tree that always bloomed but never bore
next to a yellow and white lantana. On his back porch sun room,
Grandpa Browdy kept a rather large coleus, all violent chartreuse and
cerise leaves. On the side of his house was an arbor of climbing
roses. Every spring the local bank gave a free bare root rose bush for
each new savings account. Yearly, Grandpa would drive up, close his
savings accounts, re open them, and claim his free rose bushes which
my father and I would plant. After some years of this, we had a lot of
roses. By the time my parents sold the property in 1972 and everything
was bulldozed, the climbing roses, not requiring annual pruning, were
huge and abundant in their blooms. At the time, I thought Grandpa was
the cleverest man. Shortly thereafter, I found it acutely
embarrassing. Now I rather admire his immigrant, survivor pluck. My
favorite rose was always Peace. And a pure white one which blossomed
only rarely. And then there was an orange climber, huge and triumphant
whose flowers faded to a sunset of hues.

Everyone seemed to be into flowers and plants in some way. Our
neighbor, Betty Kloety, was a very good gardener. Los Angeles,
basically a semi-desert, required large doses of water to make an
attractive garden prosper, and Betty did not stint on watering. There
were walk ways of St. Augustine grass, beds of ferns, camellias on the
north side of her house, a gardenia bush near the canary house (near
her bedroom window, of course), and many varieties of tender plants
that we did not have in our own yard. I was fascinated by a bed of
small larkspur. As a fairly young child, their colors, the delicate
bird-like shape of the flowers intrigued me, and from time to time I
would steal a few of them. Understandably displeased with my
behavior, Betty informed my father, who issued an ultimatum: cease
and desist stealing flowers from the neighbors or face being
“strapped”. I did it again, and was whipped with a belt for stealing
flowers –a grossly heavy handed punishment for what seems like a
minor infraction. It still bothers me.

There were many plant specialists, indoors or out. Betty Kloety also
grew many African violets. Old Mr Weisman our neighbor on the other
side had dozens of epiphyllum cactus in huge Mexican terra cotta pots.
Mrs. Stoker next to him had uncountable camellias, including camellia
species. They bloomed beautifully in their infinite diversity of pink,
red, white under the protective shade of her live oak trees. And Mr
Delkin next door to her hybridized dinner plate dahlias in a garden
well hidden from the street.

Since we had a large yard which was for the most part uncultivated, I
could claim garden space wherever I wished. I had a large area of
cacti and succulents near the driveway. A smaller collection of
geraniums. All of these could be cultivated from slips. If I saw a
new variety that I wanted for my collection, I would either ask, or in
some desperate cases, just liberate a small cutting. I tried to make a
shade garden under our avocado tree. Repeatedly I would save my
allowance to purchase big, fat begonia tubers, fuschias and ferns
which would not withstand the strong California sun, planting them
where I hoped they would flourish in the deep shade of the avocado
tree. I did not know then that the leaves and roots of avocados are
allelopathic and nothing else can grow under them. My shade garden
never flourished.

kushner-1955-pink-and-green

Bobby Kushner, 1954

 

My bedroom had a long row of windows looking out over a Chinese elm
and fruit trees. I loved to see the plum trees flower clouds of white
every spring. Under the the windows in a narrow strip beside the
driveway, my mother had planted jade trees (they grew to be about
three feet high, covered with tiny off white stars in late winter)
interspersed with paper white narcissus. In late winter the smell was
intoxicating.

bobby-kushner-1955-bees

Bobby Kushner, Bees and Flowers, May 1955

As I got older, an unused back corner of the property became my own
“modern” garden in which to innovate. Inspired by Monet in only the
vaguest way, I dug my own version of a water lily pond, which
consisted of an old bathtub sunk into the ground, filled with water
and surrounded by gravel. I saved my money to buy a miniature yellow
water lily and some gold fish to swim around to eat the mosquito
larvae. I was inspired by the Simon Rodia’s towers in Watts. Around
my pond, I pushed old bent plumbing pipes, still around from the
chicken ranch days, into the ground to create a rather existentialist
sacred grove, and where they intersected, I balanced plaster ceramic
molds that I had salvaged from a defunct ceramic studio. Not too bad
for an angsty teenager. I planted red leafed castor beans and giant
bronze leafed cannas with tangerine orange flowers. I thought that the
vaguely Matissean, silvery leaves of volunteer watermelon vines were
quite elegant with their gray green markings, so they crawled freely
around my “pond”. I felt I had synthesized Giverny with abstract
expressionist sculpture. In my own mind at least. My mother was quite
encouraging.

At some point in high school, I became interested in the wood
constructions of Louise Nevelson. At the same time, the plywood of the
back door to our farm house was delaminating and I saw opportunity. My
folks, probably my mother, gave me permission to construct a
Nevelson-esque wood sculpture with the old door as foundation. Armed
with a hammer and finishing nails, I scavenged odd pieces of wood in
my dad’s woodshop, picture frame molding, furniture pieces. Everything
got nailed together over a few weeks time, inadvertently making the
door extremely heavy. When finished, I painted it all an irreverent
green rather than Nevelson’s preferred black.

My mother’s idea of gardening could be summed up by two concepts: low
maintenance and low watering. Being a transported east coaster, she
loved the fact that she could grow geraniums outdoors. Even though we
would have an occasional killing frost, the geraniums she stuck into
the soil on the east wall of her studio would just grow and bloom and
be painted until they got too tall. Then one day they would be hacked
down to about six inches. I have wondered whether she did those brutal
prunings, or whether my dad used his beloved machete. Now being an
east coast indoor gardener myself, I relish the image of taking a
machete to geraniums.

arcadia-garden-2

Pansies, snapdragons, calendulas are winter flowers in Los Angeles.
When the weather turned cool in the fall, my mother would take me to
the nursery and we would select several annuals to put out as a winter
garden. This is one of my earliest memories. Always there were
pansies. We would buy one dozen, aiming for a flat with the maximum
variety of color. I have always had the magical sense that pansies
were faces looking at me. Their jewel tones especially in the middle
of winter have always fascinated me: pure yellow, royal violet,
lavender, yellow with purple, mahogany brown, white with black
whiskers. Always there were a few that only had buds and I would be
excited to see which colors would emerge when they opened. Sometimes
we planted them in a tiny corner near our front door. Later there was
a small bed under the acacia tree (that bloomed a profusion of yellow
pollen laden flowers that drove me into an annual paroxysm of
sneezing) that could be seen from the kitchen window. She preferred
the showier calendulas with their brash orange and yellow flowers.
They would bloom from November until April or so. By summer, our
resident gophers had usually decimated that bed. Sometimes she would
plant zinnias or marigolds for summer color. They always seemed a
little prosaic to me compared to the winter flowers.

I was also fascinated by what we could NOT grow. Betty Kloety had a
row of scrawny lilacs making a hedge between our property and hers.
How she coddled them. Lilacs require a hard cold winter to bloom, but
that did not deter Betty. She bought huge blocks of ice (were there
still ice men in the 1950s?) and put them over the roots of the plants
to try to shock them into blooming. She succeeded only in getting one
inch flower heads that seemed insignificant to me. It was only when I
moved East and experienced the brief spring miracle of lilacs that I
realized what she was hoping for.

For some reason I was obsessed by tulips, another non starter in the
Mediterranean southland. When seed and plant catalogs would arrive I
would marvel over the colors, the perfect globular forms the long
elegant stems of tulips. Their forms were easy to draw: a curve on the
bottom and a W on top. I think I had read about tulipmania in Holland.
Daffodils and narcissus would bloom and multiply nicely, but cold
loving tulips were a different story. I had read about forcing spring
bulbs. With my pathetic allowance, I would buy tulip bulbs, plant
them with a prayer in clay pots and stow them in our cool, dark root
cellar, water them then gradually introduce them to light and try to
force them successfully. Very rarely they bloomed, but on one inch
stems with shrunken, diminutive blossoms. Once I persuaded my parents
to take me on a drive to a tulip farm in the mountains where it was
cold enough to grow them successfully. Tulips have remained magical
flowers to me the rest of my life.

Sociologically, Arcadia was another story, not such a pretty picture.
Through careful cultivation Arcadia’s population was pretty much lily
white and mostly protestant, and of course since it was the 1950s
everyone was careful to be polite on the exterior. But scratch that
surface and interactions could be filled with a not-so-subtle
classism. Even though we lived in the poorer end of town, everyone
knew and commented on what kind of car you drove to high school and
how many Pendleton shirts each boy had. My best friend was given a
used Porsche for getting straight A’s one semester. There was ripe
and overt racism at the core. My dad, a realtor at that time, and a
true liberal at heart, often acknowledged bitterly that there was a
“gentlemen’s agreement” that kept the housing market in Arcadia purely
white. Arcadia had a small Hispanic community and a few Jews.
Neighboring San Marino was much richer and whiter. On the other hand,
neighboring Monrovia and Pasadena had sizable black populations, and
El Monte was heavily Hispanic. More than once, particularly in high
school, during the years of race riots, I heard the ‘N-word’ to refer
to our neighbors in mixed race Monrovia and Pasadena. I was acutely
aware of being Jewish in a Wasp enclave. Every year in elementary
school I, the only Jewish kid in my classroom, had to tell the story
of Chanukah to my class, but at the same time, I had to memorize
Christmas carols to sing in the school assembly. Just what was a
manger? Or a “round yon virgin” for that matter? I wonder whether in
classes without Jewish students Chanukah was addressed at all?

And then there was politics. In Junior High, my math teacher handed
out copies of ultra-conservative John Birch Society literature in
class. The national headquarters of the John Birch Society was in San
Marino. My lefty, pinko father nearly became apoplectic over this.
Appropriate reactions were discussed at the dining room table. At my
mother’s request he did nothing to protest this. I wish he had.

However, knowing I was of a different breed, self identified as an
aestheticized weirdo, a benign misfit and a self styled intellectual,
it all worked somehow. I was a good student, liked to learn, was lucky
to have some excellent teachers and I located like minded friends and
their families once I was in high school. My friends and I made home
films, wrote a musical, tried to write a serious play, made prints and
talked a lot. But the garden, my plant collections and garden
projects created my own little retreat. Over and over again in my
adult studio work I have attempted to recapture the wonderful slightly
skewed, decrepit haven provided by the wide range of flora that
surrounded me. Sometimes literally, but more often I reference these
gardens metaphorically, with their wealth of juxtaposed forms and
interconnecting shapes, the sense of lush growth that knows no winter.

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Bobby Kushner, Daffodil, 1955

 

Robert Kushner, April 2012

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