growing up

Arcadia by Robert Kushner

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.

Robert Kushner Arcadia .png

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.

Bobby Kushner, 1954

Bobby Kushner, 1954

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, Bees and Flowers, May 1955

Bobby Kushner, Bees and Flowers, May 1955

Bobby Kushner, 1955

Bobby Kushner, 1955

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.

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.

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

Kushner backyard .png

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

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.

Robert Kushner, April 2012