ASHLAND – A garden, when placed in the hands of an artist, becomes a living sculpture with undulating pathways, tiered beds, and nesting birds and butterflies. But what happens when you invite a group of certified Master Gardeners to create art in response to their gardens?
The public will soon find out with “Inspired by Nature: Art Through the Eyes of Master Gardeners,” an exhibit of sculptures, paintings, woodcarvings, quilts and photographs by 10 Master Gardener artists. Co-hosted by the Ashland/Bayfield County Master Gardener Association and the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, this premier exhibition runs from Nov. 6 –June 4 at the NGLVC with an artist reception from 7 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 9.
“Inspired by Nature” celebrates the natural ecology of the area through art and also educates the public on scientific aspects related to this ecology. Patra Holter, a Master Gardener/artist, initiated this show.
“Part of the reason why I thought this would be a good idea is, to me, gardening is an art form in itself as well as a scientific form,” said Holter, meeting at the NGLVC with two other Master Gardeners helping her organize the event: Jan Wise, an artist from Washburn, and Sue Nelson, Interpretive Services Specialist for NGLVC.
So what exactly is a Master Gardener? Master Gardener certification is a national program that trains individuals in the science and art of gardening. After a five-month course of study (with exams and community service projects), certified individuals can pass on information to the public as gardening and horticulture educators. In Wisconsin, the Master Gardener Program is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Extension and is offered twice a year through WITC in Ashland, taught by Matt Cogger, horticulture educator for Ashland and Bayfield Counties.
“Once you go through the training process, you have to recertify every year, which involves getting additional training and volunteer hours doing community service gardening projects in your community,” Holter explained.
She and Wise completed the course in spring. It included everything from compost management to soils, botany, farming, general gardening practices, and backyard wildlife.
“It’s not just the plants themselves, it’s also what wildlife and pollinators can do for the whole ecology,” Holter said.
Some of the Master Gardeners/artists in the show are also career scientists, like Mary Gruhl, an entomologist. She’s showing photographs of insects from her orchard, and like the other participants, will include a scientific interpretation of her subject.
“She’ll give the common name, the Latin name, and what function that insect is in relationship to pollination,” said Nelson, who’s showing an original quilt inspired by ferns on her Bayfield property.
Peggy Burkman, another Master Gardener/artist, is a park ecologist for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and also an active participant in the annual Chequamegon Bay Birding Festival. She’s showing her carved birds. Interestingly, Burkman only took the Master Gardener course because her daughter, Marissa, (13 years old at the time), wanted to do it, but couldn’t as a minor. The university made an exception, but only if her mother took the course too. Marissa, now graduated from WHS and attending the University of Wisconsin– River Falls, became the youngest Master Gardener in the state.
Holter is showing a series of monotypes depicting ferns, leaves, apples and bleeding hearts, and an abstract oil painting of “Blue Corn.” Wise is showing a series of acrylic bird paintings, a couple of ceramic frog birdbaths, and a natural dyed wall hanging made from lichen.
“One of our Master Gardener programs was about dyeing with lichen,” Wise said.
Because lichen grows slowly and can live for dozens, even hundreds of years, she only collects it from woodpiles or fallen logs.
“Each type of lichen is a different color, which I keep in different containers,” she said. “I put the lichen in a nylon sock, tie it, place it in the crockpot with the wool and bring it to a boil.”
During this process, she discovered two amazing features.
“Lichen’s a mordant, which means normally you have to cook the wool in tin, iron, copper or alloy to open up the fibers to accept the color,” she said. “So you mordant all your wool, then put it in the dye bath. But lichen acts as mordant and opens up the fibers, so you don’t have to do two steps. Plus, it’s moth-resistant.”
As Master Gardeners, the science of art and the art of science often cross-pollinate.
Gayle Chatfield, another Master Gardener/artist, is showing a 42” x 66” 3-D sculpture entitled “Re-Leaf,” made from repurposed aluminum cans. Dr. Donn Christensen, the only man in the exhibit, is showing garden-inspired watercolors, so is his wife Ann. Donna Lanni has some watercolors, acrylics, oils and collages, and Maureen Dodge, watercolors, pastels and some abstract nature paintings.
“Part of the show and part of what master gardening is all about is educating the public,” Holter said. “Many people don’t realize that gardens are natural habitats. They think everything has to be manicured and made to look real nice with no consideration for the wildlife.”
Once a neighbor stopped by Wise’s certified Wildlife Habitat Garden and said, “What a waste of time. You can’t eat any of it.”
What Master Gardeners teach is somebody’s eating those berries, that nectar, that pollen, which benefits everyone with wider pollination. And then there’s noxious weed zoning codes.
“There’s this whole element that they’re missing with these rules and regulations in regards to natural gardens,” said Nelson, native plant restoration specialist at NGLVC. “I run a seed orchard on our property (180 acres) and produce native seed for 95 different plant species.”
Some of those seeds are used for larger restoration areas, like 10 acres in front of the building. Also she works with schools helping them start native plant gardens.
“Washburn was just in last Friday collecting seed, also, Our Lady of the Lake from Ashland. They’ve got a native garden and want to expand,” Nelson said.
As a native plant restoration specialist, her work is never done. When she gets home she wrestles with invasive species on her property, like buckthorn and Japanese knotweed. But instead of using Milestone or some other chemical, after conversing with a fellow Master Gardener she’s going to try a 25-30 percent white vinegar solution mixed with orange peel oil to vanquish her knotweed.
Becoming Master Gardeners has added a new understory to Wise’s and Holter’s garden lives.
“The biggest takeaway for me was being able to find resources when I had a question,” Wise said.
One resource is Cogger. She can bring him a sample of a diseased shrub and he either sends it in to be analyzed or finds a solution online.
Besides trolling the Master Gardener website for weekly updates, Holter found she automatically applied what she learned while gardening.
“Like composting or pesticides—the scientific end of it, which is very important,” Holter said. “A lot of people don’t know those things, nor did I. All that information has helped me get through the garden.”
Holter specializes in deer resistant and shade plants and has a thing about ferns, a theme in her artwork.
Making themselves available as a community resource, every summer Master Gardeners staff a booth at the Bayfield County and Ashland County Fairs, also at Bayfield in Bloom.
“And I do the same thing here at NGLVC,” Nelson added.
They’ll also be at “Inspired by Nature,” ready to answer questions. The next WITC Master Gardener Program with Cogger will be offered on Jan. 10. Cost: $70 per person, $110 for two people sharing materials.
To find more about the Master Gardener Program go to: https://wimastergardener.org/.