Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Connections: Trinity Root and a Visit to Fordhook Farm

Trinity Root 
by Steve Tobin
When I first discovered Steve Tobin's magnificent sculpture, Trinity Root, in front of Trinity Church on lower Broadway a few weeks back, I posted a photo and brief description. I wasn't aware of the happy confluence of events that would come to pass, resulting in an unexpected email, and a Sunday visit to Fordhook Farm, home of the Burpee Seed Company and the east coast display and test gardens for Heronswood Nursery, all only a short, 30 minute drive from our house and garden on Federal Twist Road.

George Ball, his face shining with his typical enthusiasm, making sure
Phil and I noticed the minute detail in one of his favorite 
Steve Tobin sculptures.
The email came out of the blue, from George Ball, president and owner of Burpee and Heronswood. He'd noticed the Trinity Root posting on my blog. George wrote me that few are aware Fordhook Farm, his home and headquarters of the Burpee Company, has one of the largest Tobin collections anywhere. He offered an invitation to come by anytime to take a look. So on one recent sunny Sunday, Phil and I drove over to see.

On entering the farm grounds we found gigantic metal sculptures at the entrance, part of a series named New Nature, which, to me, resembled Brobdingnagian seed pods, or perhaps giant pollen grains.

I'm also reminded of the serried ranks of pipe in a pipe organ, as well as--at the opposite end of the metaphorical spectrum--cannons, guns. One thing's for sure, these are energetic works and, like a conversation with George Ball, they can literally make your mind pop with ideas and new associations.

Further in we found a large field, a many acre expanse holding several large Tobin sculptures, some like quirky, playful, giant tools or machines for some as yet unknown purpose ...

... others, massive stylized tree roots, some with the grace of dancers, swirling with motion ...

... lounging metal lozenges, like a group of seals lolling on their wet rocky perches, or perhaps suggesting an abstract version of Rodin's The Burghers of Calais ...

... and a highly abstracted tree root, its shining black catching the blue of the sky ...

Phallic, no doubt, and in conversation with one another ...

There is also a collection of more realistic portrayals of  tree root systems in bronze, this one reminiscent of Trinity Root ...

Partway through our visit, this big guy--George, but we didn't know who he was at the time--came out of the house with his dogs, gesticulating to us across the field and calling out to tell us to stop by when we finished -- all this from several hundred feet away. (As I said, it was a very large field.) When we got to the house, George introduced himself, invited us inside and gave us drinks. We joined him in his study for about an hour.

George is a large man, easily exceeding six feet by several inches, with a welcoming, quick, earnest manner, an almost unbounded enthusiasm, wide ranging interests, and a generosity of spirit that was quite unexpected (we were, after all, strangers, though his knowledge of my blog had been some kind of introduction). I, normally reticent and quiet around people I don't know well, found conversation easy, fascinating, actually. We talked about many things ... the book both of us were reading (Hybrid by Noel Kingsbury), the amazing basketball  talent of Native Americans, who George thinks are the best players in the world, Heronswood, and what is and isn't happening with that business since Burpee purchased it in 2000.

His take on Heronswood was an interesting one. As many in the gardening world know, George has been targeted as "the man who destroyed Heronswood" since his company purchased it. I suppose this is a risk inherent in taking over a business with such a loyal, almost fanatical, following. I felt much the same when I read of the purchase years back. My own fantasy was this:  big American corporation absorbs small, famous, world renowned nursery, yet another example of capitalism turning all things of value into commodities. I've since retreated from that attitude. As George pointed out, the owners of Heronswood were ready to move on to other things, and they made the decision to sell. In fact, George and company found that many of the plants that grew so successfully in the rain forest environment of the Pacific Northwest had to be painstakingly tested for their adaptability to climatic conditions in the rest of the U.S. So Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, has become one of the trialing grounds, where the plants are grown to determine how well they fare outside the native Heronswood domain on the Kitsap peninsula.

Unfortunately, we had to leave to return to a house guest we'd left at home. George insisted, however, that he give us a quick tour of a few areas around the house before we left, and we were happy to accept. One of the highlights was a prototype for Trinity Root.  Here George is explaining.

Notice his hands. He's rather the showman. He loves to talk, to teach, to show.

Nuff said?

Next we went up to the house to see his favorite work by Tobin, one of a group called Earth Bronzes on Tobin's web site.

These are rather atavistic-looking, sometimes disturbing, collections of animals and natural objects cast in bronze, roughly in the shape of grave stones (my image), and suggestive of some ancient religious purpose. Here, a detail shows Tobin's virtuoso technique:

Near the end of our tour was this piece, which was on loan and about to be moved, a 'Bamboo', certainly one of my favorites ...

Last was a new work called 'Syntax'. George explained that Steve Tobin in some way acquired a collection of metal letters, which he painstakingly fabricated into this patinated globe.

George Ball, in a rare quiet moment.
My one regret is that we timed our visit for mid-day, in glaringly bright sunlight, making good photographs impossible. To see beautiful, professional photographs of Steve Tobin's work, and learn more about him, click here.

It is possible to see the Burpee gardens and Tobin collection, though an appointment is necessary since Fordhook Farm is a corporate headquarters and private home. Call Linda, or leave a message, at 215 345 1766, fax 215 345 1791, if you want to visit.


  1. Dear James, What a fascinating account of the work of Steve Tobin of whom I did not know prior to your posting. In reflecting upon the images of the sculptures which you show I admire the scale, the dynamic energy, the tension of the natural world being portrayed against the man made materials of construction and the sheer bravura of them all. However, for me they are disturbing, not always a bad thing, but sufficiently uncomfortable for me to know that I should not wish to live with them.

    I know little of Heronswood but, from your brief account,it illustrates for me a truth which I firmly believe about gardens and that is that they belong to the people in their time and do not generally translate to other owners or times successfully.

  2. James,
    Your photographs are beautiful even in glaring midday light. I had no idea Fordhook Farm had a Steve Tobin sculpture collection. Good to know. Thanks!

  3. There are couple of Tobin's works here in the Garden for Sculpture, NJ including a similar red root...

    There is (was) also an extensive exhibition of Tobin's steelroots in the Morton Arboretum, Lisle IL that i was so unbelievably lucky to visit...

  4. Maybe Tobin can donate something to me. Those were some fascinating, moving, incredible pieces. Sometimes I think I can do that, I could make a sculpture, but as an artist I know that's crazy talk. Thank you for going out there and takign pics.

  5. WOW...I'd not known Steve Tobin before, but these examples of his work speak out loud to me, esp the 'New Nature' sea urchin form, the 'Earth Bronzes' plaque and 'Syntax'. Sculpture and gardens/landscapes fit one another so well, when the sculptures are like these. Glad you're posting again James ( "all the others look the same" ). Faisal.

  6. Edith,
    Thank you for your, as always, thoughtful comment. Your description captures the quality of the Tobin sculptures well. And I certainly understand why one might not want to live with one (I certainly would). I also agree with what you say about gardens and the difficulty of successfully making a transition from an original owner and garden maker to someone else. It's virtually impossible to keep a garden the same. It will change and become someone else's garden, a different garden at best. Here George is between a rock and a hard place; so many Heronswood fans want the garden frozen in time and maintained as is, without realizing only the original owner, living in the same situation, could possibly make that happen. A little understanding is needed. People want the impossible.

  7. Michael,
    Thanks for saying the photos are good, but I know otherwise. I edited them to the extent possible with my limited skills, just to ameliorate the worst effects of the bright light, but when you compare them to the images on the Tobin web site, you'll see a vast difference. I'm glad to be able to help spread the word about the Burpee collection, which is also viewable on Tobin's site.

  8. Helena,
    Thanks for the word on the sculptures in the Garden for Sculpture in New Jersey. I haven't been there. One more thing to do when I retire in a few months and begin my Vita Nuova.

  9. Benjamin,
    You're a poet. Have you given much thought to using poetry in your garden? Are you aware of Ian Hamilton Finley's Little Sparta in Scotland? If not, look it up. It may strike a chord with you. (BTW - I ordered your book.)

  10. Faisal,
    I'm glad you like them. Wonder what it would cost to ship one of those to you in Australia? Thanks for noticing I hadn't posted. It's been a very busy time, and I've a backlog of blog post ideas to get done. How's the new garden going? Are you getting any work done? I guess you're following the saga of William Martin slashing away at Wigandia...

  11. wm,
    Thanks. I value your opinion. By the way, I'm still a little mystified by Posterous.

  12. It would cost, as we say over here, an arm and a leg to ship a Steve Tobin to Australia. We have had Andy Goldsworthy do some work of his pieces is a cairn on a little island in our Yarra River, right near the city centre. The garden at St Andrews is temporarily on hold - life has sort of got in the way, and it being an almost three hour drive away, I can only work at my current home. I'm planning a series of miniature landscapes - I mean toy-size - and blowing their photos up so they look 'real'. It's winter here, there is more work to do than ever, but already there is new life everywhere you look! Cheers, James, Faisal.

  13. How great that you got to meet George Ball, and I am glad that you were able to get another perspective on the Heronswood story. Seems that jumping to conclusions has been making the rounds lately.

  14. Faisal,

    I like Andy Goldsworthy, though I've seen his work only on video and in books so far. I understand how life gets in the way of gardening. I have the same problem. Work gets in the way but, unfortunately, it's necessary to pay for gardening, and the other necessities. I'm intrigued by what you say about miniature landscapes. I can't imagine what it will be like.

  15. Les,
    George is a very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable guy. Glad I finally put my email contact on this blog. It's resulted in contacts that probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. You have to take some risks. Yes, it seems there are many sides to the Heronswood story. Well, we now have a Heronswood myth too.

  16. Delightful entry and equally engaging comments from all posters. As usual, James, you intrigue and inform simultaneously. That's a trait I well remember from well over 40 years ago.
    So glad to see your mention of retirement. I can't recommend it too highly. It seems this is what I've been intended for all my life and I wish to hoard these days and parcel them out one by one while savoring their fullness. An advance welcome to you, sir, from one who got a 3+ year head start.

  17. Allan,
    So good to hear from you. Life appears to be going great for you and Karen since you moved. Last time I was in Seattle was 9/11 when we sere stranded there while the air traffic stopped. I remember going to several moving memorials, and a huge one downtown. A very memorable experience for us. I look forward to retirement, or semi-retirement (I need to work some) as my Vita Nuova, a new life that will give me time for all the things I love.

  18. many of these sculptures remind me of the great many idea's for my own sculpture. Generally very few of those idea's come to fruition as materials are cost prohibitive. It is said that the 'idea' is sufficient but sometimes it would be nice to have that spare cash to get stuff on the Faisal they are often 'reduced' to miniature!
    Best Buckets

  19. Yes, the materials in this case, and the helpers to fabricate the finished works, must be very costly. I do wonder how one goes about financing such work. At present, I'm having a hard time figuring out how to pay for a couple of loads of gravel I need.

  20. Hey James, there is someone else whose work I think you'd really like. His name is Giuseppe Penone. Faisal.

  21. James, very nice post, and the enthusiasm of George ball is refreshing,Nobody made those guys sell-free will, so it is a shame that George has been a bit made the bully....nice to see the different pieces having a conversation on the same estate, lighting is everything, but I enjoyed your shots, thank you! Brian

  22. Hi, Faisal - Thanks for telling me about Penone. I looked at his work. Love it.

  23. Brian,
    Yes, George is a font of information on all sorts of subjects, some very esoteric ones. I can't ever seem to get to places I want to photograph in early morning or at twilight time. It doesn't just fit the rhythms of my life.



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