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Keela Meadows' botanical paint box

December 16, 2009 | 10:12 am


Keeylameadows1Los Angeles native Keeyla Meadows lives in Berkeley, where she makes art and designs gardens. Her cheerful 50-by-100-foot city lot, part of which is pictured above, is a living canvas. It is packed with life-sized female figures and not-so-perfect vessels, hand-built in clay and glazed in a palette of turquoise, apricot and lavender. No surface is left unadorned. Whether it’s her swirly ceramic paving, custom metal benches or sculpted walls, Meadows artistically places favorite objects and plants with a carefree confidence that few of us can master.

Fans of Meadows, pictured right, have long admired her award-winning gardens, including a "Best in Show" at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show a few years back. In 2008, I lucked into an impromptu visit to Meadows’ personal wonderland when my girlfriend, Mary Ann, boldly followed her into Cafe Fanny in Berkeley to secure an invitation for our group of breakfasting garden writers.

“You can take photos, but don’t publish them until my book is out,” Meadows requested. It was the least we could do, having feasted our eyes on her botanical paint box, imagining how we might try her playful ideas in our own backyards.

Her book, "Fearless Color Gardens: The Creative Gardener’s Guide to Jumping Off the Color Wheel" (Timber Press, $27.95), has just been published. Filled with Meadows' photography of design projects, as well as her doodles and sketches, it reads like a colorist’s memoir, complete with a muse named Emerald. Strong on fantasy, it’s also a useful workbook for garden owners who need a nudge toward the more vibrant end of the color spectrum. I recently talked with Meadows about the concepts in her book.

How do you teach students to feel confident as garden designers?
A lot of people have this mantra that says, "I'm not a creative person. I’m not an artist." Our lives are built around the practicality of what we have to do everyday, so many people shut those doors to creativity a long time ago. I suggest you treat garden design like something you do all the time. The physical activity of placing plants in a space can be as easy as folding laundry and putting it away, or setting the table, or baking a cake.

How can I make a landscape project feel less overwhelming?
I suggest you divide your space up like a series of photographs, or like windows. Decide what “picture” you’re working with, where it starts and ends. Start with looking out the kitchen window and use plants and art to fill the frame.

Where does your color inspiration come from?
A lot of my color sense comes from growing up in Los Angeles and living with its colorfulness – the light, tile work and Catalina Island all inspired me. Right now, I’m designing a new garden for the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show in March. It’s a habitat garden, and the colors I’m using come from the red-headed garter snake, an endangered snake from the San Mateo coastline. It has a red head with a turquoise and red stripe down the back, so it’s providing my design motif, my imagery and my color combination.

Flowertriangle How do you suggest people "jump off" the color wheel?
The traditional color wheel makes my head spin. I use a color triangle, which is so stabilizing. I put blue at the top of the pyramid – it represents the sky. The other two points are red and yellow. Between the three primary colors are the secondary colors. On either side of any point is a harmonic chord of color. You’ll never go wrong if you take one of the points – red, yellow or blue – and use one of those chords of color on either side of it.

How do you balance artwork with the plants in your garden?

Art gives me a constant relationship to plant against, a very stable feature to move through the seasons with. Art creates so much focus and orients the whole space so one is not always reinventing. It is like a stage setting. The artwork and hardscape set the stage for your plants to really become the stars.

-- Debra Prinzing

Photo credit: "Fearless Color Gardens."