The Art of Odds and Ends

It takes a certain innovative perspective to look at a rusty child’s bike seat and a heavy-duty car spring, and see art. Lee resident Jill Nooney added spindly metal appendages to this hodgepodge and Praying Mantis was born. She also turned disk harrows, pitchforks and pick axes into a creation named Farm Totem-a collection of farm debris in a stately homage to the past. Thanks to her skills as a welder, antique boilers have become fountains and birdbaths, and a yard-sale stash of Bundt cake pans (thirty-five to be exact) became birdhouses in Nooney’s capable hands.From a small 1740 farmhouse, near a rambling New England barn and an abundance of poison ivy, Nooney and her husband, Bob Munger-a retired physician turned “engineer/welder/whatever-you need-technologically” guy-created garden beds on ten of their thirty-three acres in Lee, which they affectionately call Bedrock Gardens. They acquired the property in 1980. But Nooney-a psychotherapist and a graduate of the Radcliffe Seminars Landscape Design Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts-felt something was missing. The gardens needed “jewelry” she says.She desired something other than plants to accent an area, focus the eye and cause a pause in the journey through the garden. Her impatience to find garden art she liked motivated her to learn welding, so she could do it now and her way. Thus she added sculptor to her repertoire of talents.”I began making art for the garden when the garden turned middle age,” Nooney says, straightening her faded baseball cap and wiping dusty hands on her orange flight jumpsuit. “Garden art can evoke a sense of history, or bring an element of humor or reflection to the garden that plants alone cannot achieve.” Her knack for envisioning pieces of sculptural garden art from castaway junk collected from salvage yards, town dumps and yard sales reinvents itself as arbors made from shoe lasts, baby cribs and baseball bats. Or planters configured from old copper boilers and gramophones, and bird sculptures made from farm-machine parts. As her garden art proliferated, her reputation as a gardenart sculptor grew. And so a new business took root-Fine Garden Art.Artistic recyclingIt’s time to say good-bye to the age-old Buddhas, pink flamingos and massproduced gnomes that have run their course as garden decoration. The trend today is toward one-of-a-kind works and garden art that have classic staying power, according to Bruce Butterfield, market research director of the National Garden Association.Nooney’s distinctive creations are constructed mainly in steel-most of which is from century-old farm equipment that has been dissembled and then reassembled into works of art. Nooney believes an object that originally worked the land and then returns to the land as garden art is the ultimate in recycling. She considers it her mission to rescue worn and rusted farm implements that would otherwise clutter a landfill.”Some of the components are antiques,” she says, “others are pieces of American history that I’ve collected over time and stored in my barn. Many objects have been salvaged from old, architecturally interesting buildings.”She wanders through the barn strewn with piles of like-shaped metal pieces, lovingly pointing out items. “I save gears. I’ve been saving them as my ‘precious’ pieces. But one day I thought, ‘Jill, you could die. And you would have saved this for nothing.’ So I’m starting to just go for it.”This is going to be an armadillo,” she says pointing at a mass of metal with golf-ball-like divots. “These are things I want to make turtles from. These will be heads. Those pieces will make good wings or arms.”Though the large barn teems with piles and piles of metal parts, Nooney says it’s not enough. She is continuously on the lookout for more bric-a-brac to add to her stockpile. “The old sawmill blade, antique tractor seats, horse collars, cast-iron wood stove parts or old hay-rake forks all are my inspiration.”Men are particularly captivated with her creations. Nooney says that while women meander about the grounds admiring the flowers and gardens, men begin naming machine parts from her sculptures: “Oh, that is from an old tractor wheel.” “My grandfather had a combine that had those cutter bars.” “I used to have a hay buck that had those rakes.”The garden’s supporting roleNooney’s art isn’t limited to her metal re-assemblages-she also “paints” with grasses that choreograph a live dance as a breeze sweeps across the field. A swath of mixed grasses, called Grass Acre, provides a changing visual show where the grasses become blue in the spring and turn violet as the season wears on. A middle patch of color is vibrant green. Like a colorful Monet painting, the hues blend and reflect the sun.Off behind the barn, an undulating privet hedge adds to the natural contouring of the gardens, along with the more formal espaliered Belgian fence that is laden with eleven varieties of apple trees interweaving the lattice work. The natural plantings interspersed with Nooney’s metal creations begin to blend and redefine the concept of art- so much so that at times the line blurs between what is and isn’t art. Yet however you define it, you can’t help but agree that what lies before you is indeed an enchanted garden.A healthy dose of personalityWhile greatly admired for her gardening skills, Nooney’s humor is not to be overlooked. For instance, a large sculpture made from industrial kitchen equipment, including a beater, is called Batter Up. Two vertical creations that have mower bars around the large metal Hula-Hooplikerings-one with the spiky points facing in, the other out-Nooney named Innie and Outie. The piece titled Double Breasted has two round saw wheels as part of the contraption. Then there are the two chairs constructed of tractor seats with pitchforks for the backs that overlook the neighbor’s meadow-they are called Borrowed View.”Plants can’t make you laugh,” says Nooney, “or remind you of your childhood the way art can. Many of my pieces are playful, evocative or reflective, and people relate immediately to that.”By self-admission, Nooney says she gets easily bored, doesn’t like to paint within the lines and acts on impulse. One of her many dreams is to someday write a book about the history of her garden. “There are so many back stories that need to be recorded.” She laments that when she leads a garden tour, she doesn’t have time to share them all, and she fears that the colorful stories will get stale if she repeats them too often. “So,” she says, “I need to write a book.”Another task on her “bucket list” is to complete (work has already begun) a foundation that will eventually transition Bedrock Gardens to public gardens. The foundation’s purpose will be to maintain and promote Bedrock Gardens as well as to cater to the intense interest exhibited by gardeners, landscape designers, horticulturists and art admirers.As if working on the foundation, counseling clients, welding together her latest sculptures and maintaining the garden grounds is not enough of a challenge, you can find Nooney in her garden room practicing her newest endeavor: playing the cello. So who knows? The next offering from Bedrock Gardens may be “Concerts in the Park.”