An intriguing trio of anthropomorphic flowers has sprung up as a roadside attraction in Watkinsville, thanks to the green thumb and artistic talent of Cindy Jerrell. Towering around 10 feet tall, her cheerful topiary flower ladies symbolize how growth, change and blossoming are all possible even when staying in one place—a hopeful message for a pandemic. As a functional artwork, the ladies have birdhouses hanging at the center of their chests, providing shelter to birds, while their wooden skirts provide a stable framework for an assortment of moonflowers, morning glories and sweet peas to climb.
“Gardening is something I get excited about in early spring every year, ready or not,” says Jerrell, a mixed-media artist. “It’s total sorcery! This little bean is gonna do what? And you get sweaty and dirty, but your head is full of pure optimism. This year I found it really helped with my COVID anxieties to tire myself out digging and weeding and let the sun and earth absorb and dissolve my worries and help me recharge. I read that gardening ‘interrupts harmful ruminating’ and puts you in touch with the bigger picture. So all that and you get flowers?”
Whether she has selected painting, photography, graphic art or sculpture as her medium of the day, Jerrell often looks to nature for inspiration. Her most recent installation not only embodies the intersection of her passions for artmaking and gardening but also represents the passage of time on multiple levels: the days she spent designing the sculptures, the weeks the vines have taken to slowly inch their way skyward, and the months the pandemic has spent altering our perceptions of space, environment and community.
“When I first moved to Georgia and was astounded by kudzu overtaking power poles, I always saw a kudzu Tyrannosaurus Rex in that shape,” says Jerrell. “I thought it would be fun to make renegade camouflaged topiary frames of giant things like Brontosauruses or giraffes and leave them in kudzu fields to fill in on their own. So that was in the mix, but the real inspiration was a heartfelt response to what the coronavirus was doing to people and how I could reach out in some way to try and make someone’s day better.”
Jerrell’s sculptures were funded by Shelter Projects, a mini-fellowship program launched by the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts—in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, the Athens Area Arts Council, the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and Flagpole—that awarded $500 to 34 graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners to support the creation of shareable reflections on their experiences of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities. From the vantage point of her own garden, Jerrell observed the widespread increase in neighbors walking, running and biking as a break from sheltering in place and saw a chance to offer passersby a moment of connection and relief from anxiety.
“I began to envision a lady holding her arms up to the sky in reverence and joy, regenerating under the sun,” says Jerrell. “I thought she should be big, because somehow I’ve never been able to forget that Flannery O’Connor quote about making a vision apparent by drawing ‘large and startling figures.’ And she would have a sweet, simple smile. Ultimately, her face was inspired by an Inuit doll I saw once in National Geographic. I knew she needed a crown, which somehow evolved into a flower face. She would have a wide skirt down to the ground for flowers and vines to grow up so that even while she stayed in one place, she would bloom and transform into something new and beautiful.”
Since creating the original trio of topiary ladies, Jerrell has been approached by multiple friends seeking personalized sculptures for their own gardens. Adding words into the design, one offers a friendly greeting of “hello,” while another reminds everyone to simply “be.” On the cover of Flagpole this week, a love-themed lady incorporates suspended, twirling bluebirds. The most unusual topiary lady so far, installed in an apiary, has a halo of bees hovering around her head and a mason bee house nestled in her chest.
Kind expressions and gentle messages help personify these ladies, who demonstrate how incorporating artwork into gardens can create a sense of wonder and playfulness. In addition to sculptures and living topiaries that are traditionally ornamental, many of the utilitarian objects often found within gardens are ripe for an artist’s touch. Over the past several years the annual auction Roll Out the Barrels has made one-of-a-kind painted rain barrels a popular way to collect art that is both decorative and functional. And though they may be more difficult to meet in the absence of Athens’ important craft markets, there are a handful of metalsmiths and woodworkers here in town who accept commissions for custom benches and bird houses and even more ceramicists who offer special flowerpots.
“I like the idea of collaborating with nature. You can provide habitats for birds, frogs and bugs, or you can make a beautiful birdbath or ceramic bowl that provides fresh water. So you do your half, and then nature finishes the piece when a little bird moves in or a critter gets a nice clean drink of water,” says Jerrell. “You could make cool rain chains, and I’m also personally excited about making whirligigs or wind puppets. I want to make some more trellises with personality since there is always this gap between when you first plant something and when it is mature.”
Jerrell’s topiary flower ladies are located along South Barnett Shoals Road on the outskirts of Watkinsville near Let It Be Yoga and can be safely observed from the sidewalk.
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