It’s early June, 1994. I am about 5 months pregnant with my one and only child and I am working as a book editor at Addison Wesley, Publishing Co in Menlo Park. I live in Santa Clara and commute to Addison Wesley every day. Each morning I squish myself, with my ever expanding belly, behind the wheel of the Acura and try to think of new ways to avoid the traffic and see something new on my way to work. Sometimes I take surface streets, like El Camino, where I go past Stanford University. Then I hang a left through a short parking lot attached to the Stanford Shopping Center and that brings me quickly to Sand Hill Road. (Addison Wesley used to be on Sand Hill Road.). One day I took a different left turn (before the Stanford Shopping Center) and drove around behind it past the back parking lots. As I sat at a light back there I looked to my right and noticed a mass planting of sunflowers on a corner of one of the parking lots. I was transfixed. And my life was forever changed by the enormous and beautiful display of every kind of sunflower imaginable. I wanted to pull over then and there, but I was about to be late to work and decided I would stop on my way home. And that’s what I did. It was a warm afternoon, but I stopped by that very parking lot that very afternoon and I inspected every inch of that sunflower wonder. There were rows of tall single head sunflowers, medium-sized single head sunflowers, and short squat sunflower bushes that were covered with flowers. Some flowers were dark yellow, some light yellow, some were the color of amber, some were a dark red and some were the color of crème. It was so densely packed with thick and thin green stems and leaves, and colorful flowers that no soil was visible. As I said, I was forever changed, as this would be the theme of the child I was waiting for, my sunflower baby. I drove past this vision every morning and every afternoon after that, noticing that the flower heads were in different positions as they followed the sun across the sky throughout the day. And I was acutely aware that the dark brown flower centers were getting larger and larger (much like my belly), while the flower petals were getting smaller and thinner. Because if you know anything about sunflowers, they don’t last very long in this beautiful “full flower” state as the whole point to the flower’s existence is to produce large seeds. Pretty soon the flower heads were starting to droop. But the people at the Stanford Shopping Center hadn’t noticed that a pregnant lady stopped by every day to appreciate, study and look at this vision and one day they were all gone. Just like that. All that was left was a large patch of dirt. (Maybe they had noticed the sweaty pregnant lady getting out and into the front seat of a blue Acura every weekday afternoon and it was just too much to watch anymore.)
I have done many paintings and drawings of sunflowers since first seeing them those fateful few weeks in Menlo Park, June 1994. In fact, I did a drawing of a couple sunflowers I’d seen there, adding a photo of my son’s “hours old” head popping out of a sunflower bud. Then I hand colored each one and sent them as birth announcements—my sunflower baby. I was just now remembering that was born at the Stanford Children’s Hospital just around the corner from there—pretty funny and somehow part of my cosmic sunflower obsession and journey. I was extremely obnoxious with that sunflower theme for many months after my son was born. In fact his first birthday had a sunflower theme, complete with a sunflower cake and yellow balloons on tall green ribbons everywhere.
What you see here is an example of just one of my sunflower paintings/sketches. I think this one has a kind of cosmic look, if you notice the background. When I rehung it in my house the other day (I am constantly moving my art from room to room, wall to wall.) I noticed another single sunflower on the back. I had forgotten I had painted that one first. But when it was done I decided I didn’t like it that much and re stretched the sunflower canvas so I could paint on the other side, creating the single sunflower stem and flower you see here.
In my blog last week I droned on and on about seeing art at your leisure and not being bothered by people getting in your way when you want to view a special painting. And I actually made a remark that I wanted to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre someday, but it’s pretty small (30 inches by 21 inches) and is probably hard to get a really good view of it without people being in the way. Well, my 24 inch by 18 inch sunflower painting (slightly smaller) could be easily viewed from far away without any trouble I think. That’s probably because the image is simple with great colors that provide such a contrast. If you really want to get the full cosmic sunflower affect of this one though, you would need to be up a little closer. But you know, I don’t really need to look at it anymore, because all I have to do is close my eyes and I can still picture that huge display of sunflowers in my mind. That picture will always be way better than any painting I could make. Besides I just planted a bunch of different kinds of sunflowers (Van Gogh, Garnet Star and Sundancer) in my front yard and I’m just waiting for them to bloom, kind of like I am waiting again for my baby to be born. So in a week or so I can look out my front window and get a real view to match with that memory. Gotta love that!
Gardens/plantings that should not be missed in Palo Alto and/or Woodside
The plantings at the Stanford Shopping Center are pretty special year round. There have been many times I have gone there just to see what had been planted. But going shopping there can be fun too, although it’s pretty expensive. When I was a girl my mom would take me to buy school clothes at the Stanford Shopping Center Emporium Department Store every fall. That was always a special treat. The Emporium has been gone a long time (like many of the department stores that were around when I was young), but the fountains and flowers are still going strong. I look forward to times in the future I can see what’s blooming there again.
Another garden I love to go to in Palo Alto is in an old neighborhood there. It’s called the Gamble Garden and a great place to wander through, imaging a lovely glass of ice tea at the Stanford Shopping center when you are done. In fact, I copied part of that garden in the front yard of our house in Grass Valley. We had a couple lovely mature weeping cherry trees with a few roses and mostly lawn. The Gamble Garden also had several mature weeping cherry trees, but instead of turf, they had vinca as a ground cover surrounding the trees. All around that vision of pink cherry blossoms was a lavender-colored vinca carpet, with roses and boxwood. I didn’t put in the boxwood, but I did take out the lawn and added the vinca ground cover. And all around this lovely “Gamble Garden” inspired corner yard in Grass Valley I added countless roses. Oh, and I forgot to add that our garden had a huge 10 foot tall hedge of English Laurel, that mimicked the Gamble Garden’s charming woven fences (painted green) that lined the garden on the street. In spring, our house looked like a giant painted Easter egg! When we sold the house I told the new owner of the inspiration for the front yard garden—weeping cherry trees, vinca ground cover, green lined hedge/fencing and roses. One of the first things she did after they moved in was to take down the hedge and remove the vinca–adding back the lawn. I think she left the roses alone. Yikes and oh well! No accounting for taste. I haven’t been back to Grass Valley since the house sold and I don’t think I could stand to drive by to see the garden as it looks now. But I do have plans to go back to the Gamble Garden one of these days and paint those very trees, the ground cover and roses. That’s the memory of our house and the Gamble Garden I want to have.
Finally, there is a garden just a bit north of Palo Alto (Woodside) that shouldn’t be missed. It’s called Filoli. The house and gardens there have a connection to Grass Valley as the original owner of the Empire Mine in Grass Valley also owned Filoli. I am not mentioning any of this because of my Grass Valley garden angst, but rather to say that the gardens there are amazing and worth going to see. If you are old enough to have watched the TV show “Dynasty,” then you might remember the house they show in the credits. That’s it! That’s the very house on the Filoli estate. Not sure I care that much about the house, but my memory of those gardens is pretty special. As I have said in previous posts about California, it’s a pretty strange and yet amazing place.