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Ignore the gnome, forget the flamingo

A growing number of sophisticated gardens are helping to sell sophisticated art

For a long time, the words ''garden" and ''art" have not been used in the same sentence, because when you say ''garden art" many people think of pink flamingos. When tasteful folks wanted to see fine art outdoors, they'd visit ''sculpture parks," and for their own outdoor spaces they'd buy ''garden ornaments" instead of real art.

That's changing, in part thanks to Newton sculptor Julie Levesque, whose garden turned out to be just right for holding outdoor art shows. Though her house looks unexceptional from the front, when you round the corner into the backyard there's a surprise: a dramatic 20-foot ridge of puddingstone. It used to be covered with years of accumulated ivy, but when she started pulling it out she unearthed platforms constructed by a long-ago owner.

''There were obviously some kind of objects here before, maybe gargoyles or gnomes, and I knew it would be a great space for contemporary sculpture," said Levesque. ''So I called up these artists whose work I had always admired and invited them to be part of an outdoor exhibition. Nobody was doing that in 1996. But anyone who was doubtful immediately said yes as soon as they saw the garden."

She found that outdoor sculpture often sells better in a garden than a gallery, and continues to hold her annual backyard show, ''Art for the Garden," the weekend of the Newton Open Studios each May.

Others have followed her lead. ''Julie was the innovator," said Meredyth Hyatt Moses, who is curating an annual art show Sept. 9-11 at Cairn Croft, a much-admired private garden in Dover.

What kind of garden shows off art the best?

''You need a garden that takes your breath away," Moses said, but not one so flowery that it upstages the art, and one that has some open space ''so the sculpture can breathe a bit." It helps if there are paths and distinct garden ''rooms" so viewers can explore. And hillsides can literally elevate the art.

All that's true of Cairn Croft. ''Art is an important part of the garden and it's great fun. We show 80 pieces by 20 artists and sell three-quarters of them. It's the fusion of the art and the garden that does it," said the garden's owner and creator, Kevin Doyle, a professional landscape designer. ''Our goal is to find homes for all this art," he said with a wave of his hand.

Though Doyle and his partner, Michael Radoslovich, take a commission on art sales, Doyle warned other would-be curators with great home gardens, ''You won't make any money. What we make goes into the show, into the garden, and into buying art from the show for the garden. But it's not going into the IRA, that's for sure! I have two guys here for 10 days before the show, grooming the garden."

Most art-in-the-garden shows feature modern abstract pieces, but Pam and Gregory Bruell have done the unexpected by sponsoring a competition for new classical sculpture in their 2-acre Carlisle garden. The first exhibit in 2003 also displayed borrowed works by past masters such as Daniel Chester French. ''That helped the young artists understand the type of classical sculpture we wanted," said Pam, a biology professor formerly at Harvard Medical School. Winners and finalists of the second competition will be on exhibit at the Bruells' inspired garden on weekends from Sept. 10 to Oct. 7. Jonathan Fairbanks, curator emeritus of American Decorative Arts and Sculpure at the Museum of Fine Arts, curated and judged both the 2003 and the 2005 shows.

The idea came from a tour of Renaissance art in Italy, where the Bruells traveled with art students who complained that galleries were not interested in showing new figurative sculpture in the classical style. Since Pam is an art enthusiast and Gregory is a serious gardener, using the garden as a showcase seemed ''a project we could do together that involved both our passions," said Gregory, who works in data communications and whose latest project is remote monitoring for people's homes allowing them to save money on utilities and maintenance.

His Japanese-inspired garden is itself a work of art, with 90 varieties of Japanese maples and meticulously weeded moss gardens incorporating 20 species. ''When I drive along and find some moss which looks good, I find out who owns it and ask if they want to sell it," said Gregory.

After the success of their 2003 event, the Bruells recruited a board of advisors from the art world and formed the Viselaya Foundation to continue holding competitions every other year.

Viselaya (Viz-ah-LAY-ya) is a hamlet in the Czech Republic where Gregory's ancestors owned a fondly remembered rustic retreat before fleeing Europe in World War II. When Gregory was a boy, ''my father was always taking us to arboretums along the Hudson Valley." The ideal of the lost Viselaya as a place of peace and reflection was ''buried in my subconscious and came out on its own" in the creation of this new garden, said Gregory. He purchased the top prize winner from the 2003 competition and designed a permanent place for it in his garden. The sculpture of a fallen angel is by Pablo Eduardo and is titled ''Paradise Lost."

Founded in 1848, rustic Forest Hills Cemetery is another place to see classical sculpture in a gardenesque setting, including a masterpiece by French. This is a memorial to a fellow sculptor, Martin Milmore, who died at the peak of his career. The angel of death stops the hand of the chisel-wielding artist in mid-stroke.

Since 1998 Forest Hills has integrated a changing exhibit of contemporary sculptures, much of it for sale. Pieces include an open bronze book detailed with leaves and acorns by artist Carol Spack that echoes a nearby cemetery monument with a carved marble book. ''It's very elegant here, so we have to have a fairly high degree of sophistication to blend in," said Cecily Miller, head of the Forest Hills Educational Trust.

The exhibit ''does increase visitation," said Miller. ''Part of what we're trying to do is restore the role of the Victorian cemetery as a cultural space for enjoying nature, beauty, and art." In addition to the year-round collection of 35 modern pieces, a themed show, ''Dwelling; Memory, Architecture and Place at Forest Hills Cemetery," is scheduled for next June through October.

Nancy Grimes, the innovative owner of New England Garden Ornaments in North Brookfield, has just finished hosting ''the first annual" Stone Show at her private garden in Hardwick. The exhibit featured new granite, marble, and sandstone sculptures by New England artists priced from $1,200 to $45,000.

''I've met extraordinary stone sculptors and I always felt badly there were few places to show large stone sculpture," Grimes explained. Sales were good, she added. ''People have trouble visualizing how a piece they like would look in their garden, so it helps to show it in a real garden. . . . If they buy it indoors, often they find it's too small when they take it home."

Bedrock Farm is the home of Jill Nooney in Lee, N.H. This gardening artist has filled acres with lush plants and whimsical sculpture, often using old farm equipment, which she will open to the public Sept. 10. Her company is called Fine Garden Art. ''Jill is the most imaginative and energetic force in modern American garden ornamentation," said Grimes. ''She can use every kind of material and she hasn't had a reprocessed, old idea ever."

More galleries now include flower gardens as part of their exhibition space. When Milton sculptor Guy Hughes converted a barn into The Coppershed Gallery at his summer home in Warren, Maine, last year, he included his wife's half-acre garden in the display area for art. ''It's on a north-facing slope. Northern light is bad for plants, but good for art," said Hughes, who works in bronze, copper, and wood. The current show runs through Wednesday and features the work of 17 artists.

''Sculpture is a notoriously hard sell," Hughes said. ''But it sells better in a beautiful garden."

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