Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rare Pear Studio artist Shani Nottingham

Today, we're venturing into central-western NSW, to Cowra, where artist Shani Nottingham creates lively and colourful artworks that are sure to set your hearts a-fluttering. She runs the Rare Pear Studio from her 100-year-old homestead and is also busy (with some help from her husband, Jason) turning a barren yard into a thriving, rambling wonderland, complete with native and deciduous trees, fences lined with rosemary and a sprawling grapevine that offers shade and beauty. The couple share the garden with their three children, Fynn, Tillie and Rosie, along with two cats (Lolly and Fizzy) and two dogs (Daisy Allsorts and Olive Pip). It is a place where Shani admits she can lose hours, pottering with her cup of tea, picking herbs for dinner or gleaning inspiration for her delightful paintings, collages and installations. But, most of all, this is her sanctuary, the place where she finds peace. 




The symmetrical garden at the front complements the original architecture of the home, more than 100 years old.
Shani's love of nature and plants is reflected in her work. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Tell us about your garden 
My garden is a total work in progress! I do far more in my head than in realitybut it means that when I do get into it, I really appreciate the experience, and I know exactly what needs to be done.
At the moment, parts of the garden are well on the way, and other areas are completely ready to be developed.
This is partly due to only working on one section at a time, which is more manageable for a busy young family, and partly because the house, too, has really different areas, so the gardens have been designed to reflect this. 
For example, the original part of the house is over 100 years old, has French shutters and big bullnose verandas, is very symmetrical and very cute. In contrast, the back of the house is a very modern glass, boxy extension, clad in zincalume and Colorbond.
The difference in architecture will be reflected in the garden, too. We have actually commissioned a wonderful landscape architect and horticulturist, Sally Bourne, to design us an amazing backyard plan. It includes boulders, lots of natural grasses, herbs, flowering plants and a few special trees, winding brick walls (that are reclaimed from a laundry we demolished by hand) that serve also as benches and seating, and a few magical secret paths and sculptural elements.
We will be getting onto it this year with gusto, but we knew many years ago that we would need trees, so planted them a long time ago. So the major plant structures, the trees, are now well advanced and have gone from sticks to actual trees, which means when we do get the back garden under way, it will immediately have a certain maturity about it.

The old wisteria has been given new life with a good prune and a new arbour. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
The deep veranda, which wraps around the house, is shaded by grapevine. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Weathered pots add texture and colour to the deck. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
A glimpse of garden greenery from the bedroom window. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
More of Shani's breathtaking work. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
What changes have you made to it?
When we moved in, 11 years ago, there was no fence, no front garden. Actually, no garden anywhere, just a few heavily borer-infested trees that had to go, a camphor laurel tree, a beautiful wisteria that had been badly pruned and had no support, acres of kikuyu, one orange tree, trying hard to grow, and only one lovely big tree, at the side of the house (an Irish strawberry tree).
Within a week of moving in, the sewerage pipes burst. It meant that our entire backyard was excavated by a huge digger. In hindsight, it was a blessing in a way, because we knew where not to plant trees, and if we had begun spending hours and lots of money developing the garden, and then had to dig it all up, it would have been heartbreaking! So we ended up with really a clean slate, but no time (three very young children and a 2nd degree by distance education) and little cash (spent on the sewerage works!). Thats when we planted some trees, thinking that while we were busy and had less time for gardening, at least they could grow, and when we had time later, at least there would be some structure and shade.
We did landscape and fence the front though, because we felt that by making the front look good, it would give us a sense of ownership and give it an immediate boost. So up went the fence, we planted rosemary so that as you brushed against it there would be a nice smell, twin weeping cherry trees, some roses that had been bought for our wedding many years earlier (dug up at my in-laws house on the Central Coast and replanted in our front garden), an ornamental grapevine, and other bits and pieces.This part of the garden we did very symmetrically, in keeping with the house design, and used more traditional plants.
I also began to imagine what I could do with the bare and ugly rectangle of weeds and grass along one of the sides of the house.
Over time, my husband and his dad built a big pergola for the wisteria, we hired a digger to level it off and scrape out the kikuyu (after several attempts to spray it out), we put in a snaking path, past the row of manchurian pears and the standard gorgeous crabapple we planted years earlier, we used reclaimed bricks for the edges, and I began to source plants from the CWA, farmers' markets, friends and even the odd nursery. Eventually, the dream began to be a reality.

Any big challenges?
Oh, yes, lots! Time and lack of it. Both of us work, and we have the usual hectic family schedule. Living out here also means limited times of year for planting, before it gets too hot or too cold, and shorter growing periods, and determines plant selection too with the extremes of temperature. Drought, always a very real threat, makes plant choice important. We have had several bad ones, with water rationing, which meant hand watering when we could.
Then, in the last few years, we have added to the chaos by getting two dogs (my first ever), which accounts for holes everywhere and chewed up plants and hose and pots.
Lack of funds! Always so many things to spend money on, sometimes the garden gets pushed to the bottom of the list. But sometimes I think this means you become more inventive, problem solve, and become more wily. I take cuttings, do plant layering, get things from fetes and garage sales, even the local tip.You end up with hardy plants, unusual containers and avoid that I bought it all from Bunningskind of look.

A winding garden path adds an air of mystery. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Shani's eldest daughter Rosie plays on the lush stretch of lawn. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Old teapots make a whimsical mobile. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Shani captures her gorgeous crabapple blossom on paper. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
How do you spend time in the garden? 
My hubby and I often start the day with our coffees in hand, sitting on the veranda, looking at the garden. I will walk around with a cup of something, too, just looking to see how things are growing. I potter, do a little weeding, catch creepy crawlies for my pet green-tree frog and I do love to hose the garden. I wander about picking herbs to use in cooking, but often take longer than I should, as I get distracted by something that needs doing. So soothing!
The kids play with the dogs, swing on the swing, my girls make mud pies and floral soup creations. When they were younger, my son dug trenches (he is a war buff) and they played cubbyhouses, and climbed the Irish strawberry tree. We have dinner on the deck in summer, and lie on it and look at the stars some nights. One of the nice things about this house and garden is you can chase the sun or the shade around the place and find somewhere nice to be.

How does your garden inspire you? 
I always have either greenery, foliage or flowers from the garden in vases scattered about the house; it just makes me happy.
I am always photographing things from the garden for Instagram, and for doing sketches of. So it inspires my art and creativity. In fact, really the garden is an extension of my art and I spend time thinking about what plant combinations will work. In fact, I look at it as I would a painting: what needs repetition, contrast in colour, texture, height etc. The garden also helps to ground me and makes me feel balanced. It also provides us with shade, climate control, privacy, food. It is intrinsic to making our quality of life that much better.

A gorgeous (it's actual name) crabapple standard. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Crabapple leaves starting to change colour and fall. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
The deep, shady veranda is a favourite chill-out place. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
What are your must-haves for the garden? 
TREES! They give a sense of proportion, shade, beauty, privacy, habitat, structure to the garden. We have planted so many and will plant more yet.
Places to sit and contemplate, focal points, whether they be a plant or a feature of some kind. I like gardens with sculptures and interesting things in them. Particularly, when we live in a place where lots of plants shut down over winter, it's nice to have cool things to still look at.
A sense of mystery and magic. I love gardens that want to make you see more and wonder what comes next.
Lots of textures and smells. I love flowers, but I keep coming back to foliage. And if i do have flowers, I like to have ones with a fragrance. We have a beautiful gardenia, which is heavenly, and the wisteria too. Just amazing smells. I like a wide variety of plants. I really do not resonate with lots of hard landscaping (six only types of mass planted architectural designer things). They just look soulless to me.
Herbs, scattered about in the garden. We have gone from having lots of herbs at times, in dedicated herb gardens, to now having a lot less, and having them in pots and as part of garden plantings in general.
And lately, in the last couple of yearsmy new must-have is lots of different grasses and strappy plants (memories of NZ) and collecting succulents and cacti. Love them! Swoon!

For more about Rare Pear Studio, or to purchase Shani's work, see rarepearstudio.com.au.

Shani has a thing for cacti. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
An installation of photographs featuring blooms from Shani's garden. Photography: Shani Nottingham.
Expansive skies are part of the charm in central western NSW. Photography: Shani Nottingham.