Per­fectly framed

artist bill hen­son’s eye for a gar­den

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - LIFE -

Bill Hen­son is known for his darkly pow­er­ful pho­to­graphs of land­scapes and nudes, but the artist’s cre­ative en­er­gies also have an out­let in his very pri­vate gar­den. Hen­son, 61, in­hab­its a sanc­tu­ary-like home and workspace be­hind high gates at the end of a quiet lane in in­ner-city Mel­bourne. Al­though just one block from a busy main street, traf­fic noise is re­placed by the tin­kle of trick­ling wa­ter from a hid­den source. Hen­son, whose work is cur­rently on ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, is qui­etly spo­ken, thought­ful in dis­cus­sion, and refers fa­mil­iarly to his plants by their botan­i­cal names.

His home and stu­dio of 25 years was orig­i­nally a fac­tory; in 2004 he had the chance to buy the prop­erty next door and make a gar­den. The ground sloped down from the street, “so I dug the cen­tre out of it, drop­ping the level by five or six feet. It ta­pers slightly to give it some per­spec­tive,” he ex­plains. He built dry-stone walls to cre­ate plant­ing ar­eas, but says there was no real plan “ex­cept the plan the eye dic­tates”.

“I was im­pa­tient,” he says. “I’d been want­ing to have a gar­den for many years so I trucked in a few things.” He means the pep­per­corn trees and six enor­mous date palms, one of which was more than 10m tall with a 3m-wide root­ball. “I’m con­stantly see­ing plants about to be bull­dozed. I hate the dis­ap­pear­ance of old gar­dens and their large trees, so quite a few plants are res­cued.”

With limited soil space, many of the plants are in in pots rang­ing from French urns to ter­ra­cotta pots that he scav­enges from road­side throw-outs. Camel­lias, tree ferns,

Muse: Hen­son’s stu­dio opens onto the gar­den

be­go­nias, clivias, peace lilies and or­chids are tucked in ev­ery­where. Epi­phytes adorn the tree branches, in­clud­ing a mag­nif­i­cent rock orchid ( Den­dro­bium specio­sum) that bore hun­dreds of flower spikes last year. “It must be the big­gest one in cap­tiv­ity,” Hen­son says proudly. “It came out of an orchid nurs­ery that was clos­ing down. I craned it up and at­tached it with chains. It seems pretty happy.” He also likes “hoik­ing up” bird’s nest ferns into the trees, he adds.

Al­though Hen­son’s mother was “a se­ri­ous gar­dener” and he spent his child­hood in a large, ram­bling gar­den, he says he isn’t a mad plants­man: “It’s more about the over­all ef­fect of the green­ery. I just let it ac­cu­mu­late nat­u­rally.”

With its high walls and dense plant­ings, it’s too shady for a lawn, so Hen­son chose gravel, form­ing what he calls “a lit­tle in­land sea”. A bon­sai-like Ja­panese black pine and some hand-se­lected rocks build on the Ja­panese feel. “Some days I just lie on the gravel and look at the sky; other days I come out early and rake it – it de­pends on how ab­sorbed I am in work in the stu­dio.” He jokes that the small wa­ter bowl placed care­fully on the gravel is his “os­ten­ta­tious wa­ter fea­ture”, but it’s for the many birds that fre­quent the gar­den.

His huge pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio is open to the gar­den along one side, with pot plants in­side and out. “I like be­ing in­side and look­ing out,” he says. “It’s part of my daily rou­tine to see what the gar­den is do­ing.”

Gar­den­ing at its best is an art, he adds. “I like over­grown gar­dens, where na­ture is re­claim­ing the orig­i­nal struc­ture. It’s that some­thing in be­tween a man-made gar­den and wilder­ness that in­ter­ests me.”

he­len Young

Pho­tog­ra­phy Bill Hen­son

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