Vis­ual feast

Flow­ers are out and veg­eta­bles now reign in Christchurch fab­ric artist Jenny Gil­lies’ up­lift­ing new gar­den


Fab­ric artist Jenny Gil­lies has a fresh all-ed­i­bles con­cept for her Christchurch gar­den COVER­STORY

It may come as a sur­prise that Jenny Gil­lies, a fab­ric and cos­tume artist in­ter­na­tion­ally known for her flam­boy­ant flo­ral cre­ations, has ripped out her flower gar­den in Christchurch and re­placed it with veg­eta­bles. It will not come as a sur­prise that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill vege gar­den. “When I’m not eat­ing veg­eta­bles, I’m sewing them,” she says. “My gar­den is my in­spi­ra­tion.” And with her show Naughty by Na­ture fea­tur­ing at this year’s Eller­slie In­ter­na­tional Flower Show, lit­tle won­der that Jenny is in­spired by overblown bras­si­cas, des­ic­cated pea pods and pul­sat­ing pur­ple ar­ti­choke heads.

Jenny and hus­band John Gil­lies’ ed­i­bles have a won­der­ful life. Those that es­cape the pot any­way. They are al­lowed – en­cour­aged even – to flower, seed and pro­lif­er­ate. Jenny calls it com­pan­ion plant­ing, but the in­hab­i­tants of this Merivale plot are far more in­ti­mate than that. They em­brace, in­ter­twine and some­times smother each other.

When the earthquakes ex­ten­sively dam­aged the house and gar­den, leav­ing sink-holes and truck­loads of liq­ue­fac­tion, the Gil­lies thought it was time to try some­thing new.

“We’d gone through the white rose rou­tine,” says Jenny. “I had a con­cept. I wanted it all ed­i­bles.”

Af­ter ar­chi­tect Daryl Par­tridge did the ini­tial re­con­struc­tion de­signs out­side the kitchen/din­ing area, land­scape de­signer Sandi MacRae stepped in, cre­at­ing three raised rec­tan­gu­lar beds and a cou­ple of bits on the side, with dwarf fruit trees and pyra­mi­dal climb­ing frames giv­ing ver­ti­cal struc­ture.

Like Mary Pop­pins’ car­pet bag, it is un­be­liev­able just what comes out of this rel­a­tively small patch.

“We have nine va­ri­eties of ap­ple trees,” says Jenny. Not to men­tion nec­tarines, pears, apri­cots, prune plums, man­darins, limes, fei­joas and a fig. Then there are the berries: rasp­ber­ries, straw­ber­ries, cran­ber­ries, boy­sen­ber­ries, or­ange­ber­ries (“wouldn’t bother with them again”), black­cur­rants, ki­wiber­ries and goose­ber­ries. The veg­eta­bles and herbs grow be­tween, un­der, around and some­times over.

“We eat ev­ery­thing ex­cept the robinias and the box,” says Jenny. Squadrons of bum­ble-bees, berry-thiev­ing birds and small clouds of white but­ter­flies (which do stretch her or­ganic al­tru­ism to its lim­its) share the spoils.

If Monet found his in­spi­ra­tion in fields of French flow­ers, Jenny finds hers in her back gar­den. “I see some­thing in the gar­den, draw it, then de­velop pat­terns and cre­ate them.”

Jenny has won mul­ti­ple awards at the World of Wear­ableArt and her work is held in col­lec­tions around the world. This is her fourth Eller­slie show with dancers por­tray­ing flow­ers, weeds and fruit – this year, veg­eta­bles are added to the mix. >

Jenny started out as a sci­en­tist, which may ex­plain her in­sis­tence on botan­i­cal ac­cu­racy in her fab­ric flora. She went to Otago Univer­sity to do medicine (“thank God I failed”), in­stead com­plet­ing a BSc and post-grad­u­ate di­ploma in mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy. She worked as a med­i­cal re­cep­tion­ist while rais­ing four chil­dren.

But all the while, in the back­ground, was the hum of a sewing ma­chine. “My mother was one of those amaz­ing moth­ers and providers of that gen­er­a­tion. She made all our clothes, prob­a­bly out of next to noth­ing. She taught me and in­spired me to sew.”

Jenny puts her foray into se­ri­ous fab­ric art down to a midlife cri­sis. John, who shares her sci­ence/art di­chotomy, was fully sup­port­ive. A re­tired physi­cian and ac­com­plished pain­ter, he helps out with the art­work and is “part of the show”.

“John’s very mo­ti­vated,” says Jenny. “And he’s al­ways been very fit.” So it was a shock when heart surgery six years ago en­forced re­tire­ment and a change of life… though not of pace.

“The most im­por­tant thing to do in re­tire­ment is to make sure you don’t re­tire,” ad­vises John. He paints, ex­hibits and teaches, rides a mo­tor­bike, runs a gallery, ex­er­cises daily at the gym and brushes up his Ital­ian in the evenings.

The cou­ple took up clas­si­cal bal­let in their 50s and even put a sprung floor and mir­rored wall in their stu­dio, which opens onto the gar­den. But they no longer dance. They box. Well, John does, says Jenny. She ad­mits the pink box­ing gloves he gave her are less worn, al­though she does try to get to the gym most morn­ings.

She be­lieves the ex­pe­ri­ences they have had, in­clud­ing the quakes, have turned their lives around. “It makes you think about what you value in life, and it makes you re­alise that ma­te­rial things aren’t im­por­tant.”

The gar­den, how­ever, is. It feeds the mind, body and soul. “It’s vis­ual, it’s ed­i­ble, it’s in­spi­ra­tional and it’s ther­a­peu­tic.” The Eller­slie Flower Show runs from 26 Fe­bru­ary-2 March 2014. See more of Jenny’s work at jen­ny­

THIS PAGE (from left) “I just wanted some­thing bright red in the gar­den,” says Jenny of her obelisk from Terra Viva in Christchurch. She brought back the Rod Man­ning wire pear sculp­ture from one of her Ade­laide shows. Spinach seems to thrive in an old wine bar­rel.

OP­PO­SITE (from top) Bor­age grows pro­fusely be­low the el­e­vated urns flank­ing a path through the gar­den, but the young blue­berry has to be cov­ered with netting (“those pesky birds again”). The ed­i­ble gar­den opens onto the ten­nis court, which John is fas­tid­i­ous about mow­ing; he doesn’t gar­den be­cause he “can’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween plants and weeds,” says Jenny.

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