Somewhere near Denver, an artist’s backyard has been transformed into an outdoor art gallery. Tiffany Matheson is the artist and what started as a gesture of goodwill to her artist friends and network morphed into an immersive art show perfect for the restrictions of COVID-19.
Secret Garden is the result — a nature trail with 11 artworks created by 14 artists. Each Saturday until August 29, Matheson’s backyard garden will host a limited number of guests between 12 and 3 p.m, who will walk a preordained path punctuated by the one-of-a-kind art pieces. Most of the guests must be invited specifically by one of the artists, but each week Matheson will give away two tickets via her Instagram to interested art lovers.
The exclusivity and mystery that surround Secret Garden are intentional. Like the book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1911, the art exhibit is about discovering a hidden place that invokes joy and curiosity.
“The story is one of discovery, determination and growth in the face of overwhelming loss, the impact of connection and the healing power of a mysterious garden,” said Matheson.
The book also hinges on the prevalence of a cholera epidemic that kills the main character’s (Mary) parents, leading Mary to an unfamiliar place both emotionally and geographically. Obviously, there are some interesting parallels between the book and Matheson’s vision for her garden that help contextualize the value of what she and the other artists have accomplished.
The art exhibit is meant to be a reprieve from the current pressures of the world as much as it is meant to be a source of rejuvenation. Just like the garden in the book, Matheson’s backyard art show gives its visitors something to look forward to in a time where reality may seem bleak.
Most of the art pieces are colorful, abstract contraptions that catch the eye and light up in the sun. A mapped route through Matheson’s backyard — which is full of vegetable and herb plants — is accompanied by an audio track that signals when it is time to move from one section to the next. In between each section, there is a “waiting area” marked in yellow to ensure that one group of visitors does not encroach on the group in front of them until they have entered the next section. Within the sections, guests are invited to move freely and inspect the artwork and enjoy the natural scenery, which includes a small creek, a group of tall trees and the garden that Matheson cultivates.
The artists on display are Rian Kerrane, Thomas Scharfenberg, Jennifer Ghormley, Frankie Toan, Tobias Flores, Eileen Richardson, Scottie Burgess, Kenzie Sitterud, Cal Duran collaborating with Danette Montoya, Katy Casper collaborating with Nestor Fedak and Michael Jordan and, of course, Matheson herself.
Many of the pieces respond to the effects of COVID-19. Sitterud’s hanging sculpture called Pendulum, for instance, was created while under shelter-in-place orders. As Sitterud explained, “pendulums are used to measure and regulate time” while a resting pendulum indicates a “prayer for peace.” The rough wooden pieces mixed with shiny metal bolts, nuts and chains add a sense of foreboding to this piece, as if it is prophecizing a time that goes backward and forward at once. Perhaps the dichotomy between the natural wood and manufactured metal speaks more to the polarized attitudes in the country right now, the “extremes forming on both sides of the swing” as Sitterud put it.
Richardson’s artistic response to COVID-19 revolves around our haptic memory, or the sensory memory associated with touching things. With shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, with social distancing and masks, people in 2020 have experienced withdrawals from physical contact with other people. Richardson portrays the contradictory emotion of longing to connect while needing to remain apart by placing two casts of her hands so close to one another that they appear to touch from a distance. Surrounding the hand sculptures is a circle filled with dried and pressed plants which lose their color and vibrancy when each day passes.
Standing like rock outcroppings or statues or monuments, the colorful foam cuttings stacked by Burgess hold the weight of time beyond COVID or any pandemic — they hold the weight of immortality since they are made with polystyrene. Burgess likes to work with upcycled material or, in the case of Cause to Become, materials originally meant to be discarded. By using waste to create art, Burgess hopes to impose upon his viewers the impossible nature of our industrialized society — the fact that once we have made something, it will be here much longer than any of us.
One of the last pieces you will encounter at Secret Garden is by Duran and Montoya, titled The Portals of the Ancestors. Considering all of the recent events in the fight for racial justice, this piece is especially poignant in the garden. It does not let you forget that the real world needs your attention and energy. Hands of all skin colors and skulls are crafted in clay, exuding a folklore-like quality that is not quite animation but not quite reality — a place of dreams and in-betweens. Mirrors between the skulls reflect your own expression, asking you to participate.
“Through oppression and brutality this country has shown people of color, we hope to show that the hands and servitude of the beautifully brown people of this nation don’t go unnoticed,” the duo said. “We just have to honor them and listen.”
An hour in Secret Garden feels like an entire delightful afternoon. Time moves differently in that little backyard filled with pieces of art both big and small. It gives a place for creative expression, thoughtful discussion and natural inspiration during a period that is fraught with anxiety, fear, anger and mistrust. And it might just be a sign of the way the Denver art and culture scene is going — toward fresh and innovative experiences that no longer rely on major organizations to orchestrate.
Secret Garden is on view until August 29, 2020
To enter the giveaway to see Secret Garden for yourself, visit this website and enter the password secretgarden2020