Standing on her bed at the Louisville, Ky., farm of her childhood, young Iva Gillet “improved” the hand-painted wallpaper in her bedroom. First she wet her fingers and smudged the edges of the painted leaves. Then she carefully pasted the pictures of roses she’d cut from a garden catalog onto the wallpaper.
“I would have killed my children!” says Gillet, a sprightly 60-something artist-gardener. “But I had a wonderful mother who knew just what to do with ‘her little gypsy daughter,’ as she called me. She sent me straight to kindergarten, where I never wanted to leave the easel.”
For the first part of her life, Gillet says she just did “play art.” Then, 22 years ago, she had what she describes as a near-death experience during a battle with a serious infection. “The experience gave me a much clearer inner vision,” she says. “It was as if a voice said, ‘The door is open wide. Now don’t go back to sleep.’ I became aware of my creative energy.”
After surgery and a quiet year of recovery, Gillet resigned from volunteer boards and garden clubs and decided to “be available” in her garden and studio. Several years later, she and her husband, Shockey, moved to “Hunting Ridge,” their 150-acre farm in Worthington Valley, where Gillet has become a master gardener. One of the finest in the Baltimore region, Gillet’s garden has been featured on tours sponsored by the Smithsonian, as well as those of the New York Botanical Gardens, the Garden Conservancy, Ladew Topiary Gardens, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Worcester Museum and the Speed Museum of Louisville.
Gillet, who says her garden is distinguished by its artistry rather than its horticultural variety, likes vertical mass, curves and open spaces that let in puddles of sunlight and move the eye forward. In the kidney-shaped island in the garden’s center bed, a cypress is surrounded by lilacs and lime green barberry. In spring, bright pink azaleas, pansies and pink and orange tulips are followed by flaming orange poppies. Later, pink and blue larkspur, roses, lupine, asters and autumn heuchera erupt.
The back bed is planted with unusual columnar white pines and many types of viburnum, as well as oakleaf hydrangeas, perennial geraniums, begonias and low roses. “These are the sturdiest things,” says Gillet of the salmon pink rose bushes. “I picked them up at the hardware store.” Every square foot of the garden is planted with variety and interwoven with purples, pinks and oranges, like a vibrant Oriental carpet.
Gillet laid out her garden like a landscape painting. Top: sky. Middle: pasture. Bottom: color. From a distance, the garden looks as if it were one bed. “I designed it that way, in stages, so it is hard to distinguish front, middle, back,” she says. “And it’s full of surprises.”
Through gardening, Gillet learned an important painting lesson: that everything can be rearranged, and that there is no such thing as a mistake. Her studio, built on the property five years ago, is filled with oil paintings and watercolors of the rolling valley that surrounds her farm. These days she forgoes the oils to explore more abstract, mixed media paintings of watercolor, pastel and textured tissue paper.
Since 1999, when she strung her barn with 500 apples and showed her shimmering, minimal Garden of Eden paintings, Gillet has held annual shows at her farm. While these shows usually sell out (and leave her with a waiting list of commissions), she also exhibits at Paper-Rock-Scissors in Hampden.
Gillet still paints all over everything in her house just as she did as a child. She’s painted the wing chair, camelback sofa, valences and folded screens in her living room, and she’s laced the front hall, dining room and bedroom walls with painted flowers, vines and the occasional bird. Clearly the “little gypsy daughter” still lives within.