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If you have any plans to build or have something built in, or around your home or garden do yourself the priceless favor of getting “The Timeless Way of Building” and “A Pattern Language”, two companion books by Christopher Alexander and others.

In my many decades of studying, learning and building I have come across no books which compare in the utter wisdom these books contain for the building of just about anything having to do with home, garden and work space.

Though almost esoteric in tone, the books are ultimately practical. They teach how to build in such a way that the creation brings out the best in those who use the creation.

“A building or a town becomes alive when every pattern it is alive: when it allows each person in it, and each plant and animal, and every stream, and bridge, and wall and roof, and every human group and every road, to become alive in its own terms.

“And when that happens, the whole town reaches the state that individual people sometimes reach at their best and happiest moments, when they are most free.”

My old Victorian home has a covered front porch that was never attractive to use. I wanted to be out on the front porch but it wasn’t inviting. I read in “A Pattern Language” that for a porch to be used it needs to be a minimum of 6 ft. deep. The decking of the porch was exactly 6 ft. but the railing cut off 6 inches of that. I had the railing moved back to the edge, giving me 6 ft. and I use the porch almost everyday.

A Living Courtyard

The same depth of understanding is brought to every conceivable construction, from nooks in rooms, through passageways, courtyards, entries and  entire towns. No one should build without referencing these books.

The timeless way of building is designed to be read in one hour by reading the opening introduction of each chapter and then the italicized highlights dispersed throughout. You can then go back for more detail for any item of particular interest. If you want to build in such a way that what you construct will be used and will elevate all who do use it, get these books.

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Those words – the ART of…mean something. This is a side to this subject of gift giving not often mentioned. Every art form is practiced because Art elevates the practitioner.  Of course there are always those who practice some form of art (or more commonly, pseudo-art) in the pursuit of fame or fortune but a true artist practices her art because the process itself puts her in touch with greater, deeper, higher dimensions of herself. It elevates her. That’s why we so appreciate art and have art museums. Because the artist elevated himself in his creation, his creation elevates we who behold it.

A lot depends on the art form and the level at which it is practiced but in all art, when we succeed – when we actually create something that has the qualities of art – unity, harmony, etc. – we shine. We feel good, we are good we become good. We elevate. And, it is the same with finding the right gift for someone.

Knowing this is useful. Consider, for example, when you go out of your way to put together a dinner party. You think about your friends and who will get along well with whom and you choose your guests by this. You decide what to serve, perhaps influenced by the season or simply the nature of the day, what beverages to have, who will like what, how to adorn your home.

During the party you help monitor the conversation.  So and so tends to take over and not let others speak so you intervene ever so delicately to prevent that. Someone else tends to be shy so you bring him out. When a subject is brought up you inquire of those not speaking what they think – and you make, or refrain from making your own contributions and in all this you create something and you feel good doing it and everyone enjoys themselves greatly.  So you know what it is like to create, to create harmony, unity – to create a work of art.

Gift giving is the same. Choosing a gift, as an art form, requires that we maintain an awareness of someone, that we hold in our emotional intelligence a sense of their nature or some aspect of their nature and seek that something that will harmonize with that. And when we are on the right track, we will experience the same sort of elevation that always accompanies creating If when choosing a gift for someone we don’t experience the same sort of elevation then we’ve not chosen the right gift.

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Artfire.com, one of the best venues for online, handmade crafts and art is offering a special deal. You can get a pro shop for about $6.00/month. I have had a pro shop and it is a great deal. I’ve temporarily gone back to basic until I can generate more traffic but Artfire is the best venue for selling your handmade creations I have found. I have four other stores in other venues and none of them have the functionality, good looks and smooth functioning of Artfire.  Check it out and if you make quality products you’d like to sell online, opt in for the deal. The way it works is when they get 20,000 sign ups everyone who signed up gets a pro shop. If they don’t get 20,000, you get your money back. Can’t loose.

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Wall Fountains

handmade ceramic wall fountain

stoneware wall fountain, hand carved and glazed

A prototype, yes, but the beginning of a new line of fountains – handmade ceramic wall fountains. Not just handmade but carved and glazed by hand too, fired and made into a fountain that mounts on your wall. Not shown in this photo is the cord which extends from the bottom of the fountain – thus – a prototype. This will be addressed in future wall fountain creations.

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When I designed terraces for the gardens at the Monks of New Skete, delineated and retained by large boulders I had no idea where the boulders were to be found. I just assumed they must be available. If not on the property then from some of the quarries north of us, near Granville.

But everything the Monks do is done on a budget and a tight one, it seems, so Stash (Stavros Winner) and I walked their property looking for very large rocks. And we found plenty, but not nearly enough, on the grounds near the residence of the Companions of New Skete. Meanwhile I began checking  on prices from the quarries, delivery costs etc.  until I got an email from Stash. It was entitled, The Mother-load.

Mother-load indeed. It so happened that back behind the living quarters of the Monks  where an old trail runs through the woods ancient Green Mountains rise up as a ridge several hundred feet above the forest floor and scattered about at the base and half way up the slope were hundreds of huge, shale boulders, some ten feet long and weighing several tons.  Here was our source, free, except for hauling them about an eighth of a mile down to the site.

This is a story, and a new one, but the boulders tell a far more ancient story. The grain in this rock is clearly visible and shows of the continental drift, the moving plates and gigantic collisions of massive bodies of land that occurred so many thousands of years ago. In many stones we see a herring bone pattern with the grain reversing itself several times.

monks of new skete boulder

Note the folds from the tectonic plate crash ions ago

Using a large backhoe and a large loader the boulders were ‘harvested’ from the mountainside and brought down to the site.

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The Monks of New Skete

A SACRED GARDEN – A Transformation of Space –
The Welcome & Meditation Gardens at
The Monks of New Skete

Brother Stavros Winner – a brother at the Monks of New Skete, came up to me after a town meeting concerning our sister city in Italy and introduced himself. During the meeting he learned that I designed gardens, and they had a problem they needed a design solution for.  Stavros (affectionately known as Stash), ever one, subsequently learned,  to seize an opportunity to get something done, invited me up.

The problem they had was a huge set of concrete stairs 16 feet wide and perhaps 20 ft. long that had to be shoveled after every snow fall, every winter. The Monks of New Skete are comprised of 5 or 6 aging men and they detested that choir – as they quite plainly told me.  They needed a ramp that would lead from the drive up to the chapel where they conducted most of their services. A ramp could be cleaned of snow with a snow blower and would make the journey easy for walking visitors as well as the handicapped.

monks of new skete

The loathed stairs

While there I was struck by the fact there here was one of the most beautiful places on the planet, in the Green Mountain tops, away from every highway and all traffic and  noise, that people  visited from all over the world and there was nowhere to sit or walk or enjoy being outside.

As a designer of gardens and landscapes the remission here was to me visceral. There was an ugly slope planted with mostly the wrong plants (Rhododendron baking in the sun, Spruce, nibbled in the winter by the abundant deer…), there was  a driveway, one bench on a 4′ wide concrete sidewalk and no place to enjoy being in the beautiful out of doors.

Meditation and Welcome Gardens at the Monks of New Skete

Now note, the buildings of New Skete are very attractive – built by the monks themselves I believe – old dark wood  or vivid red, topped with golden Russian like domes or with spires – the Monks of New Skete are Russian Orthodox. The stark contrast between the architecture and the picturesque setting and the utter lack of invitation and possible use within the surroundings themselves was incongruous.

So, I designed a ramp that cut through their concrete retaining wall and curved softly up to the chapel. And I designed a terraced landscape that eliminated the slope and transformed it into a multi-terraced garden with two ponds and a waterfall and lots of places to walk around and to sit and meditate.

monks of new skete meditation gardens

The Monks of New Skete - Before transformation

I proposed the idea to the monks and they loved it. As it happened, it fit perfectly into their goals of reaching out and making themselves more inviting, accessible and welcoming to the local community and to the world at large. It was a perfect fit between their aspirations and my perception of what needed to happen on this site.  So the project began, at first tentatively, searching for the right materials and the right contractors .

The right contractor was at hand, he was already doing their roads, and he was good, reliable and reasonable – but where would the massive boulders the design specified come from? The monastery of New Skete is by no means wealthy and altogether too many things have to be done on a shoe string. What could we use? Where find them?

Gardens at the Monks of New Skete by Landscape Designer Keith Davitt

Where the stairs and the slope once were

That serendipitous adventure will be the next posting on the transformation of the gardens of the Monks of New Skete but first a word about how all this relates to beauty and art.

The highest art form is, arguably, the art of living and those experiences which contribute to the quality of our life, especially those which so do by contributing to the quality of our state are invaluable and to be sought and cherished. Here, in this spiritual community of people who have devoted their lives to the worship of the divine (my interpretation), or, as they express it, to a contemplative life from which so many of the distractions of ordinary life have been removed, the experience of being in nature can be a genuine assist.

The surrounding woods are abundant at the Monks of New Skete – but so are various forms of wildlife, including black bear and not everyone is up for a treck into the wilderness. Certainly many of the guests would shy away from penetrating into that genuine wilderness. Yet they too have come to New Skete to nourish the spiritual within themselves. Having beautiful gardens in which they contemplate their commitment to the divine, reflect on the singing they participated in or the sermon they just heard holds the possibility of contributing to their elevation – to their spiritual growth. – The art of beauty. The beauty of art. Next time, some after images and more on the involved, complex and challenging process that was the transformation of the property at the Monks of New Skete and about all the people who contributed to it.

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As a landscape designer I have long been aware of principles by which a garden can be rendered beautiful. I discerned them, not through the creation of gardens but by the analysis, after the fact, of what worked and what didn’t.  This was necessary for and took place during the writing of my books on landscape design.

Though the application of those principles is almost always an emotional or intuitive process, rather than an intellectual one, when attempting to carryover the same goals (creating beauty) into another medium, knowing specific principles can be very helpful. For example, in working with home decor.

Several other posts on this site speak of design principles – harmony and contrast, unity, balance and so on and all those principles apply equally to the creation of a beautiful room or setting within a room.

One, very simple concept, very prevalent in garden design is that of having a focal point, the purposes for which can be several. This is a very serviceable notion in home decor as well as in garden design.

A focal point can add interest, it can help establish direction and help direct attention. It can be fun to see or the focal item can be beautiful in its own right as well as contribute to the surroundings about. It can serve to anchor the attention, especially important in a room with a lot going on – a place to which our attention returns before sallying forth to further encounter the various elements of the space. Indoor Fountains, also called tabletop fountains, I have found, can do all of this.

indoor fountain

Long before I began making fountains I was using them in my home. That, in fact,is why I started making them. I liked them so much and had my own ideas of what I wanted that the only reasonable course for me was to find how to make them myself.

This ceramic fountain, above, is, in my view anyway, beautiful in itself. There are lovely harmonies, in colors and form, as well as pleasing contrasts in textures and an overall sense of unity to the piece.

Because it has moving water which is both visual as well as aural, it attracts attention and lends a grace to its surroundings. It makes a wonderful focal point in the room it occupies

ceramic tabletop fountain

Also interesting to realize is that a focal point doesn’t have to be just one thing. It can be several which combine to create a small area of interest.

This image below shows a grouping of three elements, each interesting in themselves but which combine to create a vignette, of limited, yet nevertheless, some success. What is missing is a picture on the wall.

indoor ceramic fountain

What makes a fountain such as this so dynamic a focal point, even when used alone is that it combines so many elements in one small space. There is the vessel itself, there is the moving water, the enameled, wrought copper, the shells in the water and stones in the planter and the plants. It takes up less than a cubic foot and provides a world of sensations and visual pleasures. Below are some more images of my fountains I use throughout my home.

indoor fountains

This fountain has enameled (glass on metal) wrought copper waterflowers. The water flows up the upper flower’s stem, into the flower and falls into the flower below it and then into the pool.

Water and plants are so natural together yet surprisingly few devices have been created which permit the two to be seen together inside the home. We see them combined in the garden frequently but when was the last time you saw plants and a body of water or a stream or flow of moving water together indoors? In fact, the only elements  I know of which combine plants and water are in my fountains with planters and a few others’ I’ve seen around. Yet aren’t they great together? I keep this fountain on my piano separating my dining from living rooms.

beautiful indoor fountains

Fountain with planter & enameled, wrought copper

I love the sound and the sight of it. My cat, it turns out, is fond of it too.

(These pictures don’t do justice.)

Making fountains became for me – well, more than a hobby, less than a passion. Let’s say an ongoing

indoor fountain with planter

Ceramic fountain with planter and wrought, enameled copper

pursuit of beauty through the mediums of of clay, copper and enamel. You can see some of my creations in my store, Garden Home Art.

So much for showcasing my work. Here is another look at this subject, through the medium of  interior design. A hall that absolutely requires a focal point, but of what nature?

In this image we have a marvelous display of basic harmonies (notice all the light surfaces and the dark lines) and contrasts (notice all the dark lines and light surfaces). The setting is of a piece. It is unified and impactful, yet also somewhat tranquil. What makes this so?

At the end of this little vignette is something to anchor the entire scene – a display of something, all pretty much of a piece, which we will only completely discover when we arrive there, yet which has its impact and effect immediately . But notice how harmonious it all is in terms of light and dark. Quite sublime.

How about this next scene? What has changed? Yes, there is now an orange vase where there were several dark vessels and a dark picture. But how has this changed the setting? How does it affect us differently? (Notice too that some of the lines on the walls have also changed.

How do you feel the difference? (In terms of harmony, contrast, unity, etc.) My own responses later.

And here they are. I digitally altered the picture, adding the orange vase and changing some of the colors in the picture and on the walls. The effect is less effective than in the original –  less unified. This is because in the original the entire scene was comprised simply of light and dark and was unified by those two elements. Though in the altered scene I brought both a degree of unity and harmony to the setting by adding orange elements to the picture above the vase and to the frames on the wall, there is now more diversity, less overall unity to the scene. It is still pleasant, it seems to me and possibly a little richer but less sublime – less ‘of-a-piece’.  This helps point up the importance of that principle ‘Unity’, to me, the queen of all attributes in a work of art.

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