For love of a garden
Author and artist speaks on her life-changing experiences in Monet's world at Giverny
It was the autumn of 1984 when Elizabeth Murray first saw the rambling roses, the dahlias and asters, and the clear water of painter Claude Monet's Giverny gardens in France. Some people fall in love in spring. For Murray, this was a place for all seasons.
"I was so touched by the beauty and abundance of the flower compositions, I almost cried," Murray wrote in her book "Monet's Passion: Ideas, Inspiration & Insights from the Painter's Gardens."
"I immediately wanted to know the garden intimately," she wrote, "to know all the flowers in each season, to be there from spring through autumn, digging, pruning, planting, feeding, rejoicing."
A quarter-century later, Murray still makes annual pilgrimages to Giverny. And, in a story she'll no doubt tell when she gives a lecture at the Palo Alto Art Center on March 30, she has had remarkable access over the years.
After her first Giverny visit, Murray went to the Paris office of the garden's curator to offer her services as a gardener — gratis. It was a wild dream, certainly, but Murray had experience and skills in her favor; she was a head gardener in Carmel with nine employees. The conservator took her up on her offer, and granted her a food allowance and the use of an apartment at Giverny.
In turn, Murray left her Carmel job and home, and enrolled in an intensive French-language program in Paris. Before long, she was back in Giverny, living and working at the garden for nine months.
"To give up that, what we called security, to live a dream ... was actually kind of a big thing," Murray said in a phone interview. "Some people thought it was a little crazy."
But the decision proved to be life-changing. During her first stint at Giverny, Murray gardened from 8 to 5 five days a week, endeavored to prove herself to the French gardeners, made friends in the village, and honed her photography skills.
While Murray had loved painting and photography ever since she was a child, she was by no means a professional when she began taking photos of Giverny. She calls her early shots "just show and tell."
But the work granted her remarkable access. Murray could glimpse the garden in the evening or early in the morning, when the light was inspirational. She found herself growing as a photographer even as the trees and blossoms of Giverny grew around her.
After the nine months were over, Murray returned to California and pursued other projects. But Giverny kept calling her back every year, and she still got her apartment and key to the garden. Before long, she turned her photos and writings into a book, with colorful calendars, postcards and notecards with the same theme.
Giving presentations and lectures on Giverny, gardening and creativity has also become a major part of Murray's life. While speaking at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, she caught the attention of a book publisher, who got "Monet's Passion" into print.
Murray has authored other books, including "Creating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul." Along with her annual visits to Giverny, she also gives consultations for gardens, teaches classes, and provides art and creative coaching. In 2009, she was profiled on National Public Radio.
"It's a kind of a gypsy lifestyle, but it's wonderful," she said.
Home base is Monterey, where Murray rents two cottages with an acre-sized garden, and catches rainwater for irrigation. She has 27 varieties of trees, including a beloved old chestnut with a swing.
Last year, Murray published the 20th-anniversary edition of "Monet's Passion." The new edition still has three sections: the history of the garden, the garden today, and Giverny-inspired ideas for readers' own gardens. But it's much longer, with new photos and the added wisdom of many more visits to Giverny. Murray also added her own drawings and paintings.
In the third section, "Bringing Giverny Home," Murray offers advice for making many spaces verdant, Monet-style, from vast expanses to potted plants on a balcony. The book's pages are bright with photos and paintings of umbrella roses, apple trees, herbs and vegetables, irises, azaleas, poppies and many others.
Throughout the book, Murray finds parallels between creativity and gardening, as Monet did.
"A successful garden is the highest form of art, requiring one to utilize all the senses while orchestrating plants in various color combinations, shapes, heights, and textures to convey a mood or feeling. ... The garden canvas is never static but constantly evolving," she wrote.
She added, "For Monet, the gardens were an alternative world, a place of beauty and restoration from which his visionary paintings came, a vessel to hold different qualities of light and color."
On March 30, the Palo Alto Art Center and Gamble Garden are bringing Murray to town for a lecture that benefits both Palo Alto nonprofits. Shirley Finfrock, special events chair at Gamble Garden, said she hopes the event will appeal to artists, gardeners and travelers.
In a way, the event itself is symbolic of blending art and gardening. The 180-seat auditorium at the art center provides the space for the lecture that Gamble Garden doesn't have. In turn, when the art center closes in April for renovations, Gamble Garden will host some of its art classes.
For her part, Murray said she's looking forward to coming back to Palo Alto and visiting Gamble Garden again, which she praises for its classical design.
"I understand their cherry allee may be in bloom," she said, adding, "I'm planning on bringing my good camera and my tripod."
What: Elizabeth Murray speaks about Monet, his gardens and her book "Monet's Passion."
Where: The Palo Alto Art Center auditorium, 1313 Newell Road
When: Wednesday, March 30, with a reception at 7:30 p.m. and lecture at 8 p.m., with a book signing afterward
Cost: Tickets are $40 general and $35 for Gamble Garden or Palo Alto Art Center members.
Info: Go to gamblegarden.org or elizabethmurray.com .