Look around the room. Do you see nature? Maybe there's a houseplant in the corner, fresh-cut flowers on the mantel or a floral design on the rug. The painting over your desk — is it of an iris? A sun-warmed wheatfield? A lakeshore? For centuries, nature has inspired art and the decor for our indoor living spaces. This month, artist Penny Rakoff reverses that pattern by bringing the inside outside in "Living Rooms — Bringing the Inside Out" the featured theme garden at Cleveland Botanical Garden Flower Show, May 27 through 30.
It's still winter when I meet Rakoff, and her earthen canvas at the garden is draped in snow. An energetic woman in professorial tweed, she sets her armful of reference materials down and quickly pages through the coffee-table book "Great Carpets of the World," finding examples of her inspiration. To imagine the flower show's outdoor garden/house — living carpets of plants, furniture of moss, stone and other natural materials, an electrified chandelier of twigs and crystals — you first must consider an Oriental rug. One picture depicts tiny flowers arranged in rows, like a garden on the page.
A photographer also trained in painting, Rakoff is a public artist who works in any medium. Botanicals pose particularly difficult challenges: They are living things that bud and bloom and die. They must be treated respectfully. A gardener who can remember the color scheme of her perennials but not their names, Rakoff is relying on the landscape designers at DTR Associates to help her realize her vision.
Collaboration is a necessity for public art, Rakoff says. In 1991, when she turned a patch of trees outside the Cleveland Museum of Art into a Fauve landscape, she hired street people to wrap the trees in bright red and purple bathing-suit material. This spring, as she oversees the construction of "umbrella trees" on the land where Huron Road and Prospect Avenue meet, she'll have metal fabricators erect leaf photographs laminated between glass.
"It's [public art] beyond what any one person can do," she says. "It expands the possibilities for me."