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Japanese Gardens Profiled Through Brown’s Book

Published: May 1, 2013

CSULB’s Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden is a campus landmark that rests in quiet beauty.

Art’s Ken Brown has profiled the serenity and stimulation that define Japanese Gardens in his new 176-page book with 180 color photos from Tuttle Publishing titled Quiet Beauty: Japanese Gardens of North America.

Japanese gardens have been part of North American culture for almost 150 years. Quiet Beauty is a look at the history of their introduction to North American gardening and how they have since taken root and flourished.

“The author is only one small part of a book like this,” explained Brown, a member of the university since 1999. “There are photographers, there are editors and there are book designers. No matter how good your text is, if others do a bad job, people will look at the book and say, ‘it’s boring, it’s gray and the cover is ugly.’ I feel really good about this book because I worked with a wonderful photographer, David Cobb, as well as excellent editors and book designers. I’m very pleased with Quiet Beauty but my pleasure is as much about the people I worked with as my contribution.”

Quiet Beauty’s gardens include:
• Nitobe Memorial Garden, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C, Canada, 1960
• The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, 1894
• Japanese Garden, Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Texas, 1973
• Garden of the Pine Winds, Denver Botanic Gardena, Colo., 1979
• Japanese Garden, Montreal Botanical Garden, Quebec, Canada, 1988
• Tenshin’en (The Garden of the Heart of Heaven), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1988
• Roji’en (Garden of Drops of Dew), the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Japanese Gardens, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Fla., 2001
• Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix, Margaret T. Hance Park, Ariz., 2002
• Garden of the Pine Wind, Garven Woodland Garden, Hot Springs, Ark., 2001

These gardens, wrote a reviewer for Portland’s The Oregonian, “can nurture, educate and stimulate creativity, and Quiet Beauty can do the same.” Brown breaks the book into the “five epochs in the history of Japanese gardens in North America,” delineating 26 beautiful examples of Oriental Exotica, Building Bridges, Innovation by Adaptation, Expansive Visions and Traditions Transformed. The Pacific Northwest is represented (mostly under the “Building Bridges” category, subtitled “Friendship Gardens in the Cold War Era”) with gardens in Seattle, Spokane, Bainbridge Island and Portland. An appendix to the book includes an additional 75 North American Japanese gardens.

Travel played a big role in creating Quiet Beauty. Brown personally visited all 26 featured gardens. “Maybe you can write about a wood block print without seeing the real thing but this is not true for Japanese gardens,” he said. “A Japanese garden is such a complex environment that it demands that you move through the space yourself. My research included gathering historic data, conducting interviews and direct, immediate experience. I have visited gardens from Boston to Miami, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, over the last 20 years. When my publisher asked me to give them 26 gardens with an appendix of another 75, I could say I’d already been to 100 gardens in 47 states and five Canadian provinces.”

The basic goal of Quiet Beauty, Brown explained, was to create a kind of critical mass of visually compelling and historically important North American Japanese gardens. “So often, it is easy to think that, well, there are Japanese gardens in Japan but only a few outside Japan,” he said. “The point of this book is that there are more Japanese gardens outside Japan than there are in Japan. They reflect America’s attitudes toward Japan at any given time. A contemporary Japanese garden in America is completely different from a 15th century garden in Japan. I wanted historical coverage from the 1890s to 2011. I wanted to look at American gardens region by region, from the Southwest to New England. Some were well-known and familiar while others were little known such as Shomu’en (Pine Mist Garden) at Cheekwood in Nashville, Tenn. But whatever the subject, I wanted to feature gardens with interesting stories to tell.”

Japanese Garden

Some Japanese gardens are meant to be serene and soothing though others are not. “In the beginning, the goal for Japanese gardens was not serenity as much as it was to communicate exotica. They sought to present a Japan of dainty Geisha girls and red arched bridges. Then gardens moved from Imperial exotica pre-World War II to post-World War II ‘Cold War Orientalism’ that was reluctant to portray Japan as America’s enemy,” he explained. “We wanted a new, modern, clean and pure Japan. This is where the serenity and tranquility comes in. Japanese gardens are now meant to be places in which we can walk and breathe deeply. Our bodies feel calm but our minds are stimulated. We don’t need lanterns, bridges or tea houses. The Japanese-ness is just a means to achieving the end of serenity. Pre-World War II, the point of a Japanese garden was to symbolize Japan. Now the point is to use the Japanese aesthetic to get an emotional response. It’s a major shift.”

The flip side of a Japanese garden’s serenity is its stimulation. “Japanese gardens are created in a variety of styles. There are tiny gardens and 15-acre gardens,” he said. “They can have water features and no water. Japanese gardens are incredibly diverse stylistically,” he explained. “There are dry Japanese gardens designed to frustrate the casual viewer. Some are designed to give their viewers nervous breakdowns as a way to push them toward enlightenment. Historically, gardens in Japan and America are meant to evoke a range of reactions.

“I’m interested in what people do in gardens,” he said. “They get married in them, they have funerals in them, they have dates in them and they sneak into the gardens after dark and do who knows what in them. The ways Japanese gardens are used tell us ways in which American society regards art. Gardens, among art objects like sculptures and paintings, retain the potential to connect with how we live and think. Japanese Gardens present sentiment as a positive thing. There are critics who argue that art with sentiment and affect cannot be good. When it comes to Japanese gardens, I disagree. Japanese gardens have continued to grow, thrive and adapt, sentiment or not.”

Brown has curated many shows for museums including the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Honolulu Academy. He is the author of several books, including Kawase Hasui: The Complete Woodblock Prints and Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast that included CSULB’s Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden. He studied from 1986-90 at Kyoto and Osaka universities. He received his B.A. and M.A. in art history from UC Berkeley and his Ph.D. from Yale in 1994.

He encourages the campus and community to read Quiet Beauty: Japanese Gardens of North America.

“At $35, it is priced to be affordable,” he said. “To be able to hold in your hand a book that offers beautiful photographs of gardens built between 1894 and 2011 is something special. Some say Japanese gardens have the power to calm and stimulate at the same time. I hope this book has some of that same power.”

–Richard Manly