Fellows Focus:
Dana Scott Westring

Dana Westring's watercolors have recently landed in your mailbox: both our 2020 Annual Report and accompanying #GardenPreservation book are graced with his original illustrations depicting several of our preservation partner gardens. In addition to his illustrious art career with an emphasis on drawings and watercolors of landscapes and sacred architecture in Southeast Asia and trompe l'oeil murals, Dana is a garden designer, working primarily in northern Virginia, as well as a member of our board of directors. Dana has spent 25 years creating Poke Gardens, a seven-acre landscape at his home in Marshall, VA, with his partner, Trevor Potter. His design ethos and immersive watercolors will inspire you as much as they do us.

Tell us about your process of imagining the gardens in watercolors in your artwork for this year's annual report and the preservation publication. 

When James asked me to think about doing a few watercolors for the preservation book, I was flattered. My work is usually focused on ancient/ruined architecture, although I have done work through the years of looking at landscapes. Several years ago I had an exhibition of watercolors of the Rocky coastline of Maine. I normally work plein air, so working from photographs (which really was the only option) was a little challenging. Garden images are demanding in many ways. For me, the temptation to overwork the details is hard to resist, so I had to try to work quickly and resist “over-rendering.”

Illustrations of the Gardens of Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA, for the #GardenPreservation book

Over the last twenty years, your artwork has primarily focused on drawings and watercolors of sacred architecture in Southeast Asia. What inspired you to pursue this niche?

I traveled with friends to Vietnam and Cambodia almost ten years ago and found the temples and scattered ruins of the lost Khmer culture compelling. I planned several more trips to draw and paint around Siem Reap. I had the chance to go to India a couple years later, again traveling with friends. My late friend Jamie Perkins organized that trip. He was an art dealer in London, and as I sat down to do a few sketches along the way, he suggested I think about putting a body of work together for an exhibition in his gallery. I had fallen in love with India and it was an easy step to begin planning journeys to the spectacular sites across the country. I studied various states and regions and plotted month-long excursions.

Your creative insight is also expressed in your work designing gardens in northern Virginia. When did your interest in gardening and design begin?

We bought a small property 35 years ago in Virginia. It was a weekend retreat with a little house in the woods on a hill overlooking a valley and the remains of a little vegetable garden. I began thinking about a landscape. My grandmother had a small garden and we had often traveled to see gardens and landscapes, so I had a kernel of an idea in my head about garden spaces and aesthetics. As a total amateur, I began carving pieces of the property into a garden. It evolved organically, with the construction of stone retaining walls and steps to negotiate the natural slope of the ground. As the garden matured and began looking settled, a few friends asked me to look at their properties, which were followed by calls from further afield. So began my work designing for others.

Where are you now in transforming your landscape?

As I described above, the gardens here at Poke evolved in a sort of natural way. There was really no master plan and, step by step, it grew. I have occasionally stepped back and rethought a piece here and there. One time I brought a backhoe into the middle of the garden, cutting a berm and lifting mature, settled woody material to turn a sloping area into a level terrace. It was a crazy thing to do, but it changed the garden in a very satisfying way. I am not contemplating any big changes now. The garden works for us and, with an occasional re-thinking of a particular planting area or the need to manage the now mature shrubby material, the aesthetics are pretty much set. I do think about a hidden, dripping, grotto-like cave, though...

Do you have any favorite spaces or plants that you’ve cultivated over the years?

I have a few specimens that I love. I have a mature contorted mulberry (Morus bombycis ‘Unryu’), which I totally love, that I have pruned into a 40-foot-wide umbrella that shades a sort of blue garden. I have a chocolate mimosa (Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’) that does something wonderful in a part of the garden planted with purple and bronze foliage against lots of hot flowering perennials. In the same area, I have a purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) espaliered on a faded amber stucco structure that makes me happy every time I pass it. I planted a small devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) 20 years ago, and it is now a mature and exotic looking tree that I love to see blooming in my garden.

How does your expertise as an artist and a gardener influence your work both on paper and in the soil? Do you find a symbiosis between these two creative endeavors?

I'm not sure it works in both directions. I guess my overall aesthetic sense is more visible in the garden. The drawing and painting is more or less objective. I certainly make choices as I draw and paint, but I'm trying to capture on paper what I am seeing. I try really hard not to edit, but rather observe. In the garden, I am uncomfortable with some color combinations, so I end up being sort of strict about palettes. I have a bold yellow/gold garden that many people find shocking, but I love. One section of the gardens is mostly pink, bordered with hedges of peonies and pink hydrangeas later in the summer. The shade garden under my contorted mulberry is about blues, with a few splashes of yellow. 

The challenges of the past year have brought to the fore the psychological and health benefits of gardens and gardening. How has your perception of the importance of gardens changed over the past year?

When we locked down fifteen months ago and all travel was canceled, it gave me a chance to be in the garden CONTINUOUSLY through the seasons. I had, of course, seen the garden through the seasons for many years, but I had not realized that I hadn't seen the transitions so completely. It was incredibly satisfying. Along with that experience, having the garden here was a wonderful constant presence. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a buffer from the madness of the world. The sound of water, the abundance of wildlife in a garden without pesticides, and the view over the beauty of rural Virginia kept us sane and grounded.

More of Dana's work can be viewed on his website: DanaWestring.com. A show of his Southeast Asian work will open at the Garden Museum in London on April 28, 2022.