An enchanted garden

KATONAH, New York – Strange creatures inhabit the garden made by John Fry and his sculptor daughter, Leslie: magical beings that are part human, part animal and part vegetable, so arresting and complex they might be figures in a children’s book. Here, though, the plot is known only to the artist.

A lovely long-braided lady arching protectively over the pool with the swollen body of a bird and the paws of a lion is one of the many sphinxes that have made this garden home. In the columns of a trellis, human heads peer out of the mouths of fish as if in the process of being eaten, though they seem neither concerned nor surprised by this. “The Jonahs,” the artist calls these pieces.

Tucked into a stone fence is a concrete figure moulded from fruits and vegetables. Its body is a corncob; its sexuality is all-embracing, for, as Leslie Fry shows, turning it about, it is not merely pregnant, but a hermaphrodite. Part fruit, part veggie, pansexual: The romantic possibilities are staggering, though other corncob creatures would probably be the most compatible dates.

Do these creatures have stories or personalities?

“Fairy tales, literature are definitely part of what gets me excited and fuels the work I do,” Leslie Fry says. Like the sphinx over the pool, she has a long mane of hair, the colour of which – as one slips into this universe of human-and-plant crossbreeds – begins to resemble the deep red of a maple leaf in October, as if she were born of the forest. “Mythology is a big influence on me,” she adds. “Also ancient art. Sphinxes have been used as guardians. The one over the pool is definitely looking over everything.”

She continues: “One of the biggest and first commissions I did was a park in Vermont, Pomerleau Park, in Burlington. It was a circular park, and I made these sphinxes. In the park, they are on columns, and her braid continues down the column.”

Fry touches the nose of one of the sphinxes in her father’s garden, which appears eroded at the tip. “It was a reject,” she says.

“It’s an imperfect,” John Fry adds cheerfully. “Plus, it fell into the pool once. I didn’t have it on a stable enough base.”

“The best view of it is when you are swimming,” he says. “I know Leslie didn’t intend it, but it makes a lovely end piece for the pool.”

A father, a daughter, a collaborative garden – and it works beautifully, though Leslie Fry lives in Winooski, Vermont, not far from Burlington, and her father is here in Westchester County, an hour north of Manhattan.

In the terraced garden behind Fry’s house that is inhabited by a dozen or more stone creatures, creeping phlox surrounds a sphinx with shapely arms and lion’s feet, languorously relaxing on top of what might be a miniature municipal building – a library, perhaps, or a train station, as if mythical creatures, unbeknown to us, share space with commuters. On a nearby hill, a pale human face, framed by tiny white Deutzia flowers and tall purple heliotrope, rises out of the earth, as if being born or released.

The gray of Leslie Fry’s moulded concrete statues echoes the gray stone in the sculpture garden, almost as if, John Fry muses, they sprang from the natural world.

There are a few distinct gardens here: the rose garden in the southwest corner of the property, planted mostly with David Austin English roses; a vegetable garden on the hill; an arbor of Concord grapes, from which Fry’s wife, Marlies, makes a batch of jelly every year; the herb garden tucked behind the fish pond. But the most intriguing is the combination of sculpture and flowers and stone that Fry and his daughter have created.

Fry is 81, his daughter just 57. They did not see much of each other when she was growing up, since she was 3 when her parents divorced. Leslie Fry moved with her mother from Montreal, where they were living, to Vermont, and John Fry moved to New York City, where he later married his present wife, the former Marlies Strillinger. Leslie Fry and her father were together only during the summers and on holidays.

Still, they have many things in common: a love, even a need, for gardening; a feeling for the natural environment; a happy left-leaning bohemian streak.

John Fry started skiing at age 6 and, as an adult, was the editor of a number of ski magazines. In the late 1980s, he started the winter outdoor living magazine Snow Country, for The New York Times Co.’s Magazine Group, and later became the editor of new magazine development for the Times Co.’s Sports/Leisure Magazines Group. He was an expert skier, though he underplays it, seeking out challenging and sometimes dangerous terrain: the Atlas Mountains, the Andes, the Bugaboos in British Columbia. He also served on environmental boards, including that of Riverkeeper, the group that worked to clean up the Hudson.

He bought this 1.6-hectare property overlooking the Cross River Reservoir in 1979 for about $65,000. His three-bedroom home, which he completed in 1981 for between $160,000 and $180,000, was built as a passive-solar house. Access to the outdoors was crucial. Four glass doors open to the gardens surrounding the house, and before breaking ground, Fry built a balsa wood model from the architect’s plans to ensure the quality of the views.

But from the beginning, he knew he had a challenge: What could he create behind the house to compete with the spectacular water views in front?

Leslie Fry, meanwhile, had returned to Vermont, after graduating from the University of Vermont and spending a few years in New York, where for a time she made sculptural fabric pieces she describes as “lingerie for imaginary beings.” (Her work was included in a traveling exhibition called “Empty Dress: Clothing as Surrogate in Recent Art,” in 1993.) With a small inheritance she received from her father’s mother, she bought a house in Winooski and began gardening. She also started making sculptures for her home, like the enormous concrete paws on the supports to her deck.

“Once I became a homeowner, my work began to change,” she said. “A lot of it was in concrete so it could be outside. I also wanted to make stuff for the environment. I love medieval art, I love ruins. I also started to get interested in public art, getting away from the fickleness of the art world and making things less precious, more available.”

Her public artwork includes “Nest Builder,” a 1.8-metre concrete column with a woman’s head and a bird’s body, which she created last year for the Seminole Garden Center in Tampa, Florida (a variation, cast in bronze, is in her father’s garden). She also did a series of plant/animal/human figures called “Wild Life Sculpture Search” for the Boca Ciega Millennium Park in Seminole, Florida, in 2007.

Her pieces are often a mix of plaster and acrylic and plant materials, and many are half hidden. The sculptures in Boca Ciega Millennium Park include a woman with pine-cone hair clinging sadly to a dead pine tree, as if in mourning, and a straw-haired bird woman with a lower body that morphs into a nest held in human hands.

Why is the woman clinging to the tree so sad, she is asked.

“It’s a dead tree,” she says. “Everything is going to hell in a handbasket.”

The pieces in the Boca Ciega project, she has said, were intended to deteriorate – why?

It was a low-budget project, she says, so she made the sculptures out of plaster, which is inexpensive.

Erosion is not a problem in the Katonah garden, where the works are concrete, ceramic or bronze. But Leslie Fry and her father are in favour of allowing the pieces to change with the garden. A heel from one of the sculptured shoes near a waterfall has been chipped away; a reclining nude on the side of the house is overgrown with vines, into which she will recede more and more with summer – a nymph, perhaps conjured in a dream, disappearing again into the forest.

Leslie Fry likes that.

“It’s a nice confluence of nature and art,” she says. “I design things for vines to grow into. In the park in Vermont with the sphinxes on the columns, I collaborated with the landscape artist so the vines would grow up the columns. Now vines completely cover some of the sphinxes, and people say, ‘Doesn’t it bother you?’ I say, ‘No, it just makes it more mysterious.”’

She adds: “With my attraction to ruins and things being overgrown, it’s just going with the course.”

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