Sue Hensel is about as cool a neighbor as a person could ask for. I first met Sue when we worked together on a neighborhood committee. One of the goals of our group of neighbors was to foster a greater sense of safety in our neighborhood. I remember one meeting in particular when Sue invited all the neighbors over to her art gallery to have a neighborhood art night. Sue opened the doors to her gallery and her heart as she welcomed all us neighbors into her creative space. I remember thinking how lucky the neighborhood is to have someone so dynamic and giving. Sue and I easily became friends, so when she asked me to come up with some ideas for her landscape I was more than happy to help. Together we thought up a plan and soon Giving Tree Gardens was hard at work turning Sue’s yard, which at the time she deemed “the dead zone”, into a functional, beautiful space. As Sue and I worked together to drastically transform her landscape, I realized that a transformation was also occurring within me. Working close with such an accomplished and openhearted artist as Sue gave me the opportunity to discover and express the artist within myself.
R: We really changed what’s going on out in your yard, why was it that you were originally thinking you wanted to get some work done out there, and what goals did you have for the landscape?
S: That side yard was a dead zone, as you know. It was unusable, it was ugly, and basically it was just really bad. There was hardly anything growing out there, the highlight was the lilacs, they would grow out there, but nothing else would. Dust would blow in the door. It was just yucky. Previously I’ve always lived with rather nice gardens around me. I’m not much of a gardener myself, I don’t dig a lot in the dirt any more, but most of my live I’ve lived with a park like environment. Living close to gardens like this has always has allowed me to breathe deeply and with a certain sense of peace. I need to have a green environment around me, I need to smell healthy dirt, it’s the dirt really even more than the flowers, it’s that spring loam smell. I need that
R: In considering the space for your use professionally what kind of a space were you looking to have created out there?
S: In terms of this being not only my home, but also being a gallery I wanted an environment where people could meet, and where art could happen. We did have one performance out there in the dead zone, believe it or not we managed it, but since I put in the gardens I’ve had two art installations and a performance and we only had the gardens in for two months before winter. I’ve already had potlucks out there, and I’ve had meetings out there. I’m already lining up meetings and installations for this summer. The first installation’s going to be in May. I knew I wanted a lot of hardscaping, and even though it was an expensive part of the project I don’t regret at all putting down the natural stone because I really needed hardscape and I wasn’t about to pour concrete. I have a soul relationship with stone, maybe you didn’t know that about me, I grew up in upstate New York where you can see the sedimentary process in action because the gorges are so deep and it’s all limestone and shale. Seeing the process of time and the layers is very meaningful to me and it gets me excited, still does, I’ll walk down the gorge with my nieces saying “Look at that! Look at that!” and they’ll say “What? Aunt Sue, what?” and I’ll say, “That’s thousands of years ago, do you understand that you’re seeing time?” That means a lot to me. We put some time down in that patio and in those retaining walls and when I’m surrounded by them I’m sitting in a little microcosm of time. That stone was compressed thousands of years ago. It’s like I’m sitting in a little time zone, a time before the busses and motorcycles going by, even though I’m just in a few feet from the street I feel like the street is in a whole other place when I’m out there. Professionally I needed hardscape for people to stand around on but I also needed sturdy perennials that would fill in. I needed places where the dog could walk in, and that people could walk in if necessary, places where we could set up chairs if we needed to. For me it had to be sturdy Minnesota happy shade plants and as much native as we could do because it just makes sense. Perennials make sense because I don’t like to have a lot of maintenance, and I certainly don’t wanna have any chemical maintenance. I want to step pretty lightly on the earth if I can. That’s important because this is a community gallery and on some levels this is a community center. So it has to be a welcoming space.
R: “You mentioned a sense of peace that gardens can instill in you. Do your new gardens here feel peaceful?”
S: “ Oh gosh, it’s an astounding space. We’ve probably had a good hundred people go through there now, and every person who’s walked out there just relaxes and their shoulders go down, many folks remark on the peace they feel. “It’s so nice out here”, they might say. Voices come down, people start talking more slowly and gently. It’s a magical space now. That’s what happens when you bring nature back where it’s supposed to be, and of course we also brought the good Karma of our working relationship. I have been very well served by my strategy of choosing artists and allowing them to do what they’re supposed to do. That’s exactly what I did with you. I knew that you were an artist with plants and I knew you were a smart guy, and I knew what landscaping cost, I’d done it before. So even though I had to gulp a bit at the price, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I’d seen your work at the Seward Co-Op and I knew you through various neighborhood committee meetings. I just said okay, this guy’s got some stuff going on. So I put you in the back of my brain thinking, ‘when I’m ready for landscaping this is what I’m doing’.”
R: “When you called to talk landscape with me I thought ‘Yey, I might get to work with Sue!!’ Then I remember coming in to your studio to help make banners for a neighborhood event and I just thought, ‘Wow, this lady is so cool!’
S: “That night is when I made my decision. I had so much fun getting to know you that night, and that’s when I began to understand that you worked as an artist.. You weren’t doing landscaping because you didn’t know what else to do, you were doing landscaping because you truly loved it. I didn’t even think that I’d be able to do the landscape last year, but I came back from out of state and I stepped into the yard, and I said “I can’t stand it one more minute”.”
R: “I get called a lot of things from landscaper to dirt gardener, but it’s new for me to be called an artist.”
S: “Well think about when you’re gathering the plants, you’re doing it pretty instinctively. With you the creativity happens on site. When you’re placing the plants in the yard you’re not worried or confused about where the plants should go, no you’re pretty instinctive out there. Those plants are like an extension of your body. Since you know those plants so well, in a way you’re able to take the ego out of it and just create. That’s art! When you’re really in that creative zone it’s almost like you’re channeling. It’s as though the ego leaves and you’re just dealing with whatever your materials are. Just recently I was out at an artist residency and I wound up doing drawings that were twelve feet wide! Me five foot Sue making huge 6 feet tall by twelve feet wide drawings! I’d get to the end of the day and it was kind of like I’d come back into myself, and I’d say “Damn I did that!?!”
R: I had some of that same feeling in your garden
S: That’s when you’re in that zone, which only comes when you are so familiar with your media that you’re able to work absolutely directly with them, they don’t get in the way. My compressed charcoal and pastel didn’t get in the way at all, they were just a vehicle for what was coming through me. Your knowledge of all those plants is so deep and the connection is so strong that you don’t have to think ‘Oh, that’s a clover it should go there.’ No instead it’s that the clover was in your hand and it went there.
R: I love the way you put that. So all that earth we moved in your yard, and all the tools and labor and the process…..
S: That’s preparing the canvas in a way!
R: And the artist as well I suppose, because in addition to getting the space ready to have the garden, that preparation got me ready to plant it.
S: Absolutely! During all that time it took you to prepare that space, in your subconscious all this work is going on as your body got used to being in the space and the shape that the space took, and the way that the light worked when you were out there and the way that the heat worked. You were there morning to night so that even if your weren’t being conscious of it you saw the sun move through the yard, you saw the deep shade, you knew where it was going to be real hot and where it was going to be just sunny enough. You didn’t take notes, your body just knew because you were with the space. We knew that you didn’t have to do the excavation by hand, you could have taken the fence out and brought in some kind of tractor to dig up the space. As I look back on it though, I think “Ya know that time was really well spent”. That time allowed the yard to become part of you so that you could operate that way. If you had brought in a tractor and done the digging with that I’d still have a nice yard, there’s no doubt about it, but it probably wouldn’t have had that magic, that feeling. It is magical out there and I’m not the only person saying that about it. Part of what we’re talking about here is just mindfulness. Even the name of your business, Giving Tree, you may not have thought about it when you were doing it, but that’s a very mindful name, it’s part of who you are. You’re giving back to the earth. You’re also giving to your clients, your sweat, your strong back and your expertise, but something else happened out there. My yard is your yard, I mean that. I mean not only does it benefit me to have folks coming and going from the gallery, but also, let’s spread the peace! If I am open, hospitable, and accommodating, those ideas get planted and maybe somebody else will be too. It’s all part of that whole grass roots thing, create the peace that you want to see. That’s the kind of peace that I want to see. I want to see neighborhood and community strength. I want to see people feel safe to invite one another into their yards and homes, or to say hello over the fence to somebody new, somebody that they might just know the rest of their life.