Suite Plein Air, 1992 – 2018

When Tom bought the run-down property in Hammond, he went over the ¾ acre yard with a fine-tooth comb and removed the eyesores the previous owner left behind. The first thing to go was an oversized, above-ground swimming pool in the fenced-in yard between the front and back houses. Only two feet of space remained around its perimeter. Visitors either had to get in the pool or stand around the sides. At the far end of the property was an obnoxiously large satellite dish with a concrete foundation the size of a small car.

Tom dreamt of providing a peaceful domestic life for Amber, much different from the harsh urban environment where he grew up. The artist in him valued the process, no matter how long and hard he had to work to see things through to his vision. The neglected property would have turned away any person in their right mind. Instead, he saw the possibilities of a cozy home: a swing in the apple tree, a serene water fountain, and flower and vegetable gardens.

Tom learned about gardening from his Italian neighbors when he was growing up on the near north side of Chicago. They showed him the basics of growing and harvesting vegetables in their small backyard gardens. With the same seriousness and enthusiasm with which he approached his artwork, he dove headfirst into gardening, researching, and reading books on the subject. What could have been a relaxing hobby for him became an obsession. 

He grew an heirloom vegetable garden in the field at the back of his property. Multiple varieties of veggies grew from spring to fall; cold crops, hot crops, even State Fair ribbon-worthy 100-pound pumpkins, just for fun. The back house was surrounded by delicate and temperamental heirloom rose bushes that put on a show a couple of times a season.

In my eyes, he was a master gardener. He knew the name of every plant and details about soil, composting, fertilizing, placement, pruning, and plant zones. Tom dedicated a couple of weeks each spring to clean the yard and planting. I often stopped by as he finished for the day, and he was absolutely glowing; fresh air and hard work made him happy. Soon, I saw Tom was self-medicating with sunshine to get through the dark places in his mind. He was an addict, after all.

His visions and plans for his garden were always more significant and more expensive than he could achieve. Despite everything he did, there was still an underlying dissatisfaction. It never stopped him from trying to improve his garden year after year.

When we bought our home in Dyer, we rented the Hammond houses to people interested in gardening and maintaining what Tom had started. It didn’t take long for Tom to see that no one would tend to the large property with the passion he did. When he returned to the houses over the next couple of years, Tom grew more and more disappointed with how the yard was shaping up. The broken water fountain was surrounded by dog crap, the flower beds were overgrown, and the vegetable plot with the carefully groomed organic soil was abandoned. Finally, I assumed managing the property and arranged for Joe to mow the lawns every other week. It was too painful for Tom to see the invasive weeds that had swallowed up his dream.

Our property in Dyer presented Tom with new and exciting challenges. The previous owners designed and built the house in 1979. The property had once been their spacious dream home, with its four-acre, pond complete with a peninsula. Their enthusiasm for the yard probably faded as their kids grew up. Their eventual divorce left the seller with a house and yard that were too much for her to handle.

When we bought it, you could only enter the yard from the back door; the sides of the house were overgrown and treacherous with poison ivy. The yard behind the house was strewn with large logs and a whole tree stump still in the ground. We twisted our ankles over surface roots as we walked around the yard. Overgrown bushes were planted too close to the house and ivy clung for life to the wood siding. On the wild and woolly peninsula grew spindly maple trees and various thick invasive species. The far end had eroded, and when it rained, it flooded. It was nearly impossible to figure out where to begin the clean-up. One day, Tom went outside to start.

By the end of the first day, he had cut down and removed the bushes surrounding the house and dragged them to the front. A saving grace for us was the city service that came by every other week in the spring and fall to grind up our never-ending supply of yard debris.

The Gamblers, 2020 watercolor on paper 44 1/2 x 55″

Later that fall, Tom methodically rolled each of the almost 50 cottonwood logs over to the peninsula and placed them upright along the shoreline to stop the continuing erosion. In the dead of winter, Tom’s former student Em’rynn helped him shape up the peninsula. They identified and cut down all the unhealthy and dead trees to allow the healthier and appropriately placed trees to flourish. The following spring, Tom ordered 30 cubic yards of dirt; a mountain of it sat in the street in front of our house. Over the next month, he wheelbarrowed all the earth out to the peninsula, morning until night, with breaks only to eat and sleep. When Tom was done, the entire peninsula was eighteen inches higher and had a tightly protected shoreline.

Em’rynn’s teachings about the types of plants that were native to our area influenced Tom. He learned how important it was for the birds and animals to have suitable flora species to thrive. Tom purchased books on the subject, and we found a company that sold native plant seeds for our area. I complained that the seeds were quite expensive. Tom patiently explained that harvesting seeds from the wild were far more complicated than purchasing the easily collected seeds from domesticated garden plants.

Tom carefully broadcast the seeds into the new dirt. I was excited about the prospect of a native paradise of wildflowers the following spring. He told me that it could be years before we would see any of them; wild seeds needed time and specific conditions before they could sprout.

In the meantime, Tom focused on the rest of the yard. He unearthed a red brick path that wound from the side of the house to the peninsula; it had been overgrown with grass and forgotten. Tom dug up and cleaned each brick, redesigned the path, and re-laid the bricks, creating a beautiful pathway around the yard and borders for future garden beds.

Each spring meant a new project. If he had placed a bush or flowers too close together, he moved them around. It was like rearranging the living room; their relocation usually resulted in bigger, healthier plants. We walked around the yard together and visited the new flowers blooming each day. Just like his art, he wanted the garden to entertain and put on a show for everybody. Thinking the garden looked perfect, I wanted to invite people over, but Tom would say, “Not now, a big show is coming up in a couple of weeks when this batch of flowers will be in bloom.” By that time, I had forgotten about entertaining, and just the two of us would see the glorious flowers of the buttery yellow Gram Thomas Roses.

Gardening caused Tom frustrations, sudden torrential rains washing away seeds he’d just planted, heavy winds blowing plants horizontal not to stand up straight again, and deer eating the sumptuous buds off his lilies just before they were about the bloom. Each spring Tom battled the chipmunks whose life’s purpose was to prevent him from growing sunflowers. Year after year, Tom would plant more and more sunflowers, growing them in cages or in trays before planting them, hoping for just a few in the end. The scene resembled Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tom, the exasperated gardener losing his mind over his missing flower seedlings as a chipmunk, sat nearby laughing.

The garden was an extension of Tom’s artwork, a continuation of movements and ideas, a symphony of color, shapes, and sizes. Tom purposefully planted numerous varieties of flowers so something new bloomed every single day.

It was a constant battle against invasive plants and grasses on the peninsula, which could swallow everything up in the blink of an eye. There were a few years when we were swamped with work in the spring or summer, and the invasive plants took over like wildfire; we had to start almost back at square one. I was in charge of applying Em’rynn’s approved herbicides to those grasses. I covered up and walked through the thicket; I learned to identify reed canary grass, cattails, and purple loosestrife. 

Many years after we had spread the seeds for the native plants on the peninsula, they started to appear in the mix of other plants and grasses Tom had planted since. Bright red cardinal flowers grew among milkweed and monkey flowers, attracting bees, dragonflies, and butterflies in droves. The beautiful ecosystem Tom dreamt of for years flourished.

Early spring nights were my favorite. With the windows of the house open, the cacophony of frogs singing lulled us to sleep. By this time, many of the logs Tom rolled to create the shoreline years before had disappeared, and early spring rains flooded the far end of the peninsula again, just as they had when we first moved in.

Restoring The Wetlands, 2011 acrylic on canvas 22 x 36″