IT WAS FORMER Seattle Art Museum Director Mimi Gates who brought sculptor Joe McDonnell to Seattle when she hired his wife, Maryann Jordan, as deputy director at SAM. The couple moved cross-country from New York, and they’re still here 17 years later, living in an art-filled old home on Capitol Hill.
McDonnell works in a little studio in the back garden, across a flowery courtyard from the main house. His atelier is the old garage, originally converted as a drum studio for their daughter. Now McDonnell builds models here for his bigger pieces. His work is modernist, abstract or figurative, and for the past 20 years or so he’s been working in glass as well as metal and stone. Most of his pieces are made for the outdoors, where the bronze, steel or glass is, by turns, slicked by rain, reflecting sunlight or catching clouds passing overhead. One of McDonnell’s best-known pieces is “The Second Gates of Paradise,” which are interlocking, monumental pieces of bronze gate made for a Seattle waterfront estate.
From the street, all you see of McDonnell and Jordan’s home is a retaining wall, clipped cedar hedge and cascading red Japanese maple. A pathway leads along the side of the house, past winter-fragrant sarcococca, to a bright yellow door. Pots hold black mondo grass and near-black petunias to contrast with the white-blooming hydrangeas and white-variegated hostas. Next to the yellow door is a sign reading “Hippies Use Side Door” with an arrow pointing around back to McDonnell’s domain.
“I’m the gardener, with lots of input from Maryann,” says McDonnell. The front garden is narrow, the deck draped in columns of wisteria. A wooden platform floats on the grass, holding a pile of McDonnell’s lighted glass “ice cubes” and a large bronze nude. A pot of white agapanthus and mahogany-colored heuchera completes the scene.
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But most of the gardening happens around back in the courtyard, an open-air room between house and studio. The space is furnished with an eclectic bunch of plants in pots, a circle of chairs, a dining table and decades of McDonnell’s work. Two tall paperbark maples (Acer griseum) set the scale. A stainless-steel wall relief of cutout-like shapes hangs on the home’s exterior wall, tables hold small sculptures, and one of McDonnell’s bronze pieces called “Chinese Bracelet” anchors a grouping of plants, including a purple smoke tree and a fig tree. Inside the studio, McDonnell is working on a model for a glass water fountain that will, in its final form, be 6 feet high and 20 feet long, light up and drip water.
“It inspires me to have the garden right here with the studio, it feels European,” says McDonnell.
“I try to choose plants that look good all year,” he says, pointing out pots of rosemary and hellebore, contorted hazelnuts (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), and the twisted, twiggy wire netting bush (Corokia cotoneaster). He pulls potted lemon and lime trees indoors in winter. Plants grow in pots of all shapes, sizes and colors, and the effect is of a curated collection, lovingly gathered and tended over time.
When McDonnell moved to Seattle all those years ago, he thought it would be for a few years at most. Looking around his courtyard garden, he says he is staying put.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. See her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.