By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Kathleen Williams invites me to sit with her on a bench beneath the katsura tree she planted years ago. The view of her back yard is across a ravine, where garden sculptures and specimen trees talk to one another. "This I call the box seat," she says, where she rests to take in the drama of her own making. At the age of 97, Williams spends most days in her garden, still drawing inspiration and delight from it. Her eyesight isn't what it was, and she uses a cane when she's in the multilevel garden. But here is a woman born before the Titanic sank who is still actively gardening and loving it.
A sculptor and later a jewelry designer, Williams has used her skills to create a woodland sculpture garden in the back of her Chevy Chase home. Good genes and healthy living may be at play, but one can't help but think that the creative life has kept her going. The garden, needless to say, has many stories.
In the early 1950s Williams was living in London with her three children. Her husband had moved to Washington to work for a political organization. He found the house for sale and phoned his wife to ask whether he should buy it. "I said, 'I don't know, darling. You're there; you decide.' And the house was dreadful," she says, erupting into laughter.
She arrived "in the pitch black" on Christmas Eve 1951 and found that the front door opened almost to the stairs, the roof was leaking and the wallpaper was far too florid. "There were cabbage roses all over my bedroom," she says. But when she looked out to the back garden the next morning, she saw the potential drama of the site, a hill that descended to a stream and then rose up behind it to what was then the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line, now the Capital Crescent Trail.
In the front, a garden has been crafted around a ceramic birdbath she designed, and an old yew has been carefully shaped to produce a cloud effect, a technique seen on many old shrubs throughout the garden. "This is what I call my green sculpture," Williams says. A dwarf conifer named Hinoki falsecypress has been painstakingly pruned into a dome. "The name is too long," she says. "I call him Timothy," after the tortoise kept by legendary 18th-century English naturalist Gilbert White.
The back of the house, which was enlarged, now features a deck with transparent railings as part of Williams's careful framing of views. Likewise, trees around the deck have had lower branches removed. As other trees have fallen, the emptiness has become a platform for her sculptures. "I had been brought up to appreciate views," she says.
The area below the deck is a stage for an abstract sculpture, and in the open bed in front of it a large and reclining figure of Pan gazes over the four descending terraces to the stream. Sitting on the bench, Williams explains that she views the garden in front of the stream as theatrical seating and the far slope as a stage. The main act is a drama she calls the Poet's Garden. The bust of the poet directs its gaze toward an artfully pruned blue atlas cedar tree she calls "the Blue Princess."
"This is really the key to the garden," she says.
At the far end, a large black walnut tree is underplanted with bamboo and Leyland cypress, both vigorous plants but here stunted agreeably by the soil chemicals exuded by the walnut. Nearby, a large clay torso, "Daphne," is framed with a wooden arbor. This was Williams's last big sculpture, done about 20 years ago. "I made her in two parts so I could get her into the kiln," she says.
Williams's gardening partner for the past five years has been Eleanor Hillegeist, a professional gardener in Bethesda who specializes in working with elderly clients. While Hillegeist works the central compost bins and does the heavy pruning and shovel work, Williams is doing the lighter stuff. "She weeds like you wouldn't believe," says Hillegeist, whose clients range in age from 87 to 104.
The two also work together in placing each sculptural element in a way that it supports the conversation Williams wants it to have with surrounding plants, other artwork and the garden as a whole. For Hillegeist, that requires patience and an understanding that if Williams "is going to take an hour to get a certain figure in just the right design, that this isn't a waste of time, it's for her a work of art. To me it's a joy."
Williams grew up in the artistically gifted family of an English industrialist. Her 91-year-old brother, Michael Kidner, is a major op art painter who lives in London. When Williams switched to designing jewelry, she focused on intricate necklaces. "I think she has been in the business of creating her life," says Hillegeist, "and she continues to do that. When she became too old to do sculpture, she didn't just lay down her tools and die."
They garden together one or two times a week for as long as three hours. Williams also employs an arborist to look after the trees and additional help to keep the stream clean and welcoming for the rich bird life.
The one pall over the landscape is the prospect of the Purple Line light-rail project taking much of the garden of Williams and her neighbors. "It would destroy it," says Hillegeist.
Williams is too upbeat to focus on the idea. She stops to point out a new project, a miniature rock garden in the front yard, filled with the tiniest of conifers and perennials. "It's very young still," she says, "but I think it's coming along."