Artists find inspiration in the gardens at Yaddo

The 180-foot pergola at Saratoga Springs' Yaddo Gardens, part of an estate that was turned into a sanctuary for artists in 1900.
The 180-foot pergola at Saratoga Springs' Yaddo Gardens, part of an estate that was turned into a sanctuary for artists in 1900. (Dan Cooper)
By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 20, 2010; 3:42 PM

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., may be known for its horse races, its spas and its historic mineral springs.

But for this Carson McCullers and Sylvia Plath acolyte, the little city near the picturesque Adirondacks has always been an obsession for another reason: Yaddo, the storied artists' colony that has been fertile ground for thousands of creative spirits such as Plath and McCullers since its founding in 1900.

Over the years, Yaddo artists have won 64 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur fellowships, 61 National Book Awards and one Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, for literature in 1976), lending more than a little credence to John Cheever's description of the estate as having seen "more distinguished activity in the arts than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community and perhaps the world."

Many believe that the creative powers of Yaddo (the founders' young daughter suggested the name) lie in the 400 scenic acres of woods and lakes where co-founder Katrina Trask once envisioned "literary men, literary women" finding the "Sacred Fire" as they're "walking in the woods, wandering in the garden, sitting under the pine trees . . . creating, creating, creating!" Decades before Katrina and her financier husband, Spencer, began inviting artists to stay with them at their Saratoga Springs mansion in the 1890s, there had been a tavern on the property that was popular with writers. It was believed that one, in particular, wrote part of a significant poem while staying at Barhyte's Tavern. His name was Edgar Allan Poe. The piece? "The Raven."

Most of the property, which abuts the Saratoga Race Course, is off-limits to the general public, unfortunately. But the beautiful 10-acre Italian-style rose garden that spreads in front of the 55-room mansion is open from dawn to dusk to all visitors. And it's hard not to feel a frisson of energy the moment you set foot in the garden.

The area, which the Trasks designed in the 1890s based on gardens they had seen on trips to Italy, is filled with massive beds of pink and yellow roses during the summer. After a $400,000 overhaul last year, its statues and structures have a refreshed sheen to them. The first thing you'll see is an inviting fountain filled with statues of sleeping naiads. Marble steps lead you up to a pergola blanketed in climbing roses. In a cool, dark corner, a rock garden surrounded by 100-year-old pine trees emerges. In another direction, there are Italian marble statues representing the four seasons - winter wields pine cones; spring bears flowers.

"The gardens are meant to provide good inspiration, maybe a little relaxation," says Lesley Leduc, spokeswoman for Yaddo. "Everybody needs a place to unwind - you see that with the artists who come here and also the public. It's a quiet thinking spot."

Specifically for that purpose, there's a "poet's corner" with a large stone bench in a shady, secluded corner of the garden. "Katrina was herself a writer, a poet and a playwright," notes Leduc.

Indeed, over the years, the garden has been a direct source of inspiration for some poets. Plath, who had written "The Colossus" while at Yaddo in the 1950s, was apparently inspired by the gardens to pen "The Manor Garden." "The fountains are dry and the roses over./Incense of death. Your day approaches," the poem begins. And a poem that Henry van Dyke wrote about the garden is not only etched on a sundial that's the centerpiece of the place, it was also famously read by Lady Jane Fellowes at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997. The piece, entitled "For Katrina's Sun Dial," reads in part, "Time is too slow for those who wait/Too swift for those who fear/Too long for those who grieve."

Earlier this year, a childhood dream of mine came true when I was invited to spend seven weeks at Yaddo. I finished my memoir there while making sure to take breaks to poke about the Trasks' woods and gardens. At times, the magic of the place was palpable. It's hard, after all, not to think of Aaron Copland, Langston Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter or Henri Cartier-Bresson as you walk the narrow paths they once trod.

During my many walks at Yaddo, the motley collection of artists there at the time would often end our journey by slowly wending our way toward a final destination: the rose garden. There, the inspiration that gripped us was sometimes pedestrian: Once, on the Poet's Bench, we were moved to whip out a phone to order a pizza, for example.

But always, always, our talk was of writing, of painting, of composing choral music, of dreaming up sequences for films or dance performances. More than 100 years later, Katrina Trask's vision continues to hold true, it seems. Her garden still flourishes. Her artists still linger, "creating, creating, creating!"

Tan is a New York-based writer whose food memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," will be published by Hyperion in 2011.

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