In the manner of “when the world gives you lemons, make lemonade,” when the garden gives Sherrill Cooper problems, she makes art.
For the 25 years she and her family have lived at this house, the Finksburg, Md., artist has treated every problem as a creative opportunity, and the result is a yard where whimsy masks the spots where nature has refused to cooperate.
A sundial hides the septic tank. A border of broken plates keeps a garden in check, and old-fashioned porcelain spigots grow in a window box where nothing else will.
Cooper is an illustrator, and most of the work she does in her studio above the garage goes out into the ether to appear on websites. Or it disappears into a faraway magazine.
Her garden installations are hers to keep.
“I never see my art again,” she says of her illustrations. “This is my way of hanging on to it. And touching it.
“The electronic-ness of it all: I don’t know. I was longing to put my hands on it.”
Cooper has a reputation among friends and family as a pack rat. “I never throw anything away,” she says.
So when somebody comes across a box of 250 wire coat hangers, of course they are going to give them to their friend Sherrill. Whereupon they become a giant spider web that screens the seating around a fire pit.
And when an exercise machine started gathering dust, with a little imagination it became a giant cricket in the garden. “For good luck,” Cooper said. “Gardens need crickets for luck, and with one this big, I will have plenty of luck.”
Her home backs into a hillside and woods. The plates, scavenged from Goodwill for a quarter each, hold back nature in summer. And neon safety vests, a gift from her husband, have been cut into strips and hung on a line between two trees to provide a little privacy and color in winter.
Cooper did the same with a bunch of “those awful garden flags” that she got from her mother. “I cut them up and mixed them up, and now I don’t hate them,” she says.
She and daughter Madeline, 20, went all Jackson Pollock, sling-painting vintage metal garden chairs that were a rusted mess. And now they provide seating for outdoor dining — under a mobile made of a colander and discarded silverware. Of course.
She has spray-painted and “potted” old brooms that were used to clean the stalls at the barn where her children took riding lessons. An old croquet set is strung up to be “a perpetual game,” says Cooper, and a bottle tree catches light from the setting winter sun through the bare trees, a beautiful sight from indoors.
“I never pay more than $3 for a bottle,” says Cooper, who has some pretty unusual specimens, but she doesn’t want to feel bad if one falls and breaks. “Besides, people give them to me because they know about the tree.”
An antique wooden carousel horse, damaged by the elements and certain to sustain more damage at the corner of her porch, is now protected by mosaic pieces reclaimed from broken mirrors and dishware.
Her husband, Bill, works for Ryan Incorporated Central, which provides earth-moving equipment (hence, the safety vests) to projects in the Mid-Atlantic, and he travels a great deal.
“He is very supportive, but he has no idea what is waiting for him when he gets home,” she says.
The small koi pond is ringed with antique glass insulators from old power lines. They are different colors, and at night the lights beneath them make them glow like jellyfish.
Her largest installation is an opaque chimney that sits atop a stump and is lighted from inside. It is held in place by the “fingers” of the ivy vines that clung to the old tree. They came off in two giant pieces and, since the kids were leaving for college, “Empty Nest” took their place, to light Mom’s evenings on the porch.
She made a bench out of old surveyors’ sticks that came to her when her husband’s business began to use GPS. Can you imagine what she would do with a grocery cart full of old paint samples?
Cooper can’t seem to throw anything away, but she considers herself to be an archivist of unwanted items. “I like the words ‘repurpose’ or ‘recycle,’” she says. “I like that it doesn’t make you sound like a hoarder.”