Matt Larkin clips and snips his way to new territory for topiary
Text by TOVAH MARTIN Photography by WEBB CHAPPELL
never saw reason to rein in his imagination. Might as well let it run rampant, he figured, which is how the larger than life-sized rhinoceros, boxing bear, giant snarling rat, and iguana ended up cavorting in his backyard, together with various peacocks. His goal—his vision, if you will—was to create a scene that might have stepped straight out of Alice in Wonderland. He wanted to blur the lines of reality, and he wanted to do it with yew.
From the road, Larkin’s Black Barn Farm, in Richmond, Massachusetts, doesn’t seem drastically different from its neighbors. A slightly upscale version of a white farmhouse sits out front; the jet black barn behind is trendier than the average hay structure thereabouts. Nothing screams “theatre of the absurd” until you swing into the driveway to park in front of an iguana perched atop a clipped green pedestal. That’s when you notice that royalty is stepping out of the woods, her coronet only partially filled out by Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’, but regal nonetheless. By the time you’ve walked around back, passing a pair of implausible peacocks that guard the toolshed, and into the menagerie of neatly clipped wild things of all descriptions, you’re firmly in the realms of the surreal.
Larkin may be an interior designer by trade, but his personal art stays strictly outside. He took his inspiration from Gothic novels and Green Animals, a seven-acre historic estate and topiary garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. When he came home from a visit there, he couldn’t keep his hands from clipping. Taking his cue from Crisse MacFay-den, the then-director of Green Animals, and Portuguese gardeners (“They clip, their grandfathers clipped, it’s just something they do”), Matt read everything he could find on topiary. Then, he took an adult education course and learned how to weld.
There are several schools of approach when it comes to topiary. Some practitioners go totally free form, but Larkin works with frames. Many of his sculptures stand upward of eight feet. Several stack various levels of absurdity into their composition— fowl of all persuasions perch on geometric objects, peacocks sport dual crowning layers, and so on. To form a firm base for such ambitious projects, there’s got to be something going on behind the scenes. So, behind all the greenery of his mature topiaries, there’s often a whole lot of rolled steel.
Larkin begins by drawing up a prototype form that will guide the welding of circular frame sections. Perching creatures on geometric objects is actually a ploy to create a base sufficient enough to support considerable weight. “If I’m doing a four-legged animal,” he adds, “it’s going to have fat legs, for obvious reasons.” (If his garden strikes you as strange, you should see his studio. Often, he’ll hang a frame from the ceiling to weld on the legs.)
Then comes the horticultural interface, because Larkin must find the right plant for whatever he’s creating. Yew is his favorite medium, and he has become something of a connoisseur, selecting just the right cultivar for his application. He’s been known to work with boxwood and arborvitae as well. Although his topiary receives constant tender loving care while under his custody, he’s got to think of the adopting venue also. Some of his topiaries go public—Hartford Children’s Hospital, for example, has examples of his work on their grounds. Others are destined for private residences. Privet requires weekly trimming, he points out. “So, we don’t suggest it, unless you’ve got staff.” On the other hand, Ilex crenata can be pokey. Needless to say, Larkin is in constant contact with large nurseries. For example, Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, gives him a jingle when they’ve got surplus asymmetrical foliage plants that might not work for a landscapes but could become an antelope.
A TOPSY-TURVY WORLD
When the plants enter into the picture, a bets are off. The frames are just the starting point. Although nineteenth-century critics accused topiary artists of manipulating nature, Larkin sees his role as collaborative. “You have an idea of the starting point, but the fun is watching where you’re going to go.” He is constantly rethinking his green sculptures, reacting to where the plants are moving. And, given his anything-except-buttoned-down mind, folly is usually in the wings. As he puts it, “I’m striving to create a topsy-turvy sort of world.”
So, where’s he going next? He sees a giraffe in his future. He’s also planning to mix media. The stag is being fitted for a rack of bonafide antlers, and Larkin is tinkering with plans for some not-quite-life-sized elephants balancing elaborate textile howdahs on top. And as they grow, existing creations get further and further from reality.
Everyone complains about the lack of humor in horticulture, but Matt Larkin does something about it. The only thing he takes seriously is fantasy. And, clearly, he’s crazy about yew. H