Art in Bloom

When a couple of Los Angeles transplants hired interior designer John Oetgen 10 years ago to decorate their new Sandy Springs home, it didn’t take them long to seek out his expertise in the garden as well.

They love bold, colorful, whimsical art, and Oetgen had given them a small bowl made by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. That piece ignited in them a passion for glass sculpture so intense that the owners have since become one of the artist’s largest private collectors.

“We already liked Chihuly and got really carried away with it,” the husband says. So much so, they decided to display some of it in their garden as well. By then, Oetgen had introduced his clients to the work of yet another prominent artist, Tom Otterness, known for his public displays of large bronze animal sculptures, most notably throughout New York City. “When they first started designing the garden, I knew it needed a big sculpture at one end as a focal point,” the designer says. “But I never dreamed of the extent to which they would collect his art.” Neither did the homeowners.

The first piece Oetgen chose for the garden was “Bear,” one of three the New York artist created in 2000. At 12 feet tall, the sculpture casts a commanding presence at one end of the swimming pool. Getting the piece there was no easy task. “We had it trucked down from New York, and we had to hire a crane to install it,” the homeowner says. “I had told the crane operator that at 2,200 pounds, it was going to be a ‘bear’ to install, but he didn’t believe me.”

Years later, “Bear” is just one of a cast of animal characters poised throughout the garden, while the more delicate Chihuly pieces claim a highly visible spot on the covered terrace, protected from the elements.

Looking back, the owners are hard pressed to recall which came first—the art or the garden. Not long after buying the house, they hired Harrison Design Associates to renovate the house, expanding the kitchen and adding two levels of porches across the back to open the interior to the yard.

“All that was back here was a turquoise swimming pool with a black iron fence around it,” the owner recalls. Landscape architect Tad Thomas designed a formal garden, creating seating areas for entertaining and arranging pathways so that they formed niches for adding art. But as the collection of Otterness sculptures grew, the seating areas got sacrificed for the art.

In one area, a giant frog glares hungrily at a bumblebee that has lit on his tongue, while in the Japanese garden, a second frog strikes a Zen-ful pose beside a topiary purchased from a monastery in Conyers. And then there’s “Trial Scene,” a display of bronzes that depicts a courtroom in which a cat is on trial, and the prosecutor is a dog. The jury includes a not-so-unbiased mix of cat adversaries, including dogs, mice and birds. “Tom’s work is so whimsical, which is why we love it so much,” the owner says. “And it complements the vibrant colors of Chihuly so well.”

For the latter, Oetgen designed a rectangular porch display of the artist’s fiori series, which includes niijima floats and blue heron, so that visitors can view the glass from all sides. The pieces, visible from the indoors as well, are installed so that they easily can be moved indoors at the threat of a storm.

So far, that hasn’t proved necessary.

All of the art is so thoughtfully placed, the owner says, it appears to have been there forever, thanks to the guidance of professional eyes. “My wife and I first decide what we like, and then we let others help us decide where it should go,” he says. And when the art is so massive, those “others” definitely include crane operators, too.