Garden designer Cevan Forristt serves dinner on fifteenth-century Chinese pottery. He makes clothes of silk from Sri Lanka. All thirty-seven Burmese nats—spirits or gods with a human shape that guard objects—are scattered throughout his property in San Jose, California. Monumental remnants, architectural salvage of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 are piled alongside stacks of Mexican roof tiles and fragments from the rectory of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.
Protruding from large granite columns clumped together, oil cloth sunshades, brought from Thailand, make a corner of his garden glow amber. Tree bamboo actively thrusts its way through pilings of distressed concrete, granite gravestones, and chunks of stone rescued from abandoned quarries in the Sierra Mountains of California.
Forristt is a collector of experiences, objects and plants. He believes in using and reusing, and he likes stuff—lots of stuff. The term eclectic might have been invented just to describe the way he brings the world, ancient and modern, East and West, local and far-flung, to his own garden as well as his clients. While many contemporary garden designs have moved sharply toward minimalism, his have evolved in the opposite direction. He purposely overpopulates his gardens with objects and plants, relics of the sacred as well as the secular.
His work can be seen as continuing in the tradition of artists and thinkers who assembled in the 1950s and 1960s under the auspices of the American Academy of Asian Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies. The luminaries of this period include philosopher Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri, Zen Buddhist teacher and writer Allan Watts, artist Gordon Onslow Ford, sculptor Ruth Asawa, and Rudolph Schaffer, the founder of the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design. “I first visited Burma in 1982, and I keep going back. I like to go where the rules are different. I have traveled extensively in China, Thailand, Burma, and India. I have studied the ceramic tiles of Iran. I go to ancient places. I travel back in time—that’s where new ideas come from.”
His background as a stage and set designer helps him use earth, water, stone, light, and plants as elements to create a theater on which to play or meditate, entertain or muse.
In Cevan’s gardens, every element can be both set and actor. At times the plants take the lead, but more often than not, the stone, water, and light lead the chorus.