Aristata Land Arts

outdoor design & installation

Outdoor design, installation, and garden care. Specializing in outdoor structures & xeriscape plants. Portland, OR.

I think I'm a brute.

Finding acceptance in what I do with my body and who I perceive myself to be has been a painful and rewarding journey. The work I do when I'm getting paid is rigorous, exhausting, and exhilarating. The work I do when I'm not getting paid is a different colored bag with the same contents. I ask a lot of my body, and as much as my demands make it physically hard to get out of the chair after dinner, they chop the kindling that keeps the fire bright in my heart. The strength I build outside of my work keeps the work more manageable and pleasant. It all begets itself. Is it the barbell before the boulder, or the boulder before the barbell?

photo (13).JPG

I'm writing this because I need to come out. I'm a brute, and I'm proud of it. I'm going take a gander and say that physical work is often thought of as "the lesser". Everyone has a body and they can use it, but not everyone has the intelligence and charisma, right? I do not believe this now, but I grew up enmeshed in this idea, egged on by the insistence that financial wealth equals worth.  I have accepted and embraced that getting dirt under my fingernails, sweat stains on the daily, and random cuts and bruises is far more fulfilling and rewarding than padding my bank account. I love what I do. 

Using the body is a skill, the same as being a natural born academic, and not everyone embodies it. It takes a deep fortitude, a natural gift of stamina, grit, and athleticism that is special. Yeah, when I'm swinging a pick axe all day I'm not crunching numbers and creating the next billion dollar app, but I'm practicing a deep meditation that can move two plus tons in one day and build something beautiful and functional. A physical space is created that makes people feel good and commands respect of singular moments. This is how I can contribute.

This might read as self-aggrandizing, but I need to give myself credit for what I do. I too often play down the ability and drive that it takes to get this shit done, and rarely describe how bad and good it feels to start swinging a pick axe at 7:30AM. Well, I probably do talk about how bad it feels, but not enough about the positive energy I receive from it. The flow of blood, the quickness of breath, and the rhythm of repetitive physical exertion form an electrical current that plugs me into my spirit. It gives me a sense of being the animal that I am. That base level of human-ness/animal-ness is hard to uncover, but is so vital in staying strong and positive. The will to get done what I love builds a simple platform to jump sure-footedly into the rest of my life and be ready to give.

A year and a half ago I had surgery to repair a used up shoulder, and after a year of nursing a bad shoulder and then the year and a half I spent babying a new shoulder, I am back to full strength. During the recovery, I had to be incredibly still and watch my body get smaller and weaker. This registered just a few shades below unbearable torture. Most of my worth, mentally and financially, resides in my physical ability and in turn shapes my identity. If I don't feel strong in my body, the edge of depression sneaks up on my feet. I'm not sure how this will play out for longevity's sake, but I have started incorporating some intelligent decision making into my physical limits. For now, I am so grateful that I have been afforded a               healthy(-ish) body to do the things that I love and to teach me such tremendous lessons about meditating in motion and letting physical moments create visceral presence. Thank you, physical labor.

I just held your hand on my manufactured pathway.

There is something so visceral and satisfying about a new pathway. Where you once walked across soil, a path has now been constructed to guide you to your destination. I feel so proud and my chest swells with satisfaction when I walk across a path that we have just completed. Underfoot, the solidness of it in time and space is so definitive. The sound of footsteps have changed, sometimes deeper and muffled or sometimes magnified by a new echo. The decision has been made, the materials have been laid and your body now takes you down the path without thinking. Your mind rests, there is no processing of which plant to walk around, rock to step over, or which part of the ground will lend you the most support.  Look up, and focus your eyes on the surroundings.

photo (5).JPG

Don't be mistaken, I do love the adventure and mental exercise of acute perception and graceful prowess that comes with cutting my own path. When I was a kid I spent countless hours behind our house discovering the magical woods. I began a solo game in pathfinding agility that became a habit that persists still today. While foraging around on trampled brush trails and creeksides, I imagined that I was in a competition to pick the best, most precise route. I was a highly skilled animal, sleek and agile, that knew which rocks would take my weight without shifting and could lightly jump over a stream without that clumsy slipping in the mud that leaves the telltale sneaker streak.  I fancied myself as quite a deft creature, and now, it’s my meditation because my brain won't be tamed into the quiet still kind of meditation practice. Unfortunately it hasn’t kept me from being heavy footed and prone to at least one spill on every hike. Hello nature, I have arrived and I am a loud and messy deer with 5 to 7 legs. This is not quite what I envisioned as a mud-stained tomboy mapping the urban backwoods of Missouri and Texas.

Photo by Gregory McManis

Photo by Gregory McManis

So now I build pathways over ground and through ground, corralling the unexpected obstacles, pushing them to the sides and organizing them in pleasing vignettes. Fancy footwork is a feather left to fall, hold the fanfare.

Contemplation rests on the landscape more easily when ankle-breaking obstacles disappear. I fear that I am trying to control one's experience, instead of magnifying it, but I re-assure myself that not everyone has an inclination to enjoy the harsh and unsteady terrain of the wilds. I will help them along in a safer, slightly manicured setting and not claim any master plan god-like status.

In the beginning days of Landscape Architecture the overarching goal was to show the superior human potential to control the wilderness. Rolling grassy meadows carpeted the land where once there was a deep unfettered forest of tangled trees and a wily, prickly understory. You were not to work with what was, but instead create a landscape bulldozed with your genius and powerful will. Not until later did this tide recede and appreciation was turned towards celebrating the natural gifts of the landscape and magnifying it’s beauty.

Finding this line between a gentle nudge and a heavy hand is crucial to the way I design. Pathways are a conveyor belt for exploration. All of the sudden I am there, walking a step ahead and holding your hand, but I'm invisible. Everyone chooses their own path ultimately, but when you make a path through a landscape for someone else, you are telling them that you know the best way, whether you really do or not.  This is quite a weighty thought for me, and the responsibility to manifest an experience is not something I take for granted.  The permanence of creating a path, changing the sound and the texture is a thrill to me, but I want it to feel seamless as if it was always there, and your feet never left. 

winter plans - cleaning up my act

It's time to get back to the drawing board, the saws, and the dirt. I tend to take a little break from work this time of the year, partially it's forced by lack of work, and also, my mind and body just need  a little break. In the past few years I've given my body a hardy and hopefully permanent break from everyday labor, but as the business has picked up, the non-physical aspects of being a business owner have snuggled right into that gap, leaving me almost as exhausted. The nature of seasonal work can feel very feast or famine with everyone wanting everything at the same time, including the "don't bug me, it's rainy & cold out and I didn't know I had anything past this warm cozy fire" time. I'm getting better at prioritizing projects in the busy season and not taking on work just because it's there. If you run into me in the summertime, and I appear frantic or I'm staring off into the distance calculating a bid in my head, remind me that I still need to have some fun.

Winter is still happening, although it feels incredibly mild in Portland, and after all of the holidays and a personal break, it's time to start planning again. This is also a pretty ideal time to start/continue on the never-ending project of my own yard. Maybe if I make my house goals public and show you these rather homely pictures, I'll be a little more inclined to get them moving a long. Here's what I got:

This one is pretty close. At least we haven't had to walk through mud all fall.

Finishing the boardwalk. We've made good headway, and hopefully just need a few more days, not including the elaborate lighting plan that I'm not quite sure how to do yet. That's what's great about working on your own projects - there's way more leeway for not knowing and figuring it out, or perhaps messing it up and dealing with it next year.

 I think a large new box will go to the right of the smaller one. The tarp pile is pieces of the boardwalk. 

This was the first year that the major portion of the backyard felt really done and it was great. We actually had real chairs to sit on and didn't feel like we were hanging out in a construction zone. We discovered that the little nook that we created felt so quiet and cozy and not like our neighborhood usually feels. Accidental results can be real good. 

We always do veggies and other edibles but have scaled it back a little. It seemed like we always had more than we could eat, but now we want more again. At least more of what we love.  I don't know if anyone else has experienced the phenomenon of growing things that you don't actually like just because you can grow them. Well, I think we're over that phase and our selections have become more fine-tuned so it's time for more space. This means a little reconfiguring and more box building somewhere in this space. 

Wood chips are the best solution that I have found for areas that are in a holding pattern. Weeds don't grow well in in them, because the chips are stealing all of  the nitrogen to break themselves down. 

The last project that I will report on is the "other part" of the backyard. I'll just embarrass myself if I divulge all of the projects, and I'll be lucky to even complete all of this stuff. This is still a bit of a wasteland. Our final goal is a small sauna and another patio area. I'm hoping to get the design thought out and lay down the bones this season. There will be some plants, but mostly just stones or pavers. We had to get realistic about planting beds and dogs. It doesn't work so well... especially with the giant beast. Oh and that chain link fence, gone. I've got good plans for that one. 

I'll hopefully be posting throughout the season on my progress...

Abstract Botany 1 - Fall

I might be biased, as I was born in November, but fall is the season to end all seasons. It is the season that leaves the others a few inches shorter looking up, a little jealous of the splendor of uncalculated beauty. And yes, I believe the fall show is more beautiful than the rebirth and flowers and frills that comes with spring. Flowers are intelligently crafted by evolution to attract pollinators and make more bounty, but the changing color of the leaves are mostly a bi-product.  They just happen and then release themselves, floating sails with no boats, landing underfoot. 


The thing that so fascinates me about fall and I find to be endearingly humble, is that most of these colors are there all along under the green, unselfishly plugging along doing their job. The leaves don't actively change colors so to speak.  We see them in the fall because the chlorophyll has broken down into sugar and moved into the stems for winter storage. These orange and yellow pigments are what's left behind. This is one of life's simplest metaphors, right? There is a wealth of beauty just beyond the surface.

Biologically, there are a few theories to explain the red pigments. There is the idea of camouflage and anti-camouflage either to draw attention to uneaten fruits for maximum seed dispersal or camouflage green leaves so they won't get eaten before they store their chlorophyll. Another theory is that the red pigment acts as a "sunscreen" and protectant during the cold bright days, but none of these theories are overwhelmingly accepted as the answer.

Altruistic beauty? Yep, I think so.


Leaf in front of the lens. This is anthocyanin, the red pigment. 

More than the other three, Fall is uncannily a mirror image of the cycle of life and the hours of a day.  Dusk is the magic hour and I unabashedly revel in the nostalgia of the day, like a dog rolling in the grass, taking a quick pause belly up, eyes to the sky. No thoughts, and lots of thoughts. The endless race trips on itself and suddenly halts, leaving me breathless, eyes darting, realizing what is surrounding me, touching my feet and expanding my lungs frantically, then slow to deep. Every day of fall is like this. A time to look back on the year, and to appreciate death as a beautiful piece of life. Western culture is not so good at embracing death as a celebration of life. Maybe this sort of death, such an aesthetic display, is something we can identify with and feel positively moved by. It is not the end times, and I'll admit it right here - death can be beautiful, especially in the 'spoils' of fall.

Old Time Yellowstone

I found these postcards at an antique store a few years ago and they've been hiding in a drawer waiting for some sort of presentation. They are the good old kind - thick, shiny and grainy. I glued them to plywood and now they are ready for some wall time.
Landscape paintings and scenes are so mesmerizing to me, even the super cheesy ones. There is so much to look at, and so many hidden crevices to get lost in. It's like lazy book reading - lots of stories, but no words to bounce over, synthesize, and digest.
I worked in Yellowstone National Park for a summer when I was a young lass and didn't get much time to explore as there were lots of overcooked burgers and Sysco potato salads to be served, but I did get time to experience the otherworldly geothermal landscapes of bubbling mud pots and brilliant deep turquoise pools of sulfuric water.

It's humbling to say the least, and gives me some serious Earth love. Our planet is so easily taken for granted, and I don't mean in the obvious ways of harmful extraction and destruction, but in sheer amazement for how it continues to operate, for what's going on below our feet and in the air that travels to our lungs to keep us moving. Lucky for us, it's incredibly resilient and doesn't judge us for our oversights. 

West Texas part 1

I took a recent vacation to West Texas, including to the town of Marfa, Tx and to the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend National Park. Two things happened - amazing art & design, and the discovery that when I have said "middle of nowhere" in the past, my scope was limited. Growing up in central Texas where it is hot and HUMID, and well, incredibly conservative, my motto became - "anywhere but Texas." Unfortunately this kept me from experiencing the mind blowing landscapes and rich cultural treasures of Texas. There's more to Texas than chips & queso, self serve salsa bars, margaritas, and breakfast tacos, all of which I still deem essential to my life.
Desert sun.
The art and design aesthetic of Marfa is all about minimalism and is heavily influenced by Donald Judd. He came to Marfa in the 1970's, driven by the inspiration he felt from the barren landscape of West Texas. Spurred on by his disdain for the temporary nature of art displayed in galleries, he undertook the project of creating a permanent location for his art. He purchased land that contained old army barracks and there lies his permanent art installations, along with a few other artists he selected. The only way to see the collections are by an all day docent led tour.
The barracks.

At first I had a hard time with the permanence factor, feeling it was a bit narcissistic, but by the end I really appreciated it. I kept imagining all of the installations, and potential color bombs that could be strewn across the land and how amazing they would be, and why not? Then, I felt the deep, paralyzing feeling of permanence. The abyss to FOREVER. For me, it is in the same category of non-existence that I absolutely cannot comprehend. Before all of this, there was NOTHING, not even a white room, void of sound with no life in it. 
The idea of art that is set in such a wide open landscape as something that will never change, always exist as it was originally intended to, and never be added to or taken away from is kind of maddening. It is a challenge to practice acceptance and contentment, an opportunity for the viewer to grow and discover new values within instead of only relying on the outside to change and reflect back what personal growth is. 
Donald Judd, untitled concrete forms

The view from the end, all aligned north to south
Permanent art could be the ultimate meditation. The landscape self-destructs and erodes, starves and then bursts open watery blue and green and thrives around it. The extremes of temperature, ferocious winds, dust storms, lightning bolts, and torrential monsoons are enough to comprehend and physically absorb. They are magnified around the solid and steady post of permanence.


This is a 360 degree view from the Painted Hills in Eastern Oregon. The last glacial periods were at the end of the Pleistocene epoch that spanned from 2.5 million years ago to about 15,000 years ago. 

I am currently fascinated and obsessed with Antarctica and its stark white landscapes of brilliant piercing lines and abysmal mirage of shadows. This is my attempt at turning these moving snap shots into my own polar fantasy. Some day I hope to get there and experience the depth of stark openness. It is the truest form I can imagine, a pure and uninhibited exploration of land and self.

Listen to it through headphones for an inter-iceberg experience. 


This was my view on a camping trip in the Umatilla National Forest in eastern Oregon this summer. We were actually part of the view, completely submersed and surrounded in storm and light. I have never had the experience of a lightning storm passing directly over me, or more like, through me. I was shaking in my boots. The dogs and my travel partner, not so much. We saw the storm approaching from across a valley and over the mountains.

This is when we decided to take the bottle of wine to the car and wait it out. It ended up being a couple of hours before it cleared us. I took about 200 pictures to keep myself occupied and a little distracted. Most of them were just black, and I couldn't really tell from looking on my phone that I actually did catch a few bolts.
The experience was one of the most surreal of my life. To be engulfed in deep blackness, and then be completely illuminated by white light. I'm quite grateful.
This lightning storm caused numerous fires that were battled for the rest of the summer. Something like 210 strikes touched the ground in this area that night. Wow.

I wish that every design I did could create the feeling of really being in it, of being electrified by the experience of landscape, as this lightning storm felt. To not be a human standing surrounded by landscape, but an animal, a particle of energy, in the whole of it. We become so removed and think of our selves as separate, when we never are. Whether you are standing on a glacier in Alaska, or can only see concrete for miles, humans are one of the many elements of a complete landscape.  
I have been trying to define the word landscape for myself. It makes me sad to think that a lot of people think of neatly manicured shrubs and acutely trimmed and greened lawns when they hear the word landscape. I guess I want to take the word out of the business.

Here is a definition I found for the landscape in relation to people:
Combining both their physical origins and the cultural overlay of human presence, often created over millennia, landscapes reflect the living synthesis of people and place to vital local and national identity. Landscapes, their character and quality, help define the self image of a region, its sense of place that differentiates it from other regions. It is the dynamic backdrop to peoples lives.

This makes me feel really good. I guess I'm a bit of a landscape nerd. Thank you wikipedia.


Rain gardens are such an important and easy fix for managing stormwater on residential properties.  They also serve as a seasonal water feature and a beautiful focal point.  Committing to a rain garden does not mean that you will have a stagnant pond in your yard. In fact, rainwater should drain within 24 hrs. or it's not a good spot for a rain garden.
This is a rain garden that I installed over the summer in NE Portland.  It is about 180 sq. ft. and will accommodate all of the rainwater coming from the roof.  The plants in the bottom, mostly grasses and some ferns can be inundated with water and still thrive.
I put this basalt rock with a natural bowl in it to attract birds for a little bath.
This is where the water enters.

When landscapes are covered in vegetation, rainwater naturally soaks into the ground, but when we cover it with impermeable surfaces, like driveways, sidewalks, roofs, and even a grassy lawn that is compacted, the water runs off carrying pollutants into local creeks and streams, and taxes water treatment plants.  Here in Portland, when we get a good rainfall, and not even a huge event, our sewage system overflows into the river. Yuck.

All of this runoff  also creates 100 yr. flood-like conditions in streams every time it rains, causing serious erosion and sedimentation that chokes out wildlife.

Here's how we got it done:
The bottom of the rain garden only needs to be 6-8" lower than the surrounding ground.
Getting the water there... with a kitty.  The water can also travel above ground by creating a rocky creek like channel.
Gettin' it done.  Rain gardens need to be heavily planted to filter pollutants, absorb the water, and prevent erosion.

Other benefits of rain gardens are their ability to filter out pollutants before the water gets to the streams, and they recharge the water table keeping streams from drying up during times of low rainfall.
It can also be packed with perennials on the rim to include lots of color.
Proud new explorer.

Here are a few recent fall shots.  The plants grew so well in just a few months.  Good thing, because they are hard at work now.

There are lots of great resources on the internet to learn about rain gardens.  If you are in Portland the East Multnomah Water & Soil Conservation District is a great resource and even offers free workshops to help you build one on your own.
I love talking shop, so ask away if you have any curiosities.

Who doesn't want to build a house for a miniature pig?

This is my friend Hamlet, an Extreme Royal Dandy pig, who lives across the street from me at a Montesorri school called Owl and the Dove.

and this is his new house...

I think everyone likes it.
Note Buck (chihuahua) for scale!

UFO patio

Thankfully, summer and fall have been busy with lots of interesting projects which I'm hoping to share in the next few weeks.  This first one is perhaps my favorite, maybe because it is in my own yard and I had the artistic liberty to do as I pleased.  I was hoping to have the patio done last year, but it has dragged on as most of the projects do at my own house.  This time procrastination was supremely beneficial, because the idea did not come to me until this spring.  I had been thinking about it for a year and wasn't quite satisfied with my ideas yet, but this one lit up my mind in an instant.  

I'm not quite sure the inspiration, except that i wanted a metal element, and a feeling of enclosure on the patio by using an overhead structure.
Enter 16' and 8' diameter metal circles, that were referenced as the "flying saucers" in our design meetings.  Luckily, I had a highly skilled welder and artist, Adrian Haley, to do the installation for me. Check him out at addesignspdx.comThey were incredibly heavy and cumbersome, to say the least.  
I'm hoping to run some cable cross pieces in the small one to grow a vine up and over it.

The planter box and bench are in progress.  The facing for the box will be the reclaimed Doug Fir leaning against the fence.
Patio project next:  paint neighbors garage, build bench and planter box structure for the big patio and a small platform/deck underneath the small one. 
I'm also hoping to find some single person hanging chairs, something like this, perhaps, to hang from the big circle. I want it to look and feel like little cocoons hanging from the sky.


Desert Terrarium

I just made this terrarium for a friend and am super excited about it.  Of course, the desert theme never escapes me.
I was thinking  about walking through the desert and of all the random objects that I have found.  Everything is in plain sight where it is exposed to the harsh sun and wind, and washed clean by an occasional late summer monsoon. It's not hidden under inches of forest duff and decaying in the flash of an instant like it does here in the Pacific Northwest. The story is right on the surface, so to speak.
In the desert, you are almost certain to find elements of metal, glass, jagged rocks, and bits of old bones from times past.  I used glass eggs, an old metal lock,a piece of petrified wood, and a skunk skull.

POLYGONS - Geometrical nature

A regular hexagon has all sides the same length and all internal angles are 120°.


Bee's use the hexagon in their hives because it allows the most efficient use of space. Circles in a grid create spaces, and no polygon with more than six sides will be interlocking.

Octagonal patio
This is the patio that I am currently building at my house.  It is in multiples of 8 - 16'x 16' with an 8' diameter octagon.  When it is complete the cut out spaces will have planters with a bench spanning it and a 10' tall metal circle on wooden posts over the top.


I took the day off to help install Bob's mom's graffiti art show - KA-POW.  This work is so vibrant and expressive, just as the woman herself, Kirby Kendrick.  Check out her website to see all of her fabulous art.  The show is at PRESENT space ( NW Glisan 97209.  If you are in Portland come down for 1st Thursday, June the 2nd.
Kirby is a true inspiration, following her heart and coming to her prolific art career later in life.  I always remind myself of her when I'm feeling unaccomplished and that the lifetime clock is ticking too fast. 

This is a video of the show up at the San Diego Art Institute Museum.

from scraps...

With help from Bobby, I made these coasters out of scraps from a patio made with Montana Hot Springs flagstone. They slivered off pretty easily, then I backed them with cork.

Tucson spring

Carnegiea gigantea,
Saguaro Cactus
The Saguaro cactus is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, Mexico, and a small part of Baja California.  It does not grow anywhere else in the world. They can live up to 150 yrs., and don't grow a side arm until they are about 75 yrs. old.  Their maximum height is about 50 ft.
Being surrounded by the spiny arms of a Saguaro forest is a surreal and majestic place to be. Arms up, arms down, these plants dot the horizon like beacons of resilience.
Saguaro skeleton
Living in the Pacific Northwest, I forget that wood is not the go-to building material.  Tucson is replete with beautiful rusty metal.  This was one of my favorites. Total genius! Think about how many old box springs are tossed aside to head to the dump. 
box spring fence
solar system gate
These photos were taken at Azure Gate B&B, a 5 acre oasis located about 30 mins. from downtown Tucson. It is teaming with birds, desert wildlife, and plants that I love.  The hosts are incredibly friendly and the breakfast blew out all of my preconceived notions about B&B breakfasts. I would highly recommend a stay here!