By Sheryl Lechner
Landscape architect Jon Piasecki once described himself as “just a Polish guy with a dump truck.” True, he is the primary builder for his small firm, Golden Bough Landscape Architecture, and he does lots of digging, tree planting and stone cutting. But, comfortable as he is clad in rugged canvas Carhartt pants and work gloves, hauling rocks uphill, Piasecki, who holds degrees in forest science from Cornell and in landscape architecture from Harvards Graduate School of Design, is fluent in topics ranging from ancient cultures and religious history to architecture and ecology. He can discourse effortlessly on the symbolism of ancient architectural detailing, or how the innate power of the land offers humankind a way to encounter mortality.
Recently, his intellectual interests landed Piasecki, 39, in elite company. In May 2004, he was one of thirty American artists and scholars to receive the prestigious Rome Prize, awarded annually by the American Academy in Rome. The Prize allowed him and his family to live for a year in Rome, where Piasecki explored his fascination with the rapport between nature and culture, and created sculpture. Back in the Berkshires since August 2005, Piasecki has since modified his dump truck description. Planning to convert the truck to run on biodiesel fuel, he now says, he’s “a guy with a truck and ‘tude.”
You really can’t blame the guy for a bit of Attitude. Those who win the Rome prize competition in landscape architecture are typically with big-city firms; it was highly unlikely that the coveted prize would go to a relative unknown, who runs his company from his West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home with a smattering of equipment and employees. In addition, at the American Academy, Piaseckis sculpture was well received by museum curators, and, last fall, one of his pieces was shown in Manhattan at the opening of a new Fendi store, an event that attracted movie stars and paparazzi. Piasecki found it surreal.
Perhaps more surreal is that after a heady year of hobnobbing with the intelligentsia, the rich and the famous, and the endorsement of his ideas, Piasecki has returned to the down-to-earth Berkshire work that is the laboratory for those ideas. Landscape, he believes, has a cultural depth: Culture is literally embedded in the land, and the intimate landscape each person inhabits, the place he or she knows best, is the place to gain knowledge of the past. In this context, says Piasecki, “People’s backyards become incredibly significant.”
Piasecki works on a wide variety of projects, each of which evidences his trademark restraint and respect for the native landscape. He explains, “I am trying to find a way to connect the people who experience my work with the intense wonder I feel in relation to the land.”
One of Piaseckis clients is Gigi Wilmers, who owns a stately early-19th century Stockbridge house on two acres of property, half of which is a woodlot with a small wetland. “I find working with Jon extremely rewarding because he has a real sense of place and is very sensitive to the specific site and its special environment,” Wilmers says. “I like the way he works with the historical setting and, when possible, complements rather than disposing of what’s already there.”
Piasecki graded and established lawn around Wilmers home, and planted two Princeton elms. Next to the house, he built a stone terrace set off by a low stone wall. He created a path between house and driveway using large, flat Massachusetts schist, which he cut by hand in irregular patterns that resemble an outsized jigsaw puzzle. Since its installation, moss and wild thyme have volunteered in the narrow gaps between the drop-dead gorgeous stone-work.
Piasecki yielded to Wilmers desire for a few small beds of cultivated flowers, but turned the task into an archeological dig, unearthing such items as horseshoes and old glass. For her part, Wilmers ceded control of her woods to Piasecki.
“She discovered that the best part of this whole thing for her is the woods,” he says, “because it’s alive.”
The collaboration was a learning opportunity for Wilmers, who says Piasecki helped her clarify her feelings about the property. She wanted to be able to walk in the woods and feel connected to nature without having to worry too much about picking up Lyme-carrying ticks from the underbrush. Piasecki did little more than clear brushespecially invasive non-native plants that were threatening native speciesto create a faint trace of a path. Rather than removing downed trees, he suggested they be left for wildlife habitat.
“From my perspective, there’s no better design for this than restraining my hand,” he says. “Most people don’t understand that. The beauty and poetry of this place is a swamp. It’s not Jon Piasecki.”
Piasecki believes that land has both cultural depth and ecological importance. His message to clients is that there are layers of meaning and knowledge in the land, embedded like fossils, there for those who take time to decipher the clues. Spending a year in Rome was perfectly suited to his interests, since there the ancient history is revered and celebrated, heavily documented, and very present. Ironically, Piasecki says he found Roman history to be much more ambiguous than he had realized.
“We know almost as little about the ancient past as we do about the future,” Piasecki says. “To me this opened the past as a valid realm of artistic exploration.” His initial proposal for the American Academy was to do a study of the ancient rituals associated with the sanctification of boundary stones, but he found limited information. So, he moved on to reading about the history of Greek religious rites, in which animals might be sacrificed, dismembered, and reassembled. As a result of this study, he played with ways of using modern sculpture in similar ways, collecting debris from around the Academy grounds — situated on the Janiculum, Rome’s highest hill — then taking the material apart and reassembling it in symbolic ways. A log is broken apart, then put back together pierced with numerous red-tipped sticks, evoking arrows, as if to represent the vanquished enemy, like a war trophy at a battlefield.
“With my [sculptural] work I tried to animate wood and stone debris in such a way that people who entered my studio could begin to feel the primal force I feel in the land. My premise was that instinctively some of the power of ancient land magic is still perceivable today and a prime place for artistic investigation,” Piasecki explained in a summary of his experience written for the Academy.
How does this pertain to the Berkshires? We tend, Piasecki says, to forget that this land — as with all land — has an ancient history, and also a Native American history that predates European settlement. Some clues to the lands cultural history are buried, like arrowheads that surface as farmers plow their fields. Other clues are in plain view. On a knoll near the center of Stockbridge stands a 20-foot spire of stone. A monument that English settlers erected to mark a Native American burial site, it recalls the towns origin as a Mahican Indian settlement along the Housatonic River, made up of groups gathered by Reverend John Sergeant. Now the area is a golf course, its history erased, except for the stone spire.
Another of Piaseckis projects is a 90-acre property in Columbia County, owned by James Schamus, an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and film producer, known for his work with director Ang Lee. Schamus asked Piasecki to landscape around the six-year-old house and to make the forested mountainside behind it safe for his wife and young children to explore.
Around the foundations of the house, Piasecki planted a simple hedge of native hornbeam, and he defined adajcent areas with simple plantings, such as the blueberry bushes that form a courtyard as you approach from the driveway. “The real show is what’s around us,” explains Piasecki, gesturing to the spectacular meadow and mountain views from the hilltop clearing. No need to draw the eye away from that with ornamental plants, he notes, adding, “I’m real proud of this work. It’s very restrained.”
In the forest, rather than simply cut a trail and mark it with blazes, Piasecki and his staff followed hunting trails and deer paths, finding vernal pools and old stone piles. (New England is dotted with these piles, he says, and no one is precisely sure of their origins.) To guide the family through their woods, Piasecki made sculptural markers, using materials found on the site. He restacked some stone piles, and created others: rocks piled within the hollow of a multi-trunked oak tree; a chunk of quartz wedged into the crook of a hornbeam; downed branches shaped into a rustic bridge between two trailside trees.
Schamus says that his children and guests love the mystery of these markers. “They’re always searching the forest for clues as to where the path leads next, and what the path will reveal as it unfolds,” he says. “Some of our favorite markers have started to blend back into the landscape, decomposing, or becoming overgrown with moss. Someday Jon’s work will quietly merge back into the landscape and the history it comes out of.”
In some places, the markers are distinctly less subtle. Piasecki likes to play on people’s primal fears of forests, which were historically seen as places full of evil, secrets and death (think fairy tales). In the deepest, darkest section of trail in Schamus’ woods, Piasecki hung a series of sculpted stones, dangling from tree branches and loaded with cultural references. These stones guide hikers, but, says Piasecki, they are “also meant to make you wonder, ‘What the hell is going on here?'” Schamus, undeterred, is clearly a huge fan.
“Most great artists tend to want to impose their vision on nature and on the traditions out of which their art emerges. Jon does the opposite: While being totally original, he teases out the history and ecology of the landscape he works in,” he says.
For Piasecki, helping people connect to their land is more than an academic exercise or a way to make a livingit may be a matter of life and death. In the Western world, he says, people think that our technology and culture have controlled the land. We hold this delusion at our own perilas each tsunami, earthquake, or disease outbreak underscores.” Unless we change this view, he asserts, we may go the way of ancient Rome.