The first thing you see when you enter the enchanted world of Peter and Robyn Crompton is the gigantic head of Athena, regarding the street through empty eyes.
Penetrate further into the shady greenery beyond and you feel as if you?ve walked through C.S. Lewis? wardrobe into a mythical realm.
Sculpted heads hide within the shrubbery as if fallen from their pedestals and a pair of elaborately mosaiced fish coil as one within a labyrinth of spent iris, lamb?s ear and sage.
It has the look of timeworn abandonment ? the remains of a garden that once upon a time was manicured into classical perfection. But this appearance of neglect is all by careful design.
The Cromptons are both artists; he does large sculptures, she creates elaborate mosaics using everything from pottery shards to the bottoms of wine bottles to shells and other found objects. She also works with tempered glass.
But they also are wizards with stagecraft, he as a theatrical set designer and she as a professional costumer. Their garden on Santa Rosa?s Taylor Mountain is an elaborate production that unfolds like a stage show with a series of small gardens, each a separate scene serving to showcase their art.
?I?ve always really liked overgrown Italian gardens that you kind of discover,? says Peter, who speaks with a hybrid accent acquired from a childhood spent in both his native South Africa and Cambridge, Mass. ?When I was at Stanford (studying biology) one of my favorite places was this old garden next to the museum that was totally overgrown.?
So the half-acre they have spent the past 10 years carving out of the dense overgrowth of a long neglected landscape is all about ?the romance of decay.?
In truth it is alive and ever-changing. They give a lot of thought to the placement of each piece and frequently move things around, like scenery on a stage. It is no accident that a mask of Athena beckons visitors into the garden. She is not just the goddess of war, but also the goddess of the arts and intellectual activity.
Many of the sculptures, nonetheless, began their lives not as fine art but salvage from stage shows.
Peter has designed over 100 productions, from Summer Repertory Theatre to the Festival Opera, Opera San Jose, Marin Theater Company, the Diablo Light Opera Company, Jarvis Conservatory and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
?It is like a set,? Robyn says of the garden. ?When you have something, you don?t want to upstage it. But you also want it to look like it belongs where you put it and that it?s always kind of been there, or that it suits the site somehow. A lot of the pieces Peter makes really nestle into the garden very easily.?
Both Cromptoms move easily among their various worlds, making little distinction between their art and their stagecraft.
?I like art that?s approachable, and I like art that?s functional and I like art that?s actually a thing that has been made,? says Peter, ?which I guess makes me basically a 19th-century artist in the eyes of most of the art world. But I like art that can integrate in any setting.?
Robyn, who grew up, coincidentally, in a house just down the street, also dismisses the notion of artistic snobbery. She got her bachelor?s degree in theater design from San Francisco State University. But her first husband was not supportive of her career in costume design so she took up quilting as her ?creative endeavor.? After divorcing she went back to school for a master?s in fine art and sculpture.
After graduating from Stanford, Peter quickly determined that a career in science was not for him. He took up painting first and then got drawn into set design. The couple met doing ?Die Fledermaus? for the Sonoma City Opera, and thus began a career of collaboration.
The sculpture garden, which they open to the public every October as part of ARTrails Open Studios and by appointment, has come together organically.
When the couple bought their property a decade ago it was smothered in weeds and overgrowth. But as they began whacking away they discovered the fine backbone of an old garden. They also discovered many odd objects left by a previous owner who clearly was into collecting. Those things, including a collection of tumbled and natural stone, have been repurposed into the garden.
?We use a similar philosophy to garden design as we do for stage sets, where you really want to surprise and delight people and make it a journey to discover things,? says Peter, who designs the pathways while Robyn?s focus is more on the plants. ?The other thing is, I'm not a minimalist stage set designer. I always think more is better and that always carries into the garden.?
Careful thought is given to where each piece will stand. Sculptures and mosaics are set into the landscape like tableaus. A giant green Tara ? a Tibetan Buddha representing enlightenment that Peter salvaged from a Christmas/solstice production ? sits in quiet splendor in front of a gnarled oak.
?Unlike a lot of Buddhist deities, she's stepping forward to intercede in human activities,? he says. ?So she has an active pose with one foot coming off the pedestal and hands splayed out to the side. We thought her pose reminded us of the limbs of the oak tree splayed off to the left and right.?
An elongated black Madonna and child, towering some 13 feet tall, is set within a small redwood grove, where her shape mimics the trees and her color the bark. She is framed by Robyn?s twin mosaic snakes.
Robyn is also drawn to mythical figures, like the Green Man, a pagan god who frequently shows up in European art and architecture like medieval churches.
One of her stunning depictions of this ?consort to Mother Nature? peers up from the ground near the entrance to her patio garden. If you don?t look down, which you must if you?re going to fully experience the Crompton garden, you?ll miss his elusive countenance.
?The idea was that he is a very powerful, quiet god-type character that?s hidden in the foliage,?she says. ?But you have to know he?s there ? or know to look for him.?
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or email@example.com.
Features, The Press Democrat
Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.