Glen Ellen home a whimsical work of art

A one-of-a-kind pergola made from PVC pipes covers a backyard brick patio at the home of Susan Alexander and Tom Tollefsen in Glen Ellen, on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


At the end of a private road in The Jack London Country Club Estates, some of the neighbors are cooling off in the pond. Many have lived on this charming street for decades, including Susan Alexander, art maven and gardener extraordinaire, who fell in love with this spot in Glen Ellen back in 1979. She and her partner, architect Tom Tollefsen, have created a “festival for the eyes” here, each contributing their talents to lend the place a whimsical, secret grotto feel.

Said Alexander: “I think of my garden as my canvas, and am probably as much of a plant collector as an art collector.”

Humor, color and whimsy rule here, from the Pixar- esque, large metal head called “Woman In Wheelbarrow” by Tracy Fitzgerald, to toothy sculptures by Oakland legend and self-proclaimed “inventor of rust,” Mark Bulwinkle. Rows of polka-dotted, solar-powered lights line the steps leading to the patio, purchased for the “interesting patterns they make at night,” and a 15-foot piece by Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent called “Man Getting A Haircut” depicts a tiny man pushing a lawnmower over a giant’s head.

The patio has been the site of three decades worth of lively Fourth of July barbecues and Day of the Dead celebrations, and it was virtually destroyed when a 100-year-old oak tree came crashing down in 2012, narrowly missing the house.

Tollefsen, long a Burning Man attendee, had inherited a sizable collection of PVC piping one year and now wanted to use it to design a 21st-century trellis for the new patio space, something “interesting and swirling.” He created a dazzling structure he calls “Two Eyes Up To The Sky,” the ocular theme also reflected in the pavement below.

Both Alexander and Tollefsen love to cook.

“Tom does the grilling and homemade pasta, and I do the Tarte Tatin and cookies,” said Alexander. A long table hosting a trio of quixotic bird planters containing succulents sits ever on the ready in the center. Mexican masks, mermaids, head vases and Haitian oil drum cutouts line the walls of the outdoor kitchen.

Stacked flower pots of every shape and hue are clustered near a sculpture of a man displaying rows of teeth in his hands, the work of Creative Growth artist Joe Kowalczyk called “In The Hands of a Big Liar.” At night, soft light from suspended globes illuminates the patio, encouraging dinner guests to linger.

In the heat of the day, visitors may be drawn down a short pathway through a camellia archway to sit in the shady serenity of the “Mediterranean Garden,” a serene offshoot of the patio decorated with tiles and fountain pieces from Sicily and Portugal. Tollefson describes their formula for garden collaboration as, “She plants, I design.”

Alexander has many favorite plants, and sages, lilies, hellebores and hostas make frequent appearances. If she likes something, she seeks out many versions of her picks. Begonias, both fibrous and tuberous, add depth and texture to hillsides.

Abutilon plants with their papery, dangling blossoms make an appearance in every color available. Both lacecap hydrangea and oakleaf hydrangea are represented. And trust Alexander to find a variety of the ubiquitous petunia that is anything but standard. A shocking-pink-with-chartreuse-edges variety enlivens the path from the upper porch of the house to the main patio. Best of all, she has tucked in more small sculptures and eye delights among her plantings, a yellow Talavera frog here and cartoonish orange tiger head sculpture there.

Alexander and Tollefson have created a magical space for friends to gather and marvel, a place where “everything has been hand-picked, and everything has a story.”