These ever-changing art exhibits live in a Quebec garden

Gravity Field by landscape architect Theodore Hoerr and landscapers Kelly Waters at Rebecca Shen at Reford Gardens. (Photo by JC Lemay)

There is a particular nostalgia that attaches to the act of returning to a place. Seven years after setting foot here, I am returning to the Reford Gardens on the edge of the Gaspé Peninsula of maritime Quebec, a northern climate where the opposite shore is far enough away to give the impression of being on the open sea. Although these thousands of flowers inspire peace, I contemplate how the world has passed through the ringing since the last time I read them.

The gardens were started in 1887 as the project of Elsie Reford, who was born in Perth, Ontario, and grew up in Montreal with her wealthy family who made their fortunes from banking, railroads and the textile industry. First opened to the public in 1962, the nearly 45-acre outdoor site became a balm for many during the pandemic when the constriction of our homes got a little too tight.

This year, the gardens are honoring the theme of adaptation through their annual art festival, until October 2 — a theme relevant both to space and to our time. According to Alexander Reford, director of the establishment and great-grandson of Elsie, adaptation was at the center of this project from the start. The matriarch has learned through trial and error that you don’t fight nature – you work with her.

Detail of Au fil du temps… by Louise Tanguay at the Reford Gardens. (Reford Gardens)

For the 23rd edition of the festival, five new pieces have been added to past stars, building on an outdoor exhibition that now features 35 landscape architects and artists from around the world. Unlike some interactive exhibits, the growing collection uses natural spaces and physical objects rather than virtual reality and headsets to attract viewers.

The festival’s latest creations have partially responded to COVID and the precarious future it foresees while pushing artists to think about what’s next, for all of us and the changing spaces we inhabit. parts like gravity field – made up of dozens of plastic domes suspended from which more than 100 sunflowers grow upside down – both underline the incredible adaptability of the sun-seeking plant and recall the art of the site which dates back a century and a half.

“I think it makes people realize that gardens are an art form,” says Alexander. “It’s quite complicated because they use materials that are alive. So they are beautiful today, and tomorrow they look like nothing because the flower is gone.”

Gravity Field by landscape architect Theodore Hoerr and landscapers Kelly Waters at Rebecca Shen at Reford Gardens. (Photo by JC Lemay)

While this garden is undeniably exceptional, there is a quote in the main building – the family home-turned-museum – from Alexander claiming that Elsie would be horrified to know that she is best known as a gardener. The historian-turned-nonprofit creator and art festival founder wears many hats and enjoys portrayals of people who resist simplicity. He strives to keep his great-grandmother’s life alive as a complicated character, with his passion for sports, politics, music, and art collecting on display.

He also does not hide his sometimes contradictory conservatism: a feminist who did not want women to have the right to vote, and an ecologist before the hour with her desire to preserve her luxurious home and the river she fished. It seems that her Renaissance Woman tendencies were passed down to her as well, and her ancestor would approve of space polymorphism.

Alexander recognizes how much his family’s wealthy background has supported this place, and he’s in turn trying to make it a little more accessible with offers like free entry on the first Sunday of the month and free entry for kids. . An exhibition throughout this end of summer and beginning of autumn also addresses this question of access to natural spaces: photographs by Torontonian Jeffrey James of the famous parks of American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

View of the installation Au fil du temps… by Louise Tanguay at the Reford Gardens. (Reford Gardens)

This year marking the 200th anniversary from the birth of Olmsted, who designed Central Park and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the exhibit is a logical extension of the garden’s updated mission. Olmsted is largely responsible for creating the field of landscape architects that Alexander puts front and center.

“He had this real kind of democratic belief that if you could give people public spaces, then the rich and the poor could meet in some kind of neutral zone, and the world would be a better place,” Reford says, taking a page of architect’s utopian vision. “We have this opulent heritage, but we try to make it accessible, as much as possible.”

Sitting at a table overlooking the window of the site’s Villa Estevan Lodge – a restaurant that brings the region’s terroir to life – Alexander tells me how he co-founded a non-profit organization and returned to this place for the buy it back from the government in 1995 It was five years after this loop back that he embarked on the construction of the arts festival to breathe new life into the historic destination. The same shifting flow of inspiration is present in the kitchen, led by Executive Chef Frédérick Boucher since 2019, when he also returned to his nearby hometown of Price, Quebec, to tap into the restaurant’s artistic flair. gastronomy of the domain.

The restaurant building, which dates from 1886, is covered with wooden slats in warm colors, while prints by Alexis Aubin-Laperrière adorn the walls. His pieces are made using the traditional Japanese technique of gyotaku fish printing, by dipping a salmon in sumi ink and pressing it onto washi paper. These coins create a visual reminder of the Founder’s love for fishing the Mitis River while providing an updated view of this historic treat. Dishes get a similar locally-inspired treatment, with herbal help from 150 edible species growing in the grounds.

“Gardens are a great place to experiment with creativity,” says Boucher. “My artistic approach often begins with observing what is happening in the gardens, the different blooms, the local products and the general atmosphere here.”

This whole place is constantly changing, both artistically and seasonally, while remaining a constant through the decades. My return gives me the impression of marking the passage of time. By being a living frame upon which other pieces are placed, parts of this historical and botanical foundation still shine through as a repentance. In the process, new and adapted interpretations emerge, like an upside-down sunflower turned towards the sun.

William E. Bennett