The Art of the Yard: How the Pandemic Turned the Backyard into a Communal Space
By Nadine Bouler
For the first few weeks of the pandemic, many coped with stress by turning to their Netflix accounts to binge. However, as weeks stretched into months, early spring into summer, people realized how restorative it was to get outside. With new social distancing guidelines, many who are fortunate enough to have a backyard are revisiting ways to make it a more convivial place. Decks, gardens, pools — reconfiguring one’s backyard has taken on new urgency.
Artists were no exception.
Planting new ideas
Landscape artist and sculptor Paula Hayes is well-known for her ability to connect people with nature in harmonious ways. Many of her urban projects bring nature into a communal space. From the microcosms of hand-blown terrariums at the MoMA to a green wall in the Seagrams’ building, the restorative power of plants softens the sharp angles of the concrete jungle, even in bite-sized proportions.
In contrast, Hayes’ outdoor landscapes are more expansive — incorporating native species as a healthy habitat for pollinators and wildlife while offering an aesthetically pleasing mix of texture, color, and spatial relationships.
Since the pandemic, Hayes has seen a substantial uptick in clients looking to redesign their properties as backyards become an essential space for visiting family and entertaining neighbors. Instead of gathering in the kitchen, distancing guidelines turn socializing into an outdoor experience.
For Hayes, and husband, sound artist Teo Camporale, the pandemic brought a backyard project closer to home. Having recently renovated their house in the Hudson Valley from studio space to living space, Hayes and Camporeale used the pandemic as an opportunity to revisit their own landscape plan. It also helped them process their feelings during this period of isolation. “The garden was originally established mostly for pollinators, but with the pandemic, I decided to rework the garden as a way of processing the grief of not seeing my grandchildren.”
Hayes added different zones to create gathering spaces and visual interest. “We had a rotted tree at the edge of the yard that became dangerous, so the town took it down. It gave me the opportunity to reshape the entire space.” By repurposing materials found on site, Hayes and Camporeale set up a sunken, stonehenge-like seating area and established meandering pathways around a wide variety of plants. Hayes’ silicon planters and abstract garden gnomes cluster throughout the yard to provide visual complexity with their organic and inventive shapes.
Hayes is not alone. Printmaker Mike Maszk and artist Ann Weins also revamped their yard after three years of living in the San Francisco Bay-area. “We did the front yard when we first moved in [from Eugene, OR]. Anything grows here — the climate is ideal so we decided to revisit the backyard during the quarantine.” With Weins designing both a flower and a vegetable garden, Maszk constructed raised beds for each. “We included native plants and succulents in one bed, with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and herbs in the other.”
Around the firepit: a primal need
But plants are not the only elements in the backyard revival. Not since the advent of the caveman have so many fire pits been built for so many people. From do-it-yourself blue stone fire pits, to the sexy Scandinavian Malm, a fire element in the yard is more than a place to roast marshmallows.
Fire is in our communal DNA. Early man looked to fire for many survival needs: heat, cooking, light. Its multifaceted purpose made it the perfect place for people to gather for conversation and community.
Lyndhurst executive director Howard Zar describes the universal relationship we have with the hearth. Even though Lyndhurst, a mansion in Tarrytown, NY, was built in 1838 with a central forced hot air system, the house has multiple fireplaces. Zar explains, “On a cold night, a fireplace not only gave you heat, but it would also give you light.” With candles offering minimal wattage, the pre-electrified home gathered around the hearth for a place to read, to sew, and to talk.
Today, people are seeing their yard as an extension of their home, and like Lyndhurst, a a fire element creates a sense of community as friends gather around an outdoor fire for conversation. Campfires, bonfires, even a chiminea from Lowe’s inspires us to pull up a lawn chair, throw on another log, and settle down for a slow burn. Companies like Overstock.com and Frontgate are seeing fire pits as a hot commodity, selling out along with the patio furniture and inflatable pools.
Hayes incorporated two fire elements into her backyard design. In addition to including a pellet stove in her yard’s design, she has a smaller, handmade corten steel cage to offer an open flame. In a recent Instagram post, Hayes celebrated the arrival of the firepit. “The magical firepit arrived for the garden, some day for family and friends to share future dreams.”
No backyard? Consider local sites
With more and more screen time on the horizon for autumn, getting outside while we can helps our mental health. Seattle mental health expert Shana Cantoni, ARNP says using a park to lace up and get some exercise has a double benefit of lifting our spirits. “I live in a beautiful place with lakes, trees, and public parks. Being able to go outside and get sunlight every day has the added benefit of being really good for your mental state and will lift your mood which offers us an important sense of wellbeing during a stressful time of uncertainty.”
With green spaces at a premium this summer, local parks and historic sites are experiencing a renaissance as the public discovers outdoor spaces in their area. Landmarks like Lyndhurst have become attractive to people who are looking to get outside, but may not have a yard of their own. “We are seeing an increase in visitors who have never been to Lyndhurst before, especially families” says Zar. Fortuitously, in 2019, Lyndhurst began its restoration of their 67-acre landscape plan, which has accelerated during the pandemic. At its initial conception in 1836 by architect Alexander Jackson Davis for William Paulding, Lyndhurst’s grounds were originally designed as a communal space, open to neighbors and locals walking the grounds to socialize while exploring a curated landscape of specimen trees, pathways, and benches, not unlike NYC’s Central Park. Zar describes the impact of the restoration. “When we put all of the sidewalks back, you understand the nature of the landscape plan — somewhere you can have a seat, somewhere you can have a view, with different types of seating as well, where men and women could socialize, and even canoodle.”
Back to the future
With many restaurants closed and travel plans limited, modern-day backyards shift from a private retreat to a public space. Although we find ourselves in the midst of an uncharted, generational paradigm shift, we can look to artists and landscape architects for ways to make our yards the outdoor equivalent of gathering around the kitchen table.
And if you happen to be in the neighborhood, why don’t you pull up a lawn chair and I’ll throw another log on the fire so we can discuss it over toasted marshmallows.