Art, gardening go hand-in-hand


It doesn’t matter if Rebecca Allan is painting or gardening — she’s always getting her hands dirty.

A Spuyten Duyvil resident, Allan has spent the last 30 years creating as a professional artist, but just five years exploring the world of horticulture thanks to a project she led when she joined the cooperative board of her 2500 Johnson Ave., building.

At the time, Allan volunteered to redesign and renovate the building’s landscape, giving her the opportunity to think about how to beautify the space.

“Luckily for me, the other board members were very supportive of freshening the garden, but also thinking, ‘How do we plant or renovate a garden so that it’s more resilient?’” Allan said.

As preparation for the project began, Allan thought about integrating native plants and amending the grounds’ soil by evaluating what kind of nutrients the plants need and adding those materials to its roots. She and neighbors involved in the renovation even made plans to place what she calls the “Lavender Garden” next to a trash enclosure in order to stay true to the mission of making the space aesthetically pleasing.

“We thought, ‘Why not create something beautiful next to something that’s smelly and not that pleasant so people don’t look at it?’” Allan said.

Soon enough, the garden became more than just a project spearheaded by Allan — it became a community effort. The green thumbs would work with her during the weekend, allowing many of them to connect on a personal level.

“There were so many conversations that came out of that about people’s memories of plants or gardens when they were growing up,” Allan said.

In the end, Allan and her neighbors planted things like mountain mint, milkweed, elderberry and dogwood plants.

Looking back on her work, Allan says she was inspired to take on this project and work with plants because of her time living in Seattle, where she lived before moving to Spuyten Duyvil 15 years ago.

“In the northwest, you could really almost garden all year round,” Allan said. “The whole aspect of horticulture in the northwest is very important because people can take advantage of the range of species that grow” there.

Even though Allan is no longer a member of her building’s co-op board, the garden at 2500 Johnson Ave., is always a work in progress for her. And that work motivated her to start Painterly Gardens, a firm where Allan redesigns and renovates gardens in other building spaces, and even terrace gardens.

“I really enjoy the container gardens,” she said, “because when you live in an apartment and if you’re lucky enough to have a terrace, you can really do a lot with that.”

There are some challenges working on terraces, however — they tend to get windy and also very hot when it’s sunny out — yet it’s given Allan a chance to expand her horticultural expertise.

“That’s allowed me to get involved with working with plants like rosemary and different succulents that can survive harsher conditions on a terrace, but also gives people color and texture,” she said. It’s “also something that they can take care of personally.”

When she’s not designing a garden space, Allan stills works as an artist and sees how her two passions connect.

“As a painter, I’m really interested in how color and texture are a vocabulary for our experiences in nature,” she said.

Between painting, running Painterly Gardens, and teaching at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, Allan just rolls with her day-to-day schedule as best she can.

“It’s busy,” Allan said. “Some days I have to have a really disciplined schedule in order to hit my different responsibilities. But the energy of creating beautiful spaces and also what I get back from my work as an artist, it fuels me. It restores me.”

If there’s anything Allan has learned from her art and garden designing over the last five years, it’s just how much she loves directly working with people.

“Gardening is a community experience for me, and painting is very private and solitary,” she said. “The biggest takeaway for me in building Painterly Gardens is that I really needed that contact with people because art making can be very isolating at times, and horticulture is a way to reach out and have friendships, and to build our civic involvement.”

Allan hopes appreciation for green spaces evolves in her neighborhood and she’ll get to see some green roofs on top of residential buildings. But for now, Allan just hopes people recognize the importance of appreciating nature on a small scale, especially with the ongoing looming threat of climate change.

“I really believe that people must have some relationship with the natural world, or they risk their health and sanity,” Allan said. “For me, it’s very satisfying and essential to be involved in nurturing that part of the experience. It’s an opportunity to show people how resilient the natural world is, and if we mess around with it too much, we’re ultimately going to do damage to ourselves.”