by arlene winkler
after moving here from New York, I was invited to a dinner party attended
by other refugees from the big city. It was there that Lucy Todd, a
five year veteran, explained Asheville society. "Just think of
it as a small colorful rug," she told me, "With a HUGE fringe."
Since I spend the vast majority of my life on that fringe, getting to
know Clara Curtis meant booking passage to the unfamiliar center. To
my surprise and delight, it has been a journey of surpassing beauty.
Director for Design at The North Carolina Arboretum, Clara works on
a very large canvas which she successfully translates into human
scale. Her beautiful garden-rooms are testimony to both her idea-driven
approach and her solid grounding as a knowledgeable horticulturalist.
As I wander through the gardens, I recognize the confident touch of
an artist who isnt afraid to push her materials. A recent sculpture
show I attended at the Arboretum looked so natural in the settings she
chose, I was almost tempted to believe the artwork had been included
in the original blueprints.
never know where a spark for an idea might come from," she explains,
"But the important thing is to be open to the idea. Then I can
file it and take it out when I need itfor a landscape design,
or a stream garden, or a quilt."
me a photograph of a watercolor quilt she made when she cut her hours
back to spend time with her daughters.
as lush and gorgeous as one of her living gardens, and just as thoughtfully
conceived. "The idea is the best part of the process," she
says gleefully, "Learning to quilt helped me think about it."
a lot to think about. Her sketches reveal far more than a mix of color
and height, but also the movement of light and the seasonal nature of
plantings, so that as one fades another comes into bloom. But be advised,
in Claras case, a good idea is one that can be applied in more
than one direction. For instance, in 2002, the gardens were planted
entirely with 5 years of national blue ribbon winners.
was a way to display unusual and attractive specimens and to teach how
and why plants win awards to show that they are seriously evaluated,
researched and treated with respect by the trade." She points out
proudly that 12 of the "Oscar winners" live right here in
generates her ideas in what is arguably one of the most beautiful settings
in Western North Carolina, and has a highly visible share in creating
that beauty, strikes me as strong qualifiers for the best job in the
world. She is too polite to laugh when I ask her how she got so lucky,
but she admits to a few advantages. Worldly cynic that I am, I assume
Im in for a tale of vast land holdings and trust funds and university
starters," she begins, "Im a real country girl, born
and raised in Haywood County."
everyone would put that on the plus side of the ledger," I grumble,
"Unless theyre really into rural and isolated
family," she adds, not in the least put off by my skepticism. "My
earliest memory, around age two, is riding around my grandparents
farm on the back of a very large horse. Later, I remember endless days
spent with rocks and dirt in my grandmothers spring house, playing
with daisies, making leaf sandwiches."
talking about a real farm that her grandfather worked full time; 55
acres, with a huge vegetable garden where they grew everything they
ate, and an amazing wild flower garden where her grandmother grew plants
from the wild. All three children were involved in it, including her
mother, Estalena Robinson Allen, who was and continues to be a major
when I was a little older, my parents took me hiking all over the mountains,
wild crafting and collecting wildflowers to bring home to make a garden.
Of course that was before conservation laws. In those days many people
supported themselves by collecting moss and baling it, gathering Ginseng
and Galax, selling it for a little cash and growing everything else
indeed, this was a tale of real riches! I was eager for the next installment.
when I was nine I joined 4H..."
I think to myself, recalling the 4Hers Id seen as a teenager,
at Ohio county fairs; girls in overalls without makeup, smelling like
their rabbit hutches and prize pigs.
when she sees my expression. "It was a terrific organization that
provided opportunities for education and travel that we wouldnt
have had otherwise."
that the special strength of the 4H program, in addition to learning
by doing projects, (hers were always floral and interior decoration)
is that members were required to present how-to demonstrations. Furthermore,
it was highly competitive. There were 30 chapters in Haywood county
alone. Once you won, as Clara did, on a county and district level, a
4H agent would come to your house to coach you for the state level --
on everything from your wording to your posture.
suppose Im interviewing a state winner?" I say ingenuously.
just say I got a lot of coaching
for a lot of years. Its
made me very comfortable presenting to large groups of people."
admits she wasnt comfortable leaving home to go to school, opting
instead for a two year course at Brevard College. In her second year,
when she took a class in botany, she discovered that the scientific
names "came to me like water." When a chemistry professor
urged her to look into the horticulture programs at NC State, which
combined art with horticulture, she finally took the leap and earned
a Bachelor of Arts Degree there, in Horticultural Science.
were the internships. Ten weeks at Longwood Gardens allowed Clara to
travel to see gardens across the state and meet David, a horticulture
student from Minnesota, who would eventually become her husband. At
Monrovia Nursery in Southern California one of her many jobs was to
check the orders on the shipping dock against the paperwork. She saw
it as an opportunity to learn what kind of plants went to what part
of the country. Gardeners in North Dakota, for instance, ordered hardy,
low growing varieties, while the high-end exotics went to the East End
of Long Island. Then, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, she was awarded
the Stanley Smith Gardening Scholarship.
lights up remembering it. "I spent an entire year in a magnificent
garden designed by Beatrix Ferrand, learning about perennials and bulbs.
Since I was on my own, I could spend my free time doing what I wanted
going to dozens of art shows and galleries. But then it was time
to get a real job."
horticulturist at Tryon Historic Gardens in New Bern, North Carolina,
she would draw on every one of her "advantages". Here she
designed and grew their first cutting garden, all in period plants of
the 18th and 19th centuries which she made into dried and fresh floral
arrangements for year-round display. In addition she was tasked with
starting an adult education program as well as restructuring and coordinating
the Christmas decorating program; managing more than 100 volunteers,
paid decorators and food demonstrators.
end of that year, (1988) Clara married the horticultural student from
Minnesota, and moved back to Haywood County, where David immediately
got a job with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. But it took
Clara a year to get a full time job at the Arboretum. In the meantime
she worked part time as a horticulturist for the town of Canton, where
she took care of their many gardens.
Arboretum, she was hired as Special Projects Coordinator and went on
to become the first Greenhouse Manager for the new greenhouse facility.
I started there were seven of us on staff who knew everything. 10 years
later we had grown so much we had to give up knowing everything.
second child was born, I stopped working full time and George Briggs
hired me part time to do designs for the gardens. Little by little Im
starting to put in more hours. Theres always something to plan
for, something to do. But for now, my life is about balance. Taking
things by season is the sane way to go about it."
is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance.
articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world.
But dont bother to GOOGLE her, theyre all credited to the
executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic
participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville
in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three,
a grandmother of four, and the author of three screenplays she is dealing
with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel under her own