Western North Carolina Woman

clara curtis
by arlene winkler

Shortly 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.

As Associate 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 isn’t 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.

"I 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 it—for a landscape design, or a stream garden, or a quilt."

She shows me a photograph of a watercolor quilt she made when she cut her hours back to spend time with her daughters.

It’s 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."

There’s 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 Clara’s 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.

"It 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 North Carolina.

That she 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 I’m in for a tale of vast land holdings and trust funds and university endowments.

"For starters," she begins, "I’m a real country girl, born and raised in Haywood County."

"Not everyone would put that on the plus side of the ledger," I grumble, "Unless they’re really into rural and isolated…"

"And family," she adds, not in the least put off by my skepticism. "My earliest memory, around age two, is riding around my grandparent’s farm on the back of a very large horse. Later, I remember endless days spent with rocks and dirt in my grandmother’s spring house, playing with daisies, making leaf sandwiches."

She’s 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 inspiration.

"Later, 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 they needed."

Trust funds indeed, this was a tale of real riches! I was eager for the next installment.

"Then, when I was nine I joined 4H..."

No way, I think to myself, recalling the 4H’ers I’d seen as a teenager, at Ohio county fairs; girls in overalls without makeup, smelling like their rabbit hutches and prize pigs.

She laughs when she sees my expression. "It was a terrific organization that provided opportunities for education and travel that we wouldn’t have had otherwise."

I learn 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.

"I suppose I’m interviewing a state winner?" I say ingenuously.

"Let’s just say I got a lot of coaching … for a lot of years. It’s made me very comfortable presenting to large groups of people."

But she admits she wasn’t 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.

Then there 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.

Her face 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."

As assistant 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.

At the 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.

At the Arboretum, she was hired as Special Projects Coordinator and went on to become the first Greenhouse Manager for the new greenhouse facility.

"When 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.

When my 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 I’m starting to put in more hours. There’s 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."

Arlene Winkler is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance. Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her, they’re 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 name.

Western North Carolina Woman
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