Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Given that P. Allen Smith's Moss Mountain Farm near Roland looks like something out of a Winslow Homer painting — a perfect Greek Revival farmhouse, situated on a hill in the middle of grassy fields, with a plank front porch, an ancient oak in the dooryard, and a near-horizon-to-horizon view of the Arkansas River from the back porch — the strangest thing about the place might be that Smith actually lives there.
Smith shoots a good bit of the content for his TV shows and YouTube episodes at Moss Mountain, a fact attested to by the careful flower beds in the back that bear little placards announcing they're sponsored by some company or other. But it's not a soundstage or set. He really does live there, letting his work and private life not just overlap, but melt seamlessly together. Maybe it says all you need to know about Smith that this is how he lives: everything carefully arranged and planned and proportioned, uncompromisingly lovely at every turn, no books askew in the bookshelf, no dust on the face of a clock, the grounds full of postcard fences and gardens and chicken coops and heirloom livestock — a house and estate so picturesque that Smith's team can set up a camera pretty much anywhere without the need for prime-time spiffifying.
Given that over the past 30 years, he's built himself into one of America's apostles of living a simple, elegant, detail-focused Good Life, it's probably impossible for Smith to live any other way, even if he wanted to. After all, he's not just selling books and TV episodes. Like any guru worth his salt, what he's really selling is desire. And if it ever leaked out that P. Allen Smith went home every night to some beige condo instead of to the heavenly farmstead Lenny and George fantasized about in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," the spell of his influence might well be broken.
Smith is clearly a long way from where he started, as a boy who found an abiding love for the natural world tromping the woods of Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, and later a college kid who developed deep garden design concepts like "Mystery" and "Time" — along with his signature idea of the "Garden Room" — while touring grand English estates. Many of his writings, especially in his first book, "P. Allen Smith's Garden Home," will remind one quite a bit of the way some of the Romantic poets thought about nature and how it could reinvigorate the soul; of the thought of naturalist pioneers like Sierra Club founder John Muir, and visionary landscaper Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park as an oasis in the concrete desert. Smith, who said some of his early thinking about gardens can be traced back to a root of Jeffersonian democracy, is clearly not some empty-headed fluff-merchant, even if he's spun his plainspoken charm and eye for detail into quite a bit of gold — most of it gleaned from suburbanites itching for simplicity and authenticity in a world that is often anything but.
While his gardens may evoke Mystery and Time, Smith doesn't seem to have much of either in his own life, with nearly every moment of his week planned down to the second. He's up at 5 a.m. sharp, to bed at 9:30 p.m., and he spends pretty much every waking moment "on," rushing from one shoot to another. At 52, his schedule and prodigious output would probably cripple a less driven man: producing content for three nationally-syndicated TV shows (including PBS's "P. Allen Smith's Garden Home," now in its 10th season), a weekly one-hour radio show, six books in his "Garden Home" series (including a cookbook), three decks of gardening "recipe cards," his media company Hortus, Ltd., membership in the Royal Horticultural Society, a website (pallensmith.com) receives over 350,000 page views a month, a weekly e-newsletter with more than 100,000 subscribers, a raft of endorsement deals, frequent articles in publications ranging from Chickens! Magazine to the New York Times, and — maybe most important for the future of P. Allen Smith, multimedia colossus — a new partnership with New York's Demand Media to produce episodes for the YouTube channels eHow Home and eHow Pets, featuring Smith explaining everything from how to raise ducks to how to make spider repellent out of mint oil and dishwashing liquid. Somewhere in there, he writes and paints in a small, sunlit studio behind his home.
One might wonder where Smith finds a moment to live in the midst of all that if he didn't say, with quite a bit of conviction, that none of it is a job for him — that he's just living his life, teaching, thinking deeply about the natural world and art and expression, and getting paid handsomely to have it all preserved on paper, audio tape or digital video.
Though several publications (including his Wikipedia page) have reported that Paul Allen Smith was born in Morrison, Tenn., Smith said he was actually born in Little Rock in March 1960, and moved to Tennessee as a young child. As related in the preface to his first book, "P. Allen Smith's Garden Home," in 1969 his family bought an 88-acre farm in Warren County, Tenn., near where Smith's father had been raised. Smith writes luminously of his boyhood there, including one memorable spring when he stumbled upon an abandoned homeplace in the woods where a row of daffodils had quietly multiplied into hundreds of golden blooms. When he returned a few days later, the splash of yellow was gone.
"In the blink of an eye," Smith writes, "this garden magically bloomed in the woods, only to quietly disappear under the emerging canopy of leaves. By the look of the decrepit farmstead, it had been quite a while since the bright flowers had been gathered to grace the family's table. The gardener had long since moved on." In the book, Smith said the memory "glows" for him, and formed some of the early basis of his desire to be a garden designer. It's not surprising that one of the first projects at Moss Mountain Farm was planting over 100,000 daffodil bulbs.
When Smith was 12, his family left Tennessee and moved to Little Rock, where his mother's family lived and where Smith's father had found a job. During the move, Smith's father hurt his back, requiring a routine surgery. During his recovery, however, he developed complications and passed away suddenly, leaving Smith's mother widowed with four children.
Though Smith grew up poor, he eventually went on to Hendrix College in Conway, where he focused on American history. He was particularly taken with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who he soon discovered was an accomplished and thoughtful gardener. "He had, throughout his life, this fascination with things that were very useful and functional and practical, and at the same time beautiful," Smith said. "He really saw Monticello as that — he saw it as what was described in the 18th century as a Ferme Ornée." Ferme Ornée is French for "an ornamental farm."
After college, Smith traveled to England, where he studied gardens and design at the University of Manchester. He spent his off-hours touring the old, grand gardens of English estates, making lifelong friends of more than a few lords and ladies, and began to develop the 12 principles of garden design that would later form the core of his first book: Enclosure, Shape and Form, Framing the View, Entry, Focal Point, Structures, Color, Texture and Rhythm, Abundance, Whimsy, Mystery and Time.
Smith writes lushly about all the concepts in the book, but none so much as the three most abstract: Abundance, Mystery and Time. Abundance, to Smith, is about the bounty of the earth, and drinking in the experience of being in a place where the richness of nature is on display. "It's about framing how you think about some things," Smith said. "I don't want to boil it down to the glass is half-full or empty, but it's about seeing the abundance and bounty in these places. It's a bit like the moment — really seeing the moment."
Mystery and Time, in Smith's philosophy, seem to be dark sisters: the former about shadow — about gardens as haunted and maybe even magical places that elicit romance and spark the imagination. "Time," meanwhile, is really the view of the garden and growing things as a kind of living clock, to help us mark the passage of the seasons and our own lives.
"That came rushing into my head fairly early on while I was on those great estates," he said. "You realize the importance of time when you see these massive specimen trees that were planted in the 18th century, and the ambiance they create today... I've always been cognizant of standing under the tree that someone else had planted."
Walking among the high hedges of England, Smith also began to develop the idea of the "Garden Room" — the idea that enclosed areas of a garden could be specialized in the same way that rooms in a house are specialized, each with a specific purpose or to elicit specific emotions.
In his book, Smith writes of American homes that stood in "a sea of grass" which people only crossed when going to and from their cars on their way to and from work. Since the advent of air conditioning, Smith said, Americans have become more and more removed from the outdoors, and thus from the natural world.
"I think a lot of what my interest in nature is about is this idea of being in the moment," he said. "When you're in nature, somehow, it's easier for you to connect to the moment. That's a fundamental aspect of what we've lost. We're always thinking of the past and what we should have done, or we're thinking about the future and what we want to be doing or need to be doing. We're not focused on present."
After returning to Arkansas, Smith eventually began designing gardens, and started a Little Rock nursery with his brother called Birnam Wood (a reference to the prophesied moving forest in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," a reference Smith jokingly said went over the head of everyone except English teachers). A series of workshops he held at the nursery eventually led to a co-hosting gig on a radio show about gardening on KARN in the 1980s. He did that for several years, but to every thing there is a season.
"It got bumped off KARN when — as Al Franken described him — The Big Fat Idiot Rush Limbaugh came in and moved from one hour to two hours," Smith said. "The very same day, I got a call from KATV about coming over and doing some pieces with them."
Smith describes himself as an introvert who has been forced by his job to get friendly with his inner extrovert, and said he never wanted to be on TV. While he admits he was "really horrible" in those early TV appearances, he soon came to see the spots he did for KATV as an extension of the workshops he'd been doing at the nursery. "I just thought that the more enlightened the populace is — I guess that's a Jeffersonian idea — all ships rise," he said. "They make better choices. Certainly my hope was that more of them would garden, and that more of them would shop with me at our store, so there was a fusion of Capitalism there."
At the same time, Smith was refining his ideas about garden design and putting them into practice. In 1988, he paid $1 for a 1904 Colonial Revival cottage that was soon to be demolished, then had it moved to a large, empty lot in the Quapaw Quarter. By the time the house settled into place in January 1989, Smith had spent weeks dragging a huge, life-sized cutout of the floor plan of the cottage around the lot, imagining the house and gardens, looking for just the right angle. He still owns the restored house today, surrounded by his original series of "rooms," arbors and gates. Outside the back door of the house, he laid a flagstone with a quote by the 18th century poet Alexander Pope etched into it: "Consult the genius of the place in all" — a quote that's really about the idea that places have souls, and anything built or planted there must be in harmony with that soul.
Since those first appearances on TV, Smith's simple delivery and Southern charm have turned his life into a rocket ride. With media beginning to take up more and more of his time, Smith and his brother eventually sold Birnam Wood. His friend Gloria Gibson helped Smith start a production company, and he soon landed a contract to provide short segments on gardening for The Weather Channel. Later, he starred in the syndicated show "P. Allen Smith's Gardens." In 2003, he published his first book, "P. Allen Smith's Garden Home," (which was dedicated to Gloria) with the bestselling volume eventually providing the spark for his long-running PBS show of the same name.
These days, he never slows down. While he jokes that he can't complain too much, given that his life is truly of his own making, with so many irons in the fire and dozens of full-time employees backing his plays, he admits that he had to grow into the process and schedule that has since become second nature to him.
"All of this I have to do today, if it hit me suddenly, I couldn't withstand it," he said. "But when you grow it organically, and you get used to the pace and the expectation, it kind of becomes who you are. But if I had stepped into this and never worked like this or managed people like this, I think it would have knocked me on my back."
On the scorching July day we visited Moss Mountain Farm, Smith never seemed to stop. One minute, he was in the kitchen of the main house, shooting a piece on how to bruise spearmint with a mortar and pestle to make the perfect pot of mint iced tea. An hour later, he was ferried down the hill in a dark SUV to the 1,600 square-foot environmentally-friendly house they've been building since January, filming every step of the process while finding innovative ways to build a custom, energy-efficient home on the relative cheap (around $95 a square foot) but have it look like a million bucks. Inside, Smith and his crews reused antique doors bought from salvage yards, hung barn-tin ceilings in the kitchen, nailed up surplus cabinet doors for wainscoting, and used dozens of 2x6 pine blocks, each cut on a facet, to recreate a foyer Smith absorbed during one of his trips to George Washington's Mount Vernon. The floors are all No. 2 pine. It's knotty, almost useless stuff in the raw, but Smith has transformed it by painting the wood a smoky, purplish-slate color called "black bean soup."
"People thought I was crazy when I painted these floors," he said. While a whole house with floors that color might sound nuts, like a lot of the things he does, it turned out fairly amazing — a sophisticated bedrock of color upon which the overwhelmingly white interior is anchored.
Out on the back deck of the house (in which Smith's brother and his family will live after it's completed), Smith was up to another one of his seemingly crazy ideas: a wall hanging, which he's calling a cartouche or heraldic crest, to go above the fireplace of the house, made from castoff farm tools. With cameras rolling, Smith went after a pile of rusted hand scythes, axes and sling blades that looked like nothing except a makeshift arsenal for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse. Soon, though, you could see it coming together, Smith fussing over the little details and tiny angles, eyes focused, his mind almost audibly tumbling concerns like balance and placement and proportion as he moved the tools around a sheet of plywood serving as a guide.
At heart, Smith said, he approaches everything he does — TV, books, radio, Internet — as an educator. He said the hardest thing in teaching anything creative is letting people know it's okay to fail. While it might be hard to believe, given that his home looks the way it does, he said he doesn't believe in the idea of perfection. When it comes to anything creative or artistic, he said, most people are "paralyzed by perfectionism" — by the idea that if they can't make something exactly right, they won't do it.
"There's a lot of fear in any creative act," he said. "What I've tried to do is really take the fear out of self-expression. That's really what I'm trying to do here... If you can do that, then you can get to the place where you can teach somebody something. Push the fear out of the way, and then you have an environment where you can teach somebody something."
These days, Smith says he still draws a lot of his ideas from nature, but even more important to him is the idea of nature as a place of solitude where creativity can be nurtured and begin to grow. "I find that I take inspiration from everything," he said. "I find inspiration, frankly, in the ordinary. I've always been excited about taking the ordinary and creating something extraordinary out of it — sort of seeing the potential in something, moving it around, turning it this way and that way, and coming up with maybe a different way of expressing its use."
Asked about the fabled "green thumb" (by way of a question about the reporter's firm belief that he is the proud owner of the dreaded "black thumb"), Smith laughs it off, tying the idea back to his thoughts on the paralysis of perfectionism. "Green thumbs aren't born, they're made," he said. "It's just trial and error. I don't think you really know a plant until you've killed it at least three times. People need to lighten up and give themselves room to make some mistakes. In gardening, they need to kill a few plants. It's okay."
Though he could clearly build his media empire and continue what he sees as his teaching mission from anywhere in the United States, Smith says Arkansas is home, and where he plans on staying — something that the Internet and digital media have made increasingly more realistic in the past few years. Arkansans, he said, are a wonderful breed of people, and have supported him at every step of his career. He said his life would feel somehow "more fractured" if he tried and live and work somewhere like L.A. or New York.
"I think there is a lot to be said for living in a nurturing environment," he said. "We have a community here that has always been supportive and helpful to me, and it's inspiring. You've got to feel good about it. It's hard to be in this business for as long as I've been in this business and produce as much content as we produce if you can't enjoy it, and you can't have people around you who you don't enjoy being with, and without support that goes beyond the walls of your office building. It's the community support. It's the state support."
For now, Smith seems to be really enjoying his life and his success. As for how much longer he can keep up the pace, he said it's a question that never really occurs to him. What winds up on tape, he said, is simply what he'd be doing if the cameras weren't around anyway.
"I was in a meeting once, and somebody asked me that question," he said. "They asked me how many more years I wanted to do it, like it's some corporate job. This is before Julia [Child] died. I said, 'You know, they've been propping Julia Child up into her late 80s, and she's talking about paté. They'll be propping me up into my late 80s and I'll be talking about petunias.' "
Smith smiled. In his hand was a near-perfect iced tea, served in a near-perfect cut-crystal glass, while sitting in his near-perfect home on one of the prettiest mountaintops in all of Creation.
"It's not a job," he said. "It's a life. With a life, there's not an on and off switch."
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