My story in The Tennessean about using art in landscape design (Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016) put me in touch with Stephanie Dwyer, a Paris, Tenn. metal artist who has taken an idea from centuries-old folklore and given it new life: Stephanie makes bottle trees. But hers are not the kitschy metal-pole-with-spikes contraptions that sometimes show up in catalogs and garden centers. Stephanie’s trees are thoughtful renditions of the form, and pay homage to the tradition that is said to have originated in West Africa, crossing the Atlantic with West Africans brought to the Americas as slaves.
Before Stephanie moved to Tennessee from the Pacific Northwest, she had worked as a welder and had not considered this Southern custom. “When I moved to the South, I was asked to do a bottle tree because I weld,” she told me. Over time, her “signature” design has become the gracefully rendered Katrina tree, “bent but not broken from the hurricane’s winds,” as she describes it.
According to archivists at The Smithsonian, the original meaning of the tradition has several interpretations, but a common one is that they protect the home by trapping evil spirits; once inside, the spirits are destroyed by the sunlight. Stephanie considers it a high honor that she was chosen to design and build the 14 ½-foot tall, 12-foot wide bottle tree for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. Visitors see the tree as they enter the culture galleries on the top floor of the museum.
While she’s known for her bottle trees, Stephanie also designs and builds gates, arches and other design elements for the garden and home. You can see more of her work at http://stephaniedwyer.com.
And for more on how to use art and garden ornaments in the landscape, see my story Garden ornaments set tone for outdoor spaces, which is online now at Tennessean.com.