Grounding Her Art

Mattison FitzGerald

Story by Cristy Shauck * Photos by Jim Gensheimer

In what appears to be an unassuming old brick warehouse in S.O.F.A. (South of First Area Arts District -- one of the nation's newest and hottest emerging arts districts), a block away from a superhighway crisscrossing the Northern California metropolis of San Jose Mattison FitzGerald designs innovative gardens and paints expressionist messages of healing and caring. The building's main room has been partitioned into three sections. In the front is the gallery space. Behind this is the office/studio where FitzGerald paints on gigantic canvases and pores over art history books and fabrics with clients. In the back is the garden design area.

FitzGerald's artistic presence permeates her gallery, from the works painted in vivid colors hanging on the walls to the entry landing--a multi-hued kaleidoscope of fractured modern glass, mirrors, hand-blown glass, solar panels, antique marbles, tiles and ceramic pieces embedded in black concrete. Scattered throughout the gallery are art deco wooden dining chairs from the fifties which have been sprayed black, even the upholstered seats. "All the furnishings in my gallery and kitchen are black. Even the baskets," she says. FitzGerald says the studio is her best friend. "I asked the powers-that-be for a studio, and within an hour of looking I found this one. Last winter, the landlord lowered my rent. Can you believe it?"

In the front of the building, two tables spray-painted black serve as a desk. Here FitzGerald keeps track of project management and communicates on-line. Four pairs of sunglasses with brightly colored frames perch on top of the computer monitor. Extremely shy, FitzGerald started wearing tinted glasses in order to maintain her personal space. Red Iceland poppies arranged in a black and white ceramic vase, a black basket of red licorice, and books and magazines cover the surface of the desk.

In the far end of the building is a storage area for landscape materials and two hundred cans of house paint rescued from a hazardous materials disposal site. "Last winter, when the landscaping business was dormant, I had no money for supplies. I went down to the hazardous waste site and couldn't believe all the paint they were going to throw away. Some artists would flip if they knew how much paint was being wasted!" FitzGerald believes she is the only professional artist who uses recycled paint and hopes the practice will catch on.

After an early morning swim on this hot June day, FitzGerald sits in her studio curled up on one of several overstuffed chairs, dressed in black leggings, paint-spattered tennis shoes and shirt (which could themselves be considered works of art). She piles her still-dripping, shoulder-length chestnut hair on top of her head. "It's warm in here," she says, glancing up at the open rafter ceiling and its six gigantic skylights, through which sunbeams radiate into every corner of the whitened brick rooms.

Born in San Francisco, FitzGerald and three siblings were raised in a rambunctious, empowering environment. "My parents are passionate, family-oriented, driven drivers who taught us that one person can make a difference." Her father served as chief financial officer of a plumbing supply corporation, and her mother became a financial administrator for a large aerospace firm. Mom guided the children through one craft project after another. "One thing I hated about school - there was never enough paper for drawing," FitzGerald recalls. "At home we had everything -- scissors, paints, crayons and plenty of paper." As a young child, FitzGerald played with glass figurines and rocks, creating little fountains under pink hydrangeas in the family garden. "I would admire the way the light reflected off the ponds I'd made and the sense of space created and wonder if anyone had a real job doing this."

Growing up under the orchards, in what used to be called the Valley of Heart's Delight before it was paved over, had a big influence on me," the artist reflects. That area is now called Silicon Valley. FitzGerald watched its orchards and what to her was California history, give way to housing tracts and businesses. At the same time, she was developing artistic skills, completing her first oil painting at age six, taking crafts and fine arts classes taught by trained professionals and later winning several art contests.

While studying painting, science and natural history at the University of California at Santa Cruz, FitzGerald spent summer breaks as a park ranger, an experience which led to designing trail guides and trail and native plant gardens for park departments. She later designed a self-guided interpretive tour that included information on native plants and sand dune restoration for the Santa Barbara County Parks Department. She also was involved with museum exhibit planning for a few years, designing scientific illustrations and special events. After graduating with a degree in fine art, she airbrushed a thirty-six-foot long model of a whale for Santa Barbara's Museum of Natural History. "I learned how to paint big," she laughs, aquamarine eyes twinkling. "One of my professors used to say, 'Paint big when you're young!' and rap his cane on the floor. I know why now."
During the 1980's, FitzGerald studied landscape design at the University of California at Davis and apprenticed with several landscape architects and designers, changing landscape design companies several times as each went under in the recession. In the 1990's, Mattison began her master's work in museum studies with an emphasis in marketing and business at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, California. Shortly after, she began her own landscaping company in July, 1994, with $600 worth of advertising flyers photocopied at Kinko's Copies. She named the company "M" to represent the upcoming millennium. "'Millennium', which means a great time of happiness or human perfection, is a wonderful time for artists," she asserts. "The thirty years before and after a century--let alone a millennium--occurs is a very productive period."

After a dry spell of a few months, she landed several garden projects. "One day I glanced upward and wished for a Mexican style cottage, an oval swimming pool and a one-and-a-half acre property in Los Altos. First, a rancher in the East Foothills wanted an oval pool. That same day, I landed a Mexican style cottage in Palo Alto. Then, an acre and a half project in Los Altos Hills needed a swimming pool. I asked for them, and I got them all within days. I'm still amazed." FitzGerald grins; her eyes sparkle and she shrugs. "Every time I look up at my skylights and ask for something, I get it!"

In September of 1994, FitzGerald zoomed onto the Information Highway with a one- page ad which fits into the busy person's lifestyle. She says one-third of her business now comes from the Net. She wants her designs to appear in other areas of the country and views the Net as a means of connecting with potential clients. It is also a way for her to communicate with other artists and patrons. Someone in Japan discovered her poetry on the Net and became her patron, sponsoring some of her painting supply costs. In the spring of 1995, the Art and Technology Society International attempted to connect her studio visually with the Caribe Art Gallery in SoHo, New York via the Net.

Last spring, ASHAI, an art journal to which she had submitted photos of her work arrived from Japan. "I opened it and found five of my paintings way in the back. Then I remembered that a Japanese book reads back to front and I'm actually in the beginning of the book, right next to Picasso and Matisse! I felt like a proud mom seeing my kid in the newspaper," she beams. "My painting 'Pain and Release' appears on the same page as photos of monuments to the bombing victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki." For a week FitzGerald walked on air. "I was in such awe that one person could make a difference. Art is powerful. It can stop and create new moments in an instant." Mattison is now the American Art Correspondent for this top Japanese journal writing about the American art scene.

"Art is a real focus for this firm. I always try to bring some kind of art into the garden: sculptures, mosaics, fountains, mirrors, pottery. Whatever way I can bring in art or art history, I do," FitzGerald says.

"That makes the flavor of the garden. It's fun for us, and the client acquires a unique garden design. "Every project is different. I incorporate a design sensibility, according to my clients' needs with the refining elements of color and drama. If they collect pottery, we may do a garden with a pottery theme. One client has a hummingbird stained glass window, so we did a hummingbird planting theme."

FitzGerald's clients choose her for a variety of reasons, but whatever the reason, they've all been very pleased with her designs. Gunvor Rehfeld of Los Altos was impressed with the Kinko's ad FitzGerald had mass-mailed to her neighborhood. "It was so attractive I kept it. When we were ready to renovate our garden, front and back, I called her. We said, 'Make the garden exciting at all times of the year.' She gave us a very creative design with lots of beautiful plants, while working around the existing plants we wanted to keep. She listened carefully to us and worked with us."

One couple is considering FitzGerald because she knows the history of the gardens along the San Francisco Peninsula. "They want a heart-shaped theme for the garden at the old California Victorian they are remodeling in Los Altos," FitzGerald explains. "They are local historians; their house will be called 'Heart's Delight.' The garden will have a heart-shaped lawn, Trillium lights and plants with heart-shaped leaves."

To tie in the modern art collection of a country ranch house with the owner's garden, FitzGerald designed a series of boldly graphic octagonal mosaics in bright colors. "One day the client said her husband wanted to meet me. I thought he wanted to cancel the project. 'No, it's the stones,' she said. He loves the stones.'" The artist designs and creates mosaic stepping stones according to customer specifications. It takes about a day to make each stone; FitzGerald cuts the glass and lays each tiny piece onto the surface of the stone. The end result is a work of art that will last well into the next millennium.

"Another client wanted to pour seeded aggregate in the atrium. That went out in 1961 unless you own a Frank Lloyd Wright or Eichler home. Since the atrium was to be the central focus in the house, we needed to connect the theme of the garden with the interior and accent the focal point elegance of the house. That atrium floor will be a large mosaic done in ivories, gold, burgundy and black, probably in the form of a magnolia. Then we will plant real magnolias in the garden.

"Recently I've worked on a Celtic knot garden and a huge front garden with an antique motif. It's a gardener's garden surrounded by wild plants and edibles. I'm most proud of a very modern garden the client and I designed with turquoise patios and lots of mirrors, recycled marble from the interior of the remodeled house, and beach glass she collected."

The garden of an early California Spanish-style cottage boasts hand-painted ceramic tiles and stucco fence posts inspired by the original craft and architecture of the period. Plans for a sea captain's cottage perched atop a hill in Marin County's Stinson Beach area call for sand dollar stepping stones and a large rose-colored mosaic compass comprised of shiny pebbles, abalone and other seashells which will decorate the front entry courtyard.

Says L. Barney Gardner, member of the San Jose Museum of Art board of trustees and a modern art collector, "Mattison's work is excellent, and she has the persistence to go to the top. She has a great future in the art world."

FitzGerald says, "Because I'm an artist, I see no limits on design. If I step way out there emotionally in an effort to bring more passion and creativity to my painting, the gardens literally as well as figuratively ground me. Art is a thread that runs through everything. To me, everyone's life is art."

Mattison is a current member of San Jose Jay Cees, A.T.S.I. (Art and Technology Society