Inside the Studio and Garden of Frances Palmer
The crunch of gravel announces my arrival at Frances Palmer’s house. We are on a tight schedule as Frances is leaving for France this afternoon. I try to mask my surprise when she emerges from the barn and says: “I hope you don’t mind talking while I pack. Why don’t you take a look around the garden while I finish up here. Then we can go upstairs.” Does she really want me around while she packs her suitcases?
A few steps from the barn, I unlatch the gate and enter a garden gone just a little wild around the edges. Running approximately 50 feet in diameter, the space is dominated by dahlias. With names like Bishop Oxford, Fidalgo Knight, Audrey Grace, Tommy Keith, Robin Hood, Coral Gypsy and Zorro, it’s as if the garden has been peopled with colorful characters. They happily coexist with zinnias (grown from seed), morning glories, pots of geraniums, strawberries and lemon trees. A pushy zucchini has taken over the gravel path. Echinacea, sunflowers and other self-seeders have found a home in between dahlias or in the warm gravel. Frances plans, plants, weeds the entire space, and carefully collects and labels the dahlia tubers at the end of every season.
Soon she joins me and we head inside the barn and upstairs, where she starts wrapping handmade pieces for UPS pickup. Packing pottery and ceramics … not suitcases! And we discuss connections between gardening and art. “I see them as parallel, because as a potter and a gardener, I believe that hope springs eternal. Every year, I make great plans for the garden, but certain variables are out of my control: the weather, the soil, the pests. The same applies to pottery. I have a vision of what to create, but I also have to face unpredictable variables in the clay, the glaze, the firing.
“For example, the other day, I put a perfect pot in the kiln. A little ball came loose, rolled down the side of the pot and onto the base. I made a second one, put it in the kiln and the pot blew up … into shards. I replaced the ball on the edge of the first piece, but left the one on the base. Now, it has rolled off without leaving a mark! So, you never really know what’s going to happen. That unpredictable aspect really attracts me to the medium.”
Frances is constantly in motion as she gathers items and fills orders, carefully packing each piece. She feels that gardening and ceramics are a metaphor for life: “The principles you follow apply to everything: raising children, relationships. I try to treat everything with respect.” Why are dahlias so predominant in her garden? “I love all flowers. But it amazes me that there are hundreds and hundreds of dahlias, and each one is so perfect. They have great longevity: Once they start blooming, they go all the way until frost. And they’re very happy!”
I ask about the best lessons she has learned from ceramics: “Do what you love. I was on a panel recently with other potters. A friend of mine told me at end of the day: “You were the only one on the panel who said that you loved actually making the work.” And from gardening: “Begin as you mean to go. You have to plan—give a plant the right pot, soil, sun, fertilizer. With a dahlia: Insert the stakes and hoops at the beginning so that you aren’t playing catch-up. If it’s thought out beforehand, you have a better chance at success. This applies to pottery too. When you start a pot, you have to know what you want and keep going. If you hesitate when the clay is on the wheel, then the clay says ‘I’m not going to do that’.”
Toward the end of our visit, Frances suddenly stops moving. “It just occurred to me: When I said we could talk while I pack, did you think I meant while I was packing my clothes and things?” Nodding and laughing, I leave the 18th-century barn where Frances throws, fires, glazes … and packs.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of CTC&G (Connecticut Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Perfect Union.