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The Art of the Arboretum



Strictly speaking, Tony Tyznik's retirement reception was against the rules. The Morton Arboretum allows no picnicking (as well as no pets, no bicycling, no jogging, no fishing, no hunting, no trapping, and no collecting "of any kind"), but on an afternoon early this summer a big green and white tent behind the Research Building was filled with 200 people and buffet tables loaded with food.

Not many artists have a party thrown for them within their favorite work. But Tyznik is a landscape architect, and his chef d'oeuvre is the Morton Arboretum itself.

Among the guests was Purdue University professor of landscape horticulture Harrison Flint. [Tyznik's] an environmental artist," Flint explained, "but not just that. He's an ecologist as well. He looks at natural systems as well as aesthetic effects." Outside the tent was a case in point: young trees in a lawn, their trunks surrounded by circles of brown wood-chip mulch. "That mulch doesn't fit the suburban aesthetic that has grown up in the past several decades," said Flint--but it's better for the trees, which in nature grow in a forest not carpeted with turf.

Flint calls Tyznik the "logical extension of Ossian C. Simonds," the naturalistic landscape architect who designed Graceland Cemetery and who laid out the first plans for Morton Salt Company founder Joy Morton in the early 1920s. Arboretum director Gerard Dannelly puts it another way: as you pass through the arboretum, "it's hard to discern where nature left off and where Tony started."

Driving around the east side of the arboretum I gradually recognized a pattern: that the road curves through a clearing, then through albrested overgrown stretch, then into another clearing where individual trees display their forms against the lawn and sky. It's one gallery after another, almost an arboreal Art Institute that's just happened to grow that way.

Those who associate beautiful landscaping with banks of bright colors won't care for most of the Morton Arboretum. Tyznik's eye is on enduring shapes and vistas more than on ephemeral decoration. "People focus on the color of a flower. But the shadow that goes across an open space...," he says. In fact, if he had his way, more of the arboretum's 300,000-plus yearly visitors would come out when there are no flowers or leaves at all to look at.

"People say this place looks dull in winter. I ask them to point out something that is just gray--and they can't. The twigs are all different colors. I think the grayness is in our minds."

In 1953, when Tyznik first went to work for this "outdoor museum of woody plants" in the heart of Du Page County, he could step outdoors there at dusk and hear nothing but crickets, frogs, and the whisper of leaves in the wind. The arboretum is now twice the size it was then, employs four times as many people, and enjoys an international reputation--but it is also bisected by the four-lane Illinois 53 and bounded on the south and east by major commuter arteries, interstate highways 88 and 355. Even in the deepest woods, the sound of traffic is omnipresent. Salt spray and exhaust fumes threaten the trees. (Of course, the arboretum lives by the car as well: it is virtually inaccessible by any other form of transportation, and visitors can reach almost any point in the arboretum by following a network of blacktop roads.)

The scenery has changed, too. Atop Frost Hill on the arboretum's east side, you can still pull over and gaze northwest over the leafy valley of the East Branch of the Du Page River. But look south, and rectangular glass-and-steel office buildings loom on the other side of the East-West Tollway like temples of some stern religious cult.

"I look at landscape as a feeling," Tyznik told his friends and colleagues that afternoon. "It's where the spirit of man and the land are joined together." But he has often been called upon for damage control as suburban sprawl has threatened to steamroll the arboretum. Rather than get to create another fragrance garden or ground-cover garden--two of his small-scale creations within the two-and-a-half-squaremile arboretum--he's had to act as a shock absorber, designing and planting berms along the interstates or transforming a borrow pit (for the widening and elevation of Route 53) into the sinuous Meadow Lake. "Along the Arboretum's perimeter various developments lay like hungry lions," Tyznik wrote in 1983, " consume what space remains."

Tyznik still has some of the air of the northern Wisconsin farm boy who attended a one-room school during the Depression. He loved nature but entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison without ever having heard of landscape architecture. He tried other subjects. "I could get good grades in economics, but it seemed kind of evasive," he recalls. "You could prove anything." Agricultural engineering was worse. Leafing through the course catalog one day in discouragement, he came across landscape architecture. His grateful amazement at finding a field that suited him so well is still palpable.

Then and now the University of Wisconsin emphasized the "picturesque" school of landscaping, which can be traced back through Ossian Simonds and Jens Jensen to Frederick Law Olmsted and English garden designers Cap Brown and Humphry Repton. Unlike landscapers who create formal gardens, these practitioners must live with a paradox: the more successful their work, the less likely a layperson is to recognize that any work has taken place.

"People think [the arboretum] is wild, but it's not," Tyznik chuckles. (Would Helmut Jahn laugh if a tourist mistook the James R. Thompson Center for a natural rock formation?) "These were farmfields. But people come out here and think it's virgin forest."

"Our task," explains director Donnelly, "is to gather plants from all over the world and display them. You or I might do this by lining them up in numbered rows. Tony does it so naturally that people can go through and not realize that there is design involved at all."

It's often easier to notice design when it's not very good--as in some suburban yards. Tyznik, who's taught a popular home-landscaping class at the arboretum for more than 30 years, says, 'Most home-landscaping failures come from improper scale," which in turn comes from seeking instant gratification. Amateur landscapers are often unaware that this art form has four dimensions--its materials change dramatically over time. Tyznik likes to tease his architect friends: "When you get done, your work starts to decay. Mine starts to grow."

Home landscapers who disregard this fact wind up with out-of-scale results, like a gigantic spruce tree smack in front of a picture window. "There's no excuse for that," says Tyznik. "You can buy evergreens that grow to the height you really need. I think a lot of these plants kind of snicker when they're planted."

Ironically, visitors to the arboretum's gift shop may be quicker to recognize Tyznik as an artist than those who stay outdoors--because in the shop they can see and buy his "tree portraits." These meticulous pen-and-ink renderings of individual trees (usually modeled on arboretum specimens), show the young tree, the full-grown tree without leaves, and close-up views of flowers and fruit. According to arboretum staff artist Nancy Stieber, these drawings can take Tyznik up to 150 hours to complete, using the finest-point pen ("tit-quill") available. "Tony has great finesse," she said as the crowd ebbed out from under the green and white tent. "And he handles a road grader the way he handles a pen."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sue Hostetler.

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