Lotusland: a public garden, a private reputation

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FLOCK-Murder of Crows
“Murder of Crows,” by Lotusland staff in Gana Walska’s Blue Garden

Lotusland is not your typical garden. Ever since it opened in 1993, this eclectic garden in the foothills of Montecito has garnered a reputation of being more private than public.

Madame Ganna Walska with the newly installed floral clock at Lotusland in 1955. Photo: Ganna Walska Lotusland
Madame Ganna Walska with the newly installed floral clock at Lotusland in 1955. Photo: Ganna Walska Lotusland

This property was owned from 1941-1984 by Gana Walska, a polish opera singer, socialite, and funky lady. She married six times and procured quite a wealth. Her dramatic nature ran through both her life and her garden. In other words, she was not your average backyard gardener.

When she died in 1984, Walska created the Lotusland Foundation so that her garden could live on. But, it hasn’t been easy to honor her wishes. It took 9 years and 62 public hearings before the first member of the public was allowed to take a tour.

Why? Because Lotusland is located in a very posh, residential Montecito community. After nearby homeowners witnessed Westmont College’s growth spurt, they feared more traffic. Many neighbors didn’t want Lotusland to be open to the public at all. Finally, in 1992 the foundation received a conditional use permit from the city.

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“Silent Spring,” by Lotusland staff

This permit puts major restrictions on how the public garden can operate – hence the reputation of exclusivity. Only 15,000 visitors are allowed each year (to compare, about 4,000 people visit the Santa Barbara Zoo each weekend.) The price, $45 per adult, is also a major hurdle for many.

But, according to Executive Director Gwen Stauffer, with restrictions come ingenuity. Lotusland has worked hard to try to be as accessible as possible.  Their Fourth-Grade Outreach Program invites fourth-grade classes in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpenteria to the garden for free.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Stauffer. “We have things we want to say that we think are really important for the world. And if we can’t do education in a traditional way, and we can’t do exhibitions in a traditional way, that doesn’t mean we can’t do them. It just means we have to get creative in the way we’ll get them out there.”

“Flutter and Strum,” by Lotusland staff

She has once again teamed up with curator Nancy Gifford to produce Flock, an exhibition that discusses the issue of threatened wild bird populations through art. This is their third environmentally themed art exhibit. This collection of art, created by 35 both local and international artists, seeks to capture the beauty of birds and dwell on our symbiotic relationship to them. Visitors enter the exhibit through a courtyard covered in black, empty hanging cages. They hear an echoing sound of birds. To Gifford, this piece, entitled “Silent Spring,” tells both a celebratory and cautionary tale.

“It was a way to honor them,” says Gifford. “Here are all these beautiful birds that existed, and they don’t anymore. It’s a subtle reminder that what we have is so precious, and let’s take care of it.”

The installation known as “Flutter and Strum” draws a crowd. It’s a lifesize cage full of finches and canaries playing amped up instruments covered in bird seed.

Another optical delight is “Ornithology P” by Juan Fontanive of Cleveland, NY, who used recycled mechanical parts to turn hand drawn images into a flipbook.

Flock will be on display at Lotusland until May 23rd.