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Whimsy is welcomed at The Hermitage

The author of 39 books, alumnus Theodore Roosevelt Gardner II is best known for creating an offbeat sculpture garden in Santa Barbara

After graduating from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, which was part of the College at that time, Theodore Roosevelt Gardner II became an award-winning novelist, essayist and newspaper columnist. He is best known, however, as creator of The Hermitage, a wacky sculpture and botanical garden, in California.

Some facts and figures: How many sculptures do you currently have in the garden?

There are so many that by the time I count them, I’ve added one or two more and discover I missed some. To make a bronze bust, for example, you have to make a clay bust. Then a mold. So while I have 300 bronze busts, if we count the clay ones, we have over 600 busts alone. Definitely more than one can look at in a visit. Not that anyone would want to.

What inspired you to create your sculpture garden? Which was the first sculpture that you erected at The Hermitage?

Inspired? Who can tell? Divine inspiration? It was all an accident. One thing led to another. Years ago, 30 or so, we were in London, where I attended a show of British artists at the Royal Academy of Art. There is a grand staircase in front of you as you enter — perhaps 15 feet high and 20 feet wide. At the top of the stairs appeared a lone bronze sculpture by Sydney Harpley called ‘Girl on a Swing.’ It depicted a young girl swinging seated, the chains she held onto stopped abruptly, connected to nothing. She was attached to a modest base by a single point of her skirt.

I bought it and had it shipped to Palos Verdes, where we lived on a third of an acre flag lot, and placed it in the backyard where it reposed alone until we moved five years later to our 18 acres at the northeast corner of the city of Santa Barbara. We bought so much land relatively inexpensively because it was in an area where the hippie settlers took off their clothes and stomped grapes. My purpose was to get more land for plants — one-third of an acre, most of which was house, pool and driveway, filled up fast. Of course I took the girl on the swing, but I had no thought of creating a sculpture garden. Like so many things in my life, I backed into them without premeditation.

So I got here and started to fill it up with trees and plants of all descriptions. With so much space, I started to add sculptures — leaning toward the whimsical. We needed a mailbox, so Carl Johnson created a bicyclist leaning over on a kid’s bike. The mail is inserted in the upended part of the anatomy. His mailbox for our museum 23 years later is a precarious stack of books, teetering on collapse.

Your irreverent sense of humor shines through in the garden you have created, like the sculpture of the toes poking out of the dirt. How did your tongue-in-cheek approach to life inspire your choice of sculptures?

What do you mean, ‘irreverent?’ I used to have perfect attendance at Sunday school. I do like that ‘shines through’ bit. How and why are tougher questions. I guess I just agree with Oscar Wilde, who said, ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously.’

What is your favorite memory of your time at USC Dornsife? How did USC encourage and develop your creativity?

As a sophomore I ran for class president. Since I was from Pennsylvania and perhaps 90 percent of the students were Californians, I needed to get some recognition. A classmate, John Callos, flew airplanes. He decided flying over the campus and throwing out leaflets advertising my candidacy would be just the thing to cement my election (similar to being planted in the ocean with cement shoes). Alas the wind carried those heaven-sent paper pitches to downtown Watts. His second inspiration was to hang a banner hawking my bid for the office between the student union and Bovard Auditorium. This was no mean feat, but he somehow miraculously brought it off.

Alas, again some humorless campus gendarmes nipped the effort in the bud before too many fellow students could be polluted with this outrage. For his stellar efforts, instead of winning some citation for creative entrepreneurship, my friend Callos was summarily dispatched to the U.S. Army for a cooling spell to return to old ’SC after he served his time in defense of freedom.

My outstanding, memorable teachers were Miklos Rozsa, a delightful movie composer (Ben Hur, Lost Weekend, etc.). The students scored a movie written by others in the cinema school and manned the orchestra for its recording.

Also, Stuart Hyde, a rare, stimulating intellectual in the telecommunications department.

And Frank Baxter, a TV celebrity teacher in the early days of the medium. He had two costumes for the class — one was a navy blue blazer with an escutcheon, a blue and gray regimental striped necktie, a white shirt and gray slacks. His other outfit was exactly the same. I remember two things about his class — his litany, ‘smells are better than sights and sounds.’ The other was the chalk trick where he stood before the class and told of a lecturer who was able to throw the chalk over his shoulder perhaps eight or 10 feet behind him and have it land — without looking — in the chalk trough beneath the blackboard — whereupon he did just that.

Your home was consumed by the 2008 Montecito Tea Fire. The wildfire that blazed through Montecito and Santa Barbara also destroyed many of your sculptures and the rare plants in your garden. How have you coped with this loss and how have you risen from the ashes?

It is said success is the ability to cope with failure. Was I blessed by being the first-born son of a loving mother? Is it all genetics? Whatever it is, as a famous American president said, ‘It is what it is.’ Profundity in simplicity, everything I had burned — my 9-foot Steinway, a draft of a book of short stories, a couple thousand books, but somehow I was able to shrug it off. Age perhaps. I decided it was a blessing for our children who wouldn’t have to sort through the detritus when I am completely dead. Besides which, I was able to build a fireproof house more suited to my encroaching age with all kinds of improvements that had been developed in the 20-year interval.

What are your future plans for the garden? Would you like it to remain as it is or would you like to see it evolve, and if so, how?

We are engaging with the city for a conditional use permit. The people are lovely, but the procedures are byzantine and fiendishly expensive. Our goal is after I am completely dead to open it to the public, free of charge. It is a question of bathrooms that accommodate wheelchairs. Had I been more prescient, I would have built the place accordingly — but six years-plus ago when I dreamed this up, I had no thought of public access. But in six or seven years most of the cells in your body change, so every seven years you are a physically altered person. Hindsight, as always, is indispensible to wisdom.

Of all the wacky sculptures in the garden, which one do you think is the wackiest and why?

The whole place is wacky — nothing more so than the proprietor. If I had to pick just one, it would probably be The Wives of Calais who were left behind when their six hubbies were led off by the enemy Brits in the Hundred Years War. Each wife is in the same position as her husband but instead of being dejected, as Rodin would have it, they have shucked their clothes in celebration of their new liberation from what looks like to Rodin a bunch of macho, but morose brutes. Shades of the locals stomping vats of grapes.

Each of my full-size sculptures contains a verse. This one is:

The burghers of Calais

Were led away

Leaving their wives behind them

Leave them alone

’Til the boys come home

And this is the way you’ll find them

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Whimsy is welcomed at The Hermitage

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