In his jungle, plants point the way

Special to The Times

“NOBODY walks on our side of the street anymore,” Bobbie Kalendarian says with a shrug and a grin. “I mean, why would you?”

Why would you, when in a neighbor’s yard a mere 37 feet of asphalt away, an audacious mosaic of plant-filled pottery bursts skyward? How could eyes not be drawn to the hundreds of tchotchkes and teacups and control-panel buttons from Los Alamos atomic testing equipment, all inlaid in colored mortar to form the most unlikely collection of steppingstones, retaining walls, altars and benches? Who could deny themselves the kick of discovering a new section of swirling tile and costume jewels?

The Promethean assemblage is the creation of Shrine Spears, the same man who conceived and painted the elaborate artwork for the first five House of Blues clubs, including the one on the Sunset Strip.

He also was the artist behind the funkadelic murals inside and outside the original Wacko knickknack shop on Melrose Avenue, since moved to Hollywood Boulevard.


At Spears’ house on Sierra Bonita Avenue in Pasadena, one is reminded of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. The similarities are immediately clear: the chunky mosaics, the chirpy colors, the sense of primal fun. Elements of Antoni Gaudi’s work are here too -- constructions of sticks, bones and wrought iron that protrude from walls or hang from tree limbs like denizens of the deep.

The manner in which the artwork has swept over the property is akin to Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Ideal in Hauterives, France. Yes, familiar derivations of folk traditions and Art Nouveau are at play here.

What distinguishes this space, however -- what makes it a noteworthy garden -- is that the plants are not afterthoughts. They are the integral players. Nearly every section of the landscape is designed to display plants, offset plants or enable admirers to sit and look at plants.

Succulents and cactuses predominate. Well adapted to containers and with little need for water or maintenance, these plants respond to the offbeat strictures of a garden like this. Some are weird-looking pieces of art themselves.


Anchoring a couple of corners are organ pipe cactuses, arching higher than the roofline, flowers awaiting the moonlight’s call to open their petals.

A leathery-leafed kalanchoe crowns a 6-foot ceramic column encrusted with blue-black sea pebbles. Pink Echeveria, maroon Aeonium arboreum and purple Tradescantia fill a stack of tiled tires.

Follow the painted stones around the corner and you’ll find a candelabra tree (Euphorbia ingens) fully in bloom, lighted with enough flowers to brighten a dark winter’s day.

Sit under the bejeweled arbor back out by the sidewalk and you’ll marvel at how brilliantly the floss silk tree is used here. The trunk’s lime green bark, dotted with hundreds of smoky gray thorns, comes off as one more mosaic in Spears’ outdoor gallery.

BORN Brent Spears, the 42-year-old artist adopted the name Shrine a few years ago at a Burning Man festival after encountering “an overload of Brents,” he says, quite seriously. “It was just getting too confusing.”

When he isn’t installing joint gallery shows with his daughter, artist Jesse Blue Spears, or fulfilling his duties as ringmaster, clown and tattooed man for the Lucent Dossier traveling circus, the self-trained Spears turns his artful eye to his garden -- a project, he says, that began with a single sprout.

“I planted this loquat from a seed,” he says, pointing to a 10-foot fruit tree in the front yard. “That’s when I first got into gardening -- when I saw this guy growing.”

The loquat inspired him to add “plant patrols” into his regular expeditions for mosaic material.


“It’s amazing what people will throw away,” he says, adding that he also collects pieces from garage sales and thrift shops. Strangers have dropped off boxes of vintage tiles, old hand tools and other oddities.

In just six years, the garden has grown from a standard St. Augustine front lawn to the magic jungle that stands today.

In that time, Spears’ mosaic skills have naturally evolved.

“At first, working with cement, I kept mixing it up too wet,” he says. “Everything would slide around. Now I know exactly the right texture for mosaic on vertical planes.”

In some instances he’s moved away from cement mortar.

“I’ve been using porcelain mastic on materials like rubber tires,” he says. “It works really well and you can add color to it very easily.”

GIVEN this new information, visitors can see the garden transform once again. It becomes possible to see its periods of development -- sloppy cement, just-right cement, porcelain mastic.

“Mostly I think I’m learning not to be afraid, which, in my way, is helping other people not to be afraid,” Spears says.


For those attracted to the capricious, the garden stands as inspiration. But for those whose taste tends toward the traditional, the orderly and the uncluttered, Spears’ unbridled inventiveness might look like a rampant mess.

What does the occasionally finicky city of Pasadena think of all this?

Spears says a disgruntled neighbor, who has since moved, once called code enforcement officials.

“I had a stack of tires not yet finished,” he says of the artwork-in-progress. “They asked me to clean them up. That’s the only negative thing that’s ever happened.”

Perhaps it’s Spears’ spirit of inclusiveness that has helped him avoid controversy. Asked about a plate with a primitive painting on it, he nods and says that a child in the neighborhood made it.

“Yeah, we’ve got people who come and sit every morning,” he says. And sure enough, two women amble up the street toward the house.

Pasadena resident Ruth Ryan has whisked friend Gail Tager away from their lunch date to show her Spears’ garden.

“I told her, ‘I have a treat for you,’ ” Ryan says.

“Go on in,” Spears says. “Take your time.”