A smashing success


For most gardeners, a playful landscape accent might entail a ceramic mushroom staked in a geranium bed. For the intrepid artist-gardener, only a 7-foot naked chanteuse will do.

“I designed her as an early, skewed Matisse with a bit of Gaudí and cubism thrown in,” says Larry Nichols of his sculpture-bench clothed in nothing but fractured pottery. “Fifi” reigns over a trio of functional statuary in Nichols’ garden fronting the 1913 Echo Park craftsman that he has shared with partner Rob Kibler for 32 years.

A fish fountain and pond were created a decade ago, followed by a dragon wall bench (“La Dragona del Jardin”), along with less fearsome grotto seating. Modeled after Fifi D’Orsay, who played naughty French girls in 1930s Hollywood movies, the chanteuse forms the voluptuous back of a seat big enough for six.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake dished out the idea for the projects as well as the material: pottery shards that Nichols and Kibler stored in boxes beside their home. Smashed works by such renown artists as Beatrice Wood and Andrea Gill proved difficult to toss.

“I even went around the house and broke a few things that weren’t damaged,” says Kibler, former head of Glendale Community College’s ceramics department as well as past chairman of the visual and performing arts division. “I thought, break it now and it will last longer on the garden wall.”

The couple’s contractor, Craig Diehl, built footings laid with steel-reinforced concrete block, shaved to form basic contours. Concrete grouting filled empty spaces, and Diehl’s troweling achieved a final shape.

“When we laid the final pieces, we had hundreds of pounds of broken pottery scattered across the yard,” says Diehl, who created river-stone bases for the fish, dragon and two grotto benches.

Nichols and Diehl worked from sketches and clay models. “I made line drawings on the mortar where I wanted certain details and color fields,” says Nichols, a former art director who takes commissions for similar projects. “Sometimes I penciled in numbered codes that matched pottery on the lawn.”

Local potters contributed shards, and tile seconds from a building supply filled gaps, along with “fatal defects from my kiln,” says master potter Kibler, who in retirement teaches an earthenware class at the Glendale college.

“I wanted the dragon to be glittery, even a bit sleazy,” says Nichols, who raked Moskatels craft supply in downtown Los Angeles for key accents: glass pyramids for dragon teeth and red marbles that riddle the creature’s forked tongue.

Other secreted details: a diver tattoo on Fifi’s bum, half a 1976 Kibler portrait plate done of a young Nichols that forms a fish fin on the fountain, and glaze test tiles coded with numbered letters set in rows across Fifi’s seat. Iridescent glaze coats a ball gripped by a dragon claw, and crystalline glaze covers the beast’s celadon eyes.

The dragon head, which sports teapot spouts for horns and is fitted with jar handles suggesting flared nostrils, lends the yard a hallucinatory force paired with Mademoiselle’s cobalt hair, battle paint complexion and ample bosom artfully tipped with teapot lids.

It is fitting that the outré garden has hosted occasional Easter Bonnet Brawls attended by local luminaries: Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, Joel Grey, Alan Sues of “Laugh-In” fame, and Lily Tomlin.

Lounging next to Fifi, who seems to welcome as many men as can squeeze onto her ample seat, Nichols shows party photos of guests in unhinged chapeaux — a hat in the shape of Cathedral of Notre-Dame, another composed of garden flats fitted with pansies. Backdropped by the sculptures, the down-the-rabbit-hole scenes become studies for a Tim Burton movie.

In creating the pieces (and the parties), Nichols says that overall he just wanted to have fun. “I didn’t want Fifi, especially, to come off as serious art. She’s whimsical,” says Nichols, whose painting and jewelry studio overlooks the improbable grounds, which are not quite finished.

The final installation will be a riff on medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The freshly banished Adam and Eve will emerge from a side garden wall, clothed in more ceramic damage.

Rendering the pair in Edenic rapture “seemed too precious, and I really hate precious,” Nichols says. “Eventually they screwed up. That’s where the humor is. I might put Eve in 5-inch heels and Adam in flip-flops. Always best to keep it light.”