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An artist of the alfresco

Occasionally designers produce work that changes the way we see. This is the case with Nancy Goslee Power. In the 27 years since she arrived from New York, she has rewritten the rule about what may constitute a frontyard, first enclosing it, then excavating it for good measure. She has used aloe, agave, lavender and olive trees so dramatically that the blue-gray western plant palette now belongs to this Easterner. She put a garden outside the Norton Simon Museum of Art that is as good as anything inside of it. The Chinese rain trees now softening Grand Avenue's glare are hers. The plans being considered for the rejuvenation of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia: hers. The 2-acre garden that opens today at Kidspace Children's Museum in Pasadena: hers, too.

Though she started as a decorator, Power, 62, has managed to avoid the title "domestic diva." She will pose for a newspaper photographer with a coffee stain on her shirt. She is a design consultant to the cultural elite who is at the same time a presiding artist in her own right. As her Santa Monica firm Nancy Goslee Power and Associates has expanded with a team of four full-time designers and a maintenance company, she is to landscaping what her longtime collaborator Frank Gehry is to architecture: She hasn't so much broken the old mold as cast a new one. Kidspace architect Michael Maltzan says she has "rock star status." Kevin Starr, historian of the Golden State, refers to Power as "one of half a dozen leaders in her field nationwide."

She could have responded by hiding behind a publicist. Instead, she has converted a garage in a Santa Monica warehouse to hold gardening classes and is likely to personally greet anyone who has the energy to attend on foggy Saturday mornings. "Welcome, come in, excuse me while I take my shoes off, my feet are killing me."

Comment on how well put together her home is, and she'll raise an eyebrow and mutter, "I have help." She scandalized arboretum brass recently when a sanitized remark from her filtered into the press to the effect that every park worth the name had a lover's lane.

Very Nancy. The first thing most people comment about is her wit. "Nancy's a hoot," "a riot," "a scream." Indeed, she's funny. Ribald too. Yet there's more to it than a need to entertain. There's a kind of heroism. Maltzan sees her work as compassion-soaked and calls her "a profound humanist." Meet her, and the jokes, the candor and the passionate beautifications (surely they are art) start seeming like ammunition to preserve an armed truce between joy and melancholy.

Kid friendly

Ask an adult what children like, and you will hear what the adult liked as a child. Or loathed. Only weeks before the opening of Kidspace, as installation crews unload flat after flat of plants from nursery trucks, Power zigzags up a muddy hillside. "Kids hate 'kiddie' things," she says. "This is where the grass maze will be," she adds, stopping as if to claim the spot like a proud goat.

In other words, this is where she has created a detour from the formal path leading from an open-air amphitheater into a controlled woodland with Mexican elderberry, sycamores, pines, oaks and redwoods. The farther one proceeds, the better the class of hiding places and most excellent lookouts. Planting amounts to a kind of color-corrected wilderness. As she passes the "bumpy fuzzy" garden, a bed planted with gray-blue furry-leafed plants such as lamb's ear, she quips, "We should also have a thorn one. Yin and yang."

She's joking, of course, but only sorta-kinda. Power wants to deliver our cosseted and carpooled urban youth into the kind of wonderland that she knew as a child. She was born in Georgetown, Del., the first of three children of fashion designer Ellen Goslee and financier James Goslee. The brackish inlets of Chesapeake Bay signed her heart. "I loved canoeing through marshes in spring," she says. "There were irises and more snakes than the Amazon."

Throughout a series of meetings, a picture of her mother emerges as a designer who had children at 23 instead of a career. Every Christmas, she enlisted the children — Nancy, sister Judy, and brother James III — to transform the family's midcentury house into a church by pasting colored cellophane to the windows. But, says Power, "She didn't tuck you in at night."

Today, Power suspects that her mother battled mental illness. All she knew as a child was that she admired and emulated her father's more generous and gregarious nature. Her closest relationship growing up was with her brother, James, "Jimmy," the family bon viveur and designer, trained at Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute.

At 20, Power was herself struggling with what later would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Depression followed by manic bursts of energy made enrollment in university untenable. In 1962, her family sent her to a fashionable finishing school, Villa Mercede in Florence. During her two years there, the American girl soaked up not just how to paint and draft, but the art of life.

"I was myself," she says, "free from the family identity."

INDOORS OUT

The 1970s were spent in New York, where she and Jimmy worked as interior designers. He became such an influential florist that when President Gerald Ford entertained the queen of England, James Goslee did the flowers. By 1977, one of her jobs had made the cover of House & Garden, and she'd married British film producer Derek Power and moved to Santa Monica. It didn't take long for the interior decorator to look outside. In 1981 she set up her first garden design practice with Pasadena landscaper Thomas Batcheller Cox.

The chemistry between Power and California was immediate, says Cox. "She just loved the gray-green foliage and was stunned by the light and how intense it was," he says. If she lacked a formal education, she had an advantage in never having received a bad one. Power taught herself. "She always had her camera with her," he says. "She wouldn't go past a plant without taking a picture of it. She was also very close to Phil Chandler, who wrote a nifty book for the Southern California Horticultural Society. He must have been in his 80s and was very acerbic but really knew his plants. He used to have tiny classes so she would of course go to those."

That first year with Cox, she rethought her 20th Street Santa Monica home. The front lawn was first to go. She enclosed the 38-by-38-foot lawn with a pittosporum hedge, a glossy-leafed evergreen with fragrant, almost gardenia-issue, white flowers. By doing this, she added another 1,400 square feet to her home. "I claimed that $150,000 sitting out there," she laughs.

A year into the project, she decided to excavate the captured space, only a couple of feet but enough to create a sensation of enclosure. She then used French doors to turn the garden into another room. "We lived out there."

The garden made the press, after which Power's every move was watched and copied by a magazine-reading public: loggias with solid roofs, open sides and a fireplace at the end; front gardens planted with olive groves; blue-gray gardens using aloe, agave, ice plants. To Cox, she approached gardens with a decorator's flair. "She's a marvelous example of 'a designer is a designer is a designer,' " he says. "If you're brilliant you can move into any field."

SIGNING A DECADE

By 1988 she was working with architect Gehry on a house for Los Angeles philanthropist Rockwell Schnabel, then the U.S. ambassador to Finland. She met Gehry's design by putting one of the structurally striking plants in the California landscape palette by the door: a Guadeloupe palm. Following the Schnabel house, the names of her clients began reading like something out of a social register.

Habitual shyness was enveloping Cox as Power was bestriding the field. The partnership ended. At one point, he says, in an attempt to draw him out, she teased, "I think you better start drinking again."

In 1990, Power heard on the radio that Gehry had chosen her to design the garden of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. More than a decade would pass before the building opened one October against a night sky orange from the 2003 wildfires. But as she took on her first major civic commission in 1990, her brother Jimmy, 39, died of AIDS. Her marriage was disintegrating. Some who signed up for garden consultations that year waited six months; no Nancy. A year. No Nancy. Cox pitched in to help the client load. Yet when Power emerged, it was to own the decade.

There were in fact other good designers working. Ask Power and she'll reel off names — Cox, Pamela Burton, Mark Rios, Wade Graham and so on. But in his latest book, "Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003," Starr selected Power as the decade's emblematic Southern California designer.

In 1992, Frank Gehry described to The Times her work and his reasons for hiring her for the concert hall. "It's very aggressive; it's not wimpy. It holds its own," he said. "We wanted somebody who wouldn't be intimidated by my architecture."

As construction on the steel flower stalled throughout the 1990s, Power moved on to other projects. She landscaped Gehry's Santa Monica home with agave, juniper and, as she calls them, "things that would survive."

In 1994, she was approached by Gehry-trained architect Maltzan to landscape Inner City Arts, a low-budget playground off skid row downtown. He remembers being a very junior player. "She could have come in and commanded the situation, and she didn't. She worked as an equal," he says. When Maltzan was selected to do the new Kidspace Children's Museum in 1998, again he approached Power. As that went into a long development phase, she took on the Norton Simon with Gehry.

So much has been written about the reflecting pool and meadow grass she installed there, it seemed pointless to ask her about it. But what about placing the Mexican sycamore in the entrance path, as if it were sculpture too? She pauses, "I think I did that for Tom Cox."

The Norton Simon may prove to be her masterpiece. In 1999 she received the distinguishing award in her field, the Henry Francis du Pont medal in landscape architecture from Winterthur.

Every bit as unexpectedly as Power won the Walt Disney Concert Hall job, she lost it. The project had been commissioned, canceled and recommissioned when she learned the garden had been given to Silver Lake landscape designer Melinda Taylor. "I still don't know what happened," Power says.

Gehry was unavailable for comment.

Power left her involvement with the job on her résumé, and it remains there. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the concert hall's opening, she was employed by the Grand Avenue Realignment Project to landscape the streetscape around the hall. The configuration precluded a stately symmetrical line of trees. "So we decided to embrace chaos," she says. Her firm devised a way to arrange palms and small groves of flowering trees so that they seem to be saluting the building.

CITIZENSHIP

Garden design demands civic involvement; so much of town planning incorporates it. In 2001, the trustees of the cash-strapped Los Angeles County Arboretum came to Power for help with a vast study, including drawings, of how it could revamp the 127 acres.

Power looked for an affordable, breezy way to curate the tree collection. "It has the largest collection of Australian trees outside Australia," she says. "We might do a little pavilion that has a little metal roof. You could have a class, you could play didgeridoos, you could have a barbecue." The dozens of scenarios and renderings conceived by her firm are now with the county.

Back in Pasadena, the garden at the Norton Simon is living proof that garden design is not considered art. Guys with buzz saws are not let loose on Rodins. To protect the garden, Power founded a specialist maintenance company. She then converted a garage in her studio to a lecture hall to give gardening classes. Several weeks ago, one of the first hosted the Mediterranean Garden Society and had a full house.

After selling the house with the sunken garden in 1995, she lived on the floor of her studio for a year while she tore down and rebuilt a new 1,200-square-foot house on the Santa Monica-Venice border. This site was unsinkable — it is perched on a hill. Again she arranged it so every room opened onto a garden, and she created a guesthouse at the rear, where her filmmaker son Oliver now lives with his girlfriend, Chiori Takahashi.

The planting is lush, romantic and strange, a Kashmir cypress out front, Norfolk pine alongside, an angel's trumpet by the courtyard fountain, artfully pruned so a wan blossom dangles over the reflecting pool.

Inside, she has used the luminous colors of a ripening apricot, lichen greens, gold and pink. Unframed watercolors line the room, drying. Her latest jag is painting vegetables — gourds, artichokes, radicchio.

She wanted to "go modern" with the furnishings, she says, but her lifestyle didn't allow it. Every grouping of furniture leads back to a couch or chair surrounded by books and newspapers. It brings to mind a quote from her brother: "Decorators live to see cushions plumped. I'm happiest when they're all mushed down."

Call her an artist, call her a decorator, she's not bothered. Power would have us all embrace our inner Marthas. She's a fan. ("I think Martha's going to come back stronger than ever.") And there are many similarities. Power's greatest delight is when she makes something rather than buys it, finds it rather than orders it.

The brimming display of magnolia branches intertwined with star jasmine vines on her sideboard was assembled from cuttings scooped from tree trimmers. "Isn't it the perfect Christmas display?" she asks. Then there are differences. "Omigod, Christmas!" Power exclaims. It occurs to her that she's invited half the people she knows to a Christmas party and hasn't opened Kidspace yet.

Every day begins in Pasadena, as the lawn around the Kidspace amphitheater is laid, mulch is spread, lilacs are moved. Project engineer Sam Ragsdale says watching her has been an education. "You could see her mind working while she was standing back from the tower positioning a sycamore tree. She was looking at how the tree would interact with the building."

Power is so determined that her young designer Dryden Helgoe be credited with the planting plan for Kidspace that she e-mails over biographical material. It emphasizes Helgoe's university training. All four of her staff designers are university-educated, and one is an architect.

This begs the question: What if a young version of herself walks into her office, with nothing more than two years of finishing school and a decade in interior design? What is the first question she asks an applicant?

Power smiles. "I ask them what they're reading."

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Seeds of design

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Nancy Goslee Power dreams of a world where discussion of garden design is as basic to horticulture as helpful planting tips. For those looking to put some method in the layout of their yards, her advice starts with taking a long view.

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Landscape: "My favorite way to see is [to] look at the horizon and find a way to relate to the horizon in your garden. For example, if there's a magnificent pine in the distance, pull something that says 'conifer' so the two relate. It brings the sky to you. That is the essence of borrowed landscape."

Size: "Don't be intimidated by it. A big garden is just a series of small gardens. Small gardens are harder, because you can't have every kind of plant."

Color: "There is no bad color, it's how you use it. You're trying to relate things so they become harmonious." Then, she says, toss in an off-key surprise that, by clashing, will identify the harmony. Study the color of the foliage. You don't need to use identical plants for emphasis, but try to work with similar colors, say changing types of ice plant as ground cover. Don't be afraid of hot colors. The state flower (the California poppy) is orange.

Water: Gardens don't need to be wet, but every garden needs a fountain. Times contributor Robert Smaus caught this jewel falling from Power's lips in a 2000 interview: "In California, water is the diamond in the garden. It's our most precious ingredient, so it's important to see and celebrate it in the garden, as it was in Mogul gardens in Spain and Arabia."

Enclosures: Power began the fashion for enclosing front gardens of small Westside homes. Her warning: "Don't be greedy. Give a little back to the street. Set the hedge in and create a public garden on the outside edge, and people will thank you rather than resent it."

Entrances: Power set the entrance to her hedged garden around the side and created an arbored transition space. "It's vital. It allows you to let down your public guard."

'One little fish': In every garden she designs, one of the plants will be planted with a fish for health and prosperity. "I got it from elementary school," she says, "from the Indians planting 'one little fish' with their corn."

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Public gardens

Kidspace Children's Museum, 480 N. Arroyo Blvd., Pasadena;

(626) 449-9144.

Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 449-6840.

Art Center College of Design, South Campus rooftop grass garden,

950 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (626) 396-2200.

Universal Studios Hollywood, acacia planting from the 101 Freeway up to CityWalk, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City.
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