Published August 9th, 2023 by Nicole Thomas
Frank James Meuschke's nursery and native garden plots offer endless insights into the patience, commitment, and playfulness necessary for both gardening and art-making
This is the second interview of a series where I go beyond the artist’s studio and visit their garden. Similar to an art practice, gardening requires dedication to making mistakes, asking questions, and observing from different perspectives. There is also an entrepreneurial aspect to making and selling artwork that can carry into other parts of our lives. Sometimes it leads to writing books, owning bakeries, or in this case running a nursery.
Frank James Meuschke, Installation view of Don't Go Into The Light, Rosalux Gallery, 2022.
I ventured out to Shelterwood Gardens, a native plant nursery owned by Frank James Meuschke and Betsy Alwin of Rosalux Gallery in Minneapolis. I’ve been following the nursery on Instagram and what I appreciate the most about Shelterwood Gardens is their honest and informative posts.
Along with the nursery, they also have a plot of native plants and garden beds flourishing with produce and herbs.
Nicole Thomas: What makes Shelterwood Garden different from other nurseries?
Frank Meuschke: Generally I keep plants out, unlike a regular nursery, even when they start to look a little sad, because that’s what the plant is at that time. I think nurseries make specimens of plants and then you have this object with mulch around it. And there it is, like a Byzantine tapestry. But once you start putting plants into your community it doesn’t matter when they’ve finished doing their thing — in fact, that’s the point.
NT: I really appreciate the way you run the nursery’s Instagram. You share information about signs of drought in native plants or different insects that will visit your garden.
FM: Yeah, we have Smooth Wild Rose. You might notice a lot of the leaves are missing and that’s done by the larvae of a sawfly that looks like a caterpillar. It eats all the leaves of the roses and skeletonizes it. No one is going to buy that or touch it. It doesn’t matter that the plant is saying “you know what, I’m going to put on some new growth, because that’s what I do.” Plants know they’re eaten. They know that’s part of the deal. They’ve been around a lot longer than us.
In the beginning, we absorb the influences around us. I learned all the wrong things and then I unlearned the wrong things. Or some of them. I often say “What’s the number one thing gardeners do? They kill plants.” And that’s how you learn. It’s not because you’re a brown thumb, but you’re a brown thumb because you stopped gardening. From there you ask “Why did it die? What did I do? What’s wrong about it? Maybe I don’t know enough.” It’s a process of asking questions, kind of like art. There’s a willingness to make a mistake.
Top: Shelterwood Gardens. Bottom: Frank Meuschke’s native plant garden. Photos by Nicole Thomas.
NT: Tell us about your native plant garden.
FM: The baseline thing is: Surprise. When most people garden they have beds and borders. They have peonies there and the next year they have peonies in the same spot. And the next year after that they have those peonies. It’s always the same. Usually plants are bred and sold that don’t reproduce themselves, while native plants reproduce themselves. What ends up happening is: they don’t have a long lifespan, it dies, seeds itself, and it comes up somewhere else. Everything keeps moving. Sometimes you plant something, it does nothing, you think it’s dead and not there, and four years later — there it is. Nothing is ever in the same place without me having much to do with moving it. Generally it’s like anything over time. For example I’m getting older day-by-day but changes go unnoticed until you don’t see me for two years. Same with this garden. It’s changing, but you won’t see it over a day or month, or maybe within a couple of years, but eventually, things change.
For instance, there’s a lot more butterfly weed and purple prairie clover than the original ones I’ve planted. Everything's always moving and there are always new insects.
NT: There are parallels between art-making and gardening. How do you balance both practices?
FM: Sometimes I feel I’m being pulled in two different directions. It’s so easy to get lost with these plants; they’re like hungry kids, and everything else gets put aside. So I have to be very intentional about making space that isn’t this nursery. I’ve often tried to include plants in art projects. Figuring out how to join the two things. Sometimes I have a hard time drawing direct links to the questions I ask in my artwork because it is so easy to think in terms of media or disciplines.
I remember when I was working toward my MFA and I was taking electives in the Agricultural department. An art professor asked, “Why aren’t you taking electives in the English department or literature?” That’s what they wanted us to do. My advisor was worried about my commitment. But it all comes from the same place. The manifestation of it is different, and our culture looks at it differently. There are plenty of artists who are gardeners and the garden shows up throughout art history, but somehow the profession is broken down into our disciplines.
Frank Meuschke, Touch The Sky, 2022, Sublimation Print on Polyethylene Terephthalate Fabric. Image courtesy of the artist.
FM: My artwork has been dealing with a condition we now suffer — that the environment is broken and the pervasive anxiety around this concept. There is a disconnect between how we live our lives and its effect on the natural world, and this fracture expresses itself in that anxiety we experience. But I don’t want us to forget that there is beauty in the world, that it is not all or nothing, and the native plant nursery grows out of that part of my art practice. As in the garden, there are changes and we need to practice acceptance, work with the natural world we have — not the one we imagine it was.
NT: Anything else you’d like to add?
FM: The only way we can pass things along — in a sense, conserve things — is by being effective educators and somehow transferring that sense of what is valuable to another generation. I like looking through my garden and getting surprised. The more stuff there is to look at, the more variety there is, the more complexity there is, the more I get to discover, the more I get to be surprised.
On my return home from Shelterwood Gardens, my awareness of the plants along the interstate was piqued. I left with more curiosity than I arrived with. I gained an appreciation for surprises within nature itself and how plants continue to survive despite environments, or species, that interfere. I got more in touch with my own practice of looking closely and thinking about the future of the planet.
This interview was edited for brevity, but I recommend visiting Shelterwood Gardens, as Frank has so much knowledge and history to share about plants and art. ◼︎
Photo by Nicole Thomas.
To learn more about Shelterwood Farms, visit their website or follow them on Instagram @shelterwood_gardens. To see more of Frank Meuschke's work, visit his website or @frankmeuschke. Betsy Alwin's work is on her website and @betsyalwin.
Banner image: Morning Glory (detail), Sublimation Print on Polyethylene Terephthalate Fabric, 51 x 68 inches, 2022. Artwork images courtesy of the artist.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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