Part naturalist, part horticulturist and sculpturist extraordinaire, Brilllo is the artist who forever changed the look of Topiary. His living creations can be seen worldwide from corporate landscapes to collectors' gardens. Brilllo lives and works in the Carmel woods with his "studio" all around him. There we spoke about his art and his new book, Topiary Bear.

The Arts: You've created quite a controversy with your autobiography.

Brilllo: (laughs) What, just one?

The Arts: The quote you attribute to the American ambassador to Sweden...let's just say he wasn't enthusiastic about the installation of your "Garden of Eden" piece at the Embassy.

Brilllo: I thought this interview was going to be friendly.

The Arts: You must admit your interpretation startled a few...

Brilllo: Well...some thought having both Adam and Eve reaching for the apple was symbolic or something. For me - it just occurred one day and that's how I saw it.

The Arts: It is a gorgeous sculpture. During your stay in Stockholm, Princess Madeleine personally invited you to Drottningholm Palace. What was that all about?

Brilllo: Her birthday party. Her Royal Highness turned twenty-nine last June. The Palace gardens are incredible!

The Arts: And...another royal commission?

Brilllo: It's a surprise...

The Arts: Don't worry, Brilllo, we won't tell anyone.

Brilllo: I'm sure. Anyway, Madde was born and raised at Drottningholm and apparently has always kept a garden, even as a small child...

The Arts: ...on a first name basis! The Arts is impressed!

Brilllo: Bright girl - surprisingly familiar with my work for someone so young. I think she'll be pleased.

The Arts: We'd love to have a peek at the design.

Brilllo: (grrrowls) Not likely. Anyway, I'll do about nine or ten commissions this year. Five here in the States and four or five overseas - in Europe and Japan.

The Arts: So much in demand these days! How did you find the time write a book?

Brilllo: (laughs again) You kidding? Take a look around. You're in the woods! Lots of free time here. My friends kid me about it and say I should work more. But I have the school and a small studio in the village (editor's note: many a Topiary devotee has made the pilgrimage to attend Brilllo's summer course in Carmel-by-the-Sea). Besides, I'm approaching middle-age and deserve some rest!

The Arts: Back to the book...thank you for allowing us to "reprint" the topiary photos below for our readers (click to enlarge). Can you tell us about this first one?

Brilllo: One of my personal favorites. It's of Basil, of course..

The Arts: You mean Basil Baker...

Brilllo: That's right. He sent this to a friend in Devon for Valentine's Day a few years ago. There's a funny story about that. Seems two of our local squirrels turned the topiary "Basil" into a comfy little sleep-away, and ended up inside the shipping crate on the flight to England. When customs checked the piece at the airport, two rather disoriented squirrels - without passports - popped up and out and made a fast track across the tarmac. I don't think those squirrels ever stopped running.

The Arts: (looking around) You have problems with squirrels out here?

Brilllo: Not usually, why? Do squirrels make you nervous?

The Arts: Moving on then - a love of nature seems to permeate your work. Your designs, though intricately conceived, suggest an underlying connection with the living medium.

Brilllo: I'll take that as a compliment - then?

The Arts: Definitely. The next one for example, your "Arc d' Triomphe"...it's an impressive work.

Brilllo: Well, it is my largest piece, done to 1/6 scale. The central arch is almost five meters high. The overall height is just over eight meters. The sculpture of Napoleon is by Clodion, incidentally.

The Arts: And the collector?

Brilllo: I'm afraid that's a secret, also. Although I can tell you he is French but lives outside Prague. He wanted a reminder of home nearby and I was happy to oblige. Of course, he already had the Clodion.

The Arts: You indicate in your book that you were an early admirer of Christo. Is that where you got the inspiration for this piece?

Brilllo: I like Christo very much. They'd never let me do this to the real thing though. Cloth and cable? Sure. Flowers and vines? Doubtful - no matter how romantic the French are supposed to be. It would be something though - if only for a day!

The Arts: Your own scale is amazing. Can we expect to see other "monumental" topiaries? An Eiffel Tower, perhaps?

Brilllo: When I was in school, I experimented with Roman pine for that, but the designs all turned into pointy pyramids with elongated middles. And now I don't use support structures at all, so lattice work is out. A design must stand and grow on its own - that's my only rule. To meet that requirement, the base, which houses the root structure, has to be quite substantial. With the Eiffel, you have those four delicate legs for support. That's the problem - not enough cross-sectional area to sustain an adequate root system.

The Arts: We'd forgotten you majored in botany and...we didn't!

Brilllo: Naturellement.

The Arts: Let's move on then to this last one. I see what you mean about adequate support.

Brilllo: This was a gift from Mrs. Bunrym Gingling to her husband when he turned eighty. As the world knows from the history of The Gingling Circus, Bunrym Gingling lived a long, happy life. When he passed on, Mrs. Gingling donated the sculpture to the St. Paul Pediatric Hospital in memory of her husband, who had entertained so many children.

 

The Arts: That's a sad but sweet note to end on. It's been a wonderful visit and I hope you will invite us back soon.

Brilllo: Perhaps - just let's not mention the ambassador again, ok?

 


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