Jill Nooney, earth artist
Recycled art and a reclaimed landscape create a legacy
You could say that Jill Nooney’s world revolves around nurturing and healing, whether it is using her skills as a therapist to help others restore their mental health or using her talents as an artist and gardener to bring a landscape to life. When not busy at her Exeter, New Hampshire, therapy practice, Nooney divides her time between creating her unique garden art; expanding and enhancing Bedrock Gardens, a multi-acre project; and developing the nonprofit organization that will soon operate Bedrock Gardens and share its beauty with the public.
“Having multiple interests gives me balance,” Nooney says. “Since I am in private practice as a therapist, I can manage my own schedule and spend more hours in the garden during good weather. In winter, when the garden is at rest, therapy lets me fully engage my creative energies in a different way. However, I find therapy and gardening have a kinship in that both involve different aspects of healing. There is nothing more therapeutic than working around plants and being in the garden.”
Nooney’s love affair with plants began when she was a child; her teachers called her “the flower girl” for the bouquets she brought. Knowing that working with plants was her calling, she pursued a degree in landscape design but soon became frustrated working for others. “I knew that I was only truly happy when creating my own designs,” she says. “I would feel strongly about how something was supposed to look and not want to change it for the client. However, I still wanted to work with landscapes. In 1985, my husband, Bob Munger, and I began creating a garden on our 37 acres in Lee, New Hampshire, and I started to explore my vision. Thankfully, Bob is a can-do guy who is able to operate every kind of machinery and figure out engineering solutions to any problem I faced. Nothing fazes him! Together, we expanded the vision for the garden deeper and deeper into the property, and it’s been wonderfully satisfying to see it evolve.”
Bedrock Gardens is not your typical backyard escape. It not only encompasses 20 acres, it literally transports you through myriad experiences that capture the vivid imagination and skill of Nooney’s vision. There is a formal parterre garden, an imposing rock garden, a sweeping allée of Chinese fringe trees, a Belgian fence of espaliered apple trees, lush grasslands, ponds, waterfalls, fountains, the quiet beauty of Conetown—which features 50 dwarf and standard conifers plus ground covers—a spiral garden, the Dark Woods—a mysterious, sculptural world of stunted trees—stunning Asian pergolas, numerous examples of garden art by Nooney, and much more. The entire garden takes about two hours to explore.
By Nooney’s own account, the garden grew “haphazardly” over the years, with no real plan. “There was no overall design,” she explains. “It’s been done bit by bit. Part of that was due to logistics. There were areas I could not expand into until we had the resources to get water and tools to them easily. Lugging buckets for miles just isn’t feasible. Other times, I made choices that didn’t quite work. I designed a torii [a Japanese-style gate] and after the lumber arrived, it was clear it was out of scale for the place I had in mind. I hadn’t taken into account the height of the other buildings. A year later, we opened up access to a bald point of land, and that was the perfect spot. Sometimes you just have to wait for the garden to tell you what to do.
“It’s a gift to be able to live with a garden as I have and be able to see how it changes not only with the seasons but over time,” she says. “Having that kind of relationship gives you a better understanding of what to expand, what to keep, what to change. And just watching the garden continue to transform is a beautiful experience.”
Visitors to Nooney’s garden have long been intrigued by the unusual gates, arches, totems, and metal sculptures she creates. They became so popular that she began selling them through a thriving online business, Fine Garden Art. All of her pieces use repurposed items. In her clever hands, gates, doors, stoves, tools, and farm implements gleaned from old barns or estate sales are transformed into whimsical figures or striking structural art. In short, every Nooney creation has a past.
“I have always made things,” she says. “I’ve done pottery, wood sculpture, and quilting. I made keepsake quilts for all my kids out of old T-shirts. I’ve always had a passion for giving things new life. When we bought our 1740s house, it came with a barn and lots of old farm implements. I love old tools so it was not a big leap for me to start tinkering around with them.”
Most of Nooney’s designs involve metalwork. She has her own welding studio on the property, where she has worked with various welders over the years. This allows her to alter and affix elements as needed. In her vision, rake tines meld with an eel spear to create a walking bird, old calipers become a pair of ballerinas poised en pointe, a lawn edger may morph into a bird’s head while spoons become a tail. Nooney’s sculptures range from small to large and from ground pieces to aerials meant to be suspended in the trees. U2 is one of her eye-catching sculptures; standing three and a half feet tall, it features a massive garage door spring and long pieces of tubing fashioned into graceful arcs. Another attention-getter presents an array of old wrenches of different sizes connected to form a delicate upward spiral. Quetzalcoatl, a hanging bird sculpture made from a punch press, heating coils, and ice hooks, references the Aztec god of wind and learning, who appeared as a feathered serpent. Nooney designed her version to recognize the spirits of the Dark Woods on her property.
“I love the repetition of blades,” she says. “Such beautiful symmetry! Gears are also fascinating to work with, and springs are fun because they allow you to add movement. Garage door springs are among my favorites not just for the movement potential but because they are also sculptural.”