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Pretty as a Picture

Kaye L. Hurtt’s favorite tool is an unusual one for a gardener.

It is not a particular pair of Fiskars pruners, a trowel, or even a fancy, no-turning-needed composter. It’s a paintbrush.

A former stay-at-home mom, Hurtt began volunteering at Denver Botanic Gardens once her kids were grown, and in 1996, a friend suggested she take one of the garden’s botanic illustration courses. (Hurtt had no background in art, but had always been creative.) She discovered a talent and love for watercolor.

So she started painting hyper-detailed images of flora (both flowers and foliage) for family and friends, and then began selling some commissions. Now her paper works are also sold to raise funds for local charities, including The Gathering Place and the Anchor Center for Blind Children. (You can see her works at kayehurtt.com and at a few shops around town, including Denver Botanic Gardens.)

Hurtt works on tracing paper, drawing one section of a plant, then starting with a fresh sheet and drawing another. “I do a series of sections and then overlay them until it looks interesting. Once I have all those pieces and layers, I tape it all together and do one sketch, and then I paint.”

This deliberative approach to seeing plants also extends to her gardening, which has evolved to accommodate her new pastime.  In both planting and painting, “it is the composition that is the most challenging,” she says. “In painting you have the ability to check it out and start over; it is only a piece of paper. But in both cases you are taking elements that anyone could have access to and making them appealing in a new way.”

Hurtt used to compose and garden on a 2.5-acre property in Cherry Hills that she and her husband owned. When they moved back to the city in 2005, they opted to build anew on a standard city lot, and hired Lynn M. Gregory of the Denver landscaping firm Chelsea Gardens to plan a formal English garden from the ground up. The goal was plenty of year-round interest (one of Gregory’s specialties), with bright-colored flowers and interesting, low-maintenance, long-blooming foliage that Hurtt could paint.

“It takes me a couple of weeks to do a painting, so I need access to something that keeps blooming,” Hurtt says. While she can paint from her own sketches or photographs, she prefers to have a “live specimen” in front of her. But a live specimen, of course, wilts and dies when it’s cut, so she needs to be able to easily snip another from the garden. “The kind of painting I do is all-consuming.”

Among her favorite blooms to paint are blue pansies, orange tulips, roses of all kinds and pink Stargazer lilies, because of their bright colors and intricate details. Even the shady side of the garden is filled with paintable plantings, such as three different varieties of hosta, one of the artist’s favorite plants.

The fact that the Denver climate doesn’t allow for year-round blooms hasn’t slowed Hurtt down either. The yard also includes plantings that provide winter interest, such as Arborvitae evergreen, English ivy, Lenten rose and dwarf Japanese maple.  And both Hurtt and Gregory count the weeping redbud as one of the best elements in the garden, in summer or winter.

“The outline of the tree is great, even when the leaves are gone,” Gregory says—a testament to what Hurtt has found to be true: that in both gardening and art, beauty is in the composition

Landscape Architecture: Lynn M. Gregory, Chelsea Gardens, (303)321-5645, chelseagardenslandscaping.com


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