Adam Schwerner has been in love with plants since he was a little boy.
For the Laguna Beach resident and director of horticulture and resort enhancement for the Disneyland Resort, working with soil and cultivating plants is a meditative, almost spiritual, experience.
So walking through the 150-acre Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, located on the Western edge of Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, surrounded by its oak forest, flowers, fruit trees and streams, is like being in a cathedral for the self-proclaimed horticultural nerd.
But Schwerner is also a cutting-edge artist whose latest installation may uproot what people expect to see at a garden.
“Botanical gardens are rich botanical cathedrals and then you throw in art in that, it’s almost impossible for it to get any better,” said Schwerner, a few days before the April 16 opening of his latest installation “Your (Un)natural Garden,” at Descanso. It runs through Jan. 8, 2023.
The exhibition is made up of eight multimedia immersive art installations located outdoors and in the Sturt Haaga Gallery and Boddy House.
While this is happening at Descanso, and Schwerner is an expert gardener, don’t expect anything wrapped in flowers or decorated with plants and other greenery.
Schwerner’s work is edgy, bright and loud, with much of it made up of items he found at a landfill, including things such as ladders, bicycle tires, old chairs and wires.
Some of the installations include rooms full of feather boas and hanging bells, colorful sculptures and an area completely covered in fluffy pink material.
“Not everyone is going to love it. This isn’t about making everyone happy; this is about causing conversation, about causing people to participate and observe and engage,” he said.
“It’s about challenging people’s expectations about what a botanical garden is and what art is,” Schwerner added.
Schwerner started growing tomatoes at the age of 10 and turned his boyhood passion into a career, earning a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture from Rutgers University and a master’s in business administration from Chapman University.
In his current gig at Disney he leads a team that is in charge of the planting, maintenance and upkeep of all of the plants at the Anaheim parks.
Follow the Snakeaways
He also works privately as an artist, creating installations like his latest at Descanso, which begin with the six “Snakeaways.”
The Snakeaways sculptures are made up of found materials and pieces of wood that Schwerner has painted all sorts of colors.
They resemble psychedelic tree trunks that dot the Descanso pathways, leading visitors to the two galleries that house the majority of the work. They also set the tone for the entire exhibit.
“In a way they don’t belong but in a way they kind of do. They’re kind of natural but then they’re not. They’re made of this semi-natural material, they’re painted non-natural colors. So they are unnatural, and they are in your garden,” Schwerner said.
Follow the sculptures and you’ll find the Sturt Haaga Gallery, where one room is decked out in dozens and dozens of brass bells hanging from red ropes.
When the exhibition opens the bells will ring and microphones will project the sound out into the garden. The installation is called “All the Bells.”
Next to that is a room covered from wall to wall in pink shag-carpet-like material. The installation is called “The Uncomfy Room.”
It’s a place where people can relax, play, take selfies or just pretty much do whatever.
But yeah, don’t get too comfy.
“It’s also a little bit tweaked, and a little bit disturbing. There will be a soundtrack that will be uncomfortable and that’s the intent,” he said.
The garden’s historic Boddy House, which was built in the 1930s, has undergone a surreal transformation for this exhibition.
The dark wooden door has been painted a bright pink and once people walk in it will kind of be like walking into the Mad Hatter’s summer home, if he liked feather boas instead of hats and he was planning an apocalyptic tea party.
One room in the house is filled with hanging feather boas. Obviously, this is called “The Boa Room,” and it resembles a wild kelp forest of sorts that you can walk through.
Next to that is the dining room, which for the exhibition is being dubbed “Agora: Sculptural Chairs & Meeting Table.”
That’s where Schwerner has created dozens of colorful weird chairs decorated with items he found in an Irvine landfill.
Some chairs are wrapped in wires, one has a seat fitted on springs so people can bounce around, another is fitted with several bicycle tires that make it look like an off-road wheelchair.
There’s also a large dining table with 13 red chairs around the table. It’s all decorated with handmade utensils while a bowl filled with colored golf balls is placed in the center for some reason.
Schwerner wants this to be a gathering place so the space will be available for rent once the exhibition opens.
“I hope that people who come to visit here will collaborate with me to make these things come alive,” he said.
If you go
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. April 16-Jan.18
Where: Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge
Tickets: $15 for adults, $11 for seniors (65 and older) and students,$5 children (5–12 years old) and children 4 years and younger enter free