In the dead of winter, the operative word is dead. Even in a mild year such as this, the landscape could use a punch of color, some contrasting textures — anything to warrant a second look.
Artwork can be that thing.
It may blend in and perfectly fit its surroundings, as does the new steel sculpture by Daniel Whetstone at Lauritzen Gardens. "Generations" arches gracefully, mimicking the native grasses around it.
Or the artwork may stand out.
Bordering a sidewalk alongside the Omaha property of Al and Beverly Thomsen, three 10-foot-tall sculptures add bold color and geometric contrast to their woodsy side yard.
Omaha sculptor Leslie Bruning started the installation about five years ago. The first piece, "Blossoming Squares," is reddish orange, the color of an Oriental poppy. Next is "Evolution of Dew," a color shade close to lemon drops; and the third, "Integration," is what its name suggests, an integration and repetition of the colors and shapes in the first two pieces.
The sculptures use primary shapes as well as primary colors. The first is a series of squares; the second, a series of circles; and the third, a series of triangles. The artist bent the geometric forms to create each sculpture's final look.
The catalyst for the artwork commission was a chance meeting at the Hot Shops, where Bruning works and displays some of his outdoor pieces. The couple had met him before and had even discussed their property as a potential art site 30 years earlier, shortly after the Thomsens built their home.
Bruning remembered Thomsen and asked about the site. That impressed Thomsen and he invited Bruning to see the site again.
Bruning came away with some ideas from the visit and presented them as a maquette, or scaled-down model. The Thomsens gave the go-ahead for a sculpture and added the second and third pieces in subsequent years.
"It's amazing the difference they make," Al Thomsen said. "It's much more interesting."
Adding art to your landscape is part of the growing interest in using the outdoors as a living space, said landscape designer and horticulturist Luann Finke of Lincoln.
"It's a way to focus attention on something. Otherwise, it's a mass of green. It's also a way to get four-season interest and personalize your space. Landscapes can look similar but sculpture makes it unique."
That may mean a large pedestal-style birdbath or a flock of plastic pink flamingoes. Finke, of Finke Gardens and Nursery, said birdbaths are popular with her customers.
But one of Finke's clients was thinking beyond that. Michele Semin of Lincoln talked with Christopher Murphy, a designer who had been her friend since their days at Lincoln East High School, and let him know she wanted "something special, something unique."
She lives on a small acreage that transitions from manicured lawns to more natural areas.
When she told Murphy to "have at it," he did.
Murphy, who has a design firm in Tulsa, Okla., said he knows Semin's fashion and art tastes and could envision what she wanted. Her goal was to replace an old swimming pool and add a splash of color.
Nobody can argue that Murphy didn't succeed.
He created a kind of oceanic mosaic using 33,000 pounds of tumbled, colored glass and 9,000 pounds of white river rock, like a giant sand painting, where the pool had been. They kept the side walls of the pool to use as retainers for cascading roses and other plants.
Viewed from the balcony overlooking the backyard, the hand-embedded white rocks form "lily pads," Murphy said, on waves of light blue, medium aqua and dark bluish purple tumbled glass. Framing this watery look are bold contrasting colors of tumbled glass in green, yellow, red and orange.
A powder-coated orange steel sculpture by Lincoln artist Shannon Hansen anchors the green space where the patio ends and the lawn begins.
Hansen's "Flight" sculpture helps take the observer through the landscape, Murphy said.
"There's movement to the natural (area of the lawn) from a very controlled, manmade landscape," Murphy said. "And that results in the overall design."
Projects that involve art generally run to the tens thousands of dollars. Semin and Murphy declined to say what her project cost.
The price tag for a commissioned sculpture will vary depending on size and material used. Hansen, who is a welding instructor at Southeast Community College's Milford campus, said a range of $4,000 to $10,000 is typical for some of his work.
"The cost can be less for materials that rust, but the cost is really based on the scale of the piece," he said.
Zack Fergus, a landscape designer at Kinghorn Nursery in Omaha, said how you incorporate sculpture into your garden and how much you spend is really up to you.
"You can go natural and try to tie everthing together or go bold and create dramatic impact. There are no good or bad looks. It's all open to interpretation."
Good design will play with color, form and texture. It's best to devise a master plan with a designer, and to think ahead.
That's what the Thomsens did when they bought a lot next to their north Omaha home in the mid-1970s. At that time, they hired a landscaper to create contours and berms on the flat property and plant a variety of woody plants.
Now those plants are mature and the new sculptures appear to have been in place for decades.
The Thomsens and Bruning were in synch from the start. Bruning said the sculpture would need to embody clean looks and geometric shapes to be in harmony with the Thomsens' angular, contemporary home.
Al Thomsen said he wanted the (first) sculpture) to evoke arms lifted heavenward.
And, he said, "I wanted it red, as blood flowing up through the sculpture to the sky."
That attention to color wouldn't surprise Lincoln sculptor Hansen.
Color, he said, is no accident. Hansen wanted the sculpture for the Semin yard to be unique to that space even though it was part of a series of sculptures called "Flight." He settled on a color he calls "fire orange."
The point is to engage the viewer and to be "strong in the round" — from all angles.