I visited the beautiful 15-acre Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, last month. The Living Museum was tricked out like an Easter egg hunt. There were eggs, for sure, and other oft-repeated motifs from Salvador Dali’s paintings. The conservatory and gardens were overrun with eggs, lips, eyes, pianos, butterflies and mustaches. Orchids, bromeliads, tropical pitcher plants, cacti and strangler figs were backdrop features of this quirky mash-up. The planting schemes were well designed, the maintenance superb.
I’d barely walked 25 feet into the conservatory before I wondered: Who’s taking care of this magnificence? I asked a friendly docent. She gave glowing credit to Mike McLaughlin and Angel Lara for the skillful upkeep. McLaughlin and Lara are, respectively, director of horticulture and greenhouse manager. I emailed McLaughlin last week and he responded:
“The Dalí exhibit is pretty unusual, eh? Angel and I are deeply involved in developing our exhibits and maintaining our collections. Of course, managing all of this is a team sport, overlapping several departments here and involving many volunteers. For this exhibit, we worked with Dr. Carol Ockman. I always shy away from attributing our success to specific individuals, because the honest truth is that it takes the hard work, dedication, and creativity of a ‘village’ to maintain Selby Gardens!”
I found the right village.
Dr. Carol Ockman, curator of Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind, and Robert Sterling Professor of Art History Emerita at Williams College, wrote the foreword for the botanical garden’s show pamphlet. She described Dali’s mind as a “geological landscape which psychology and Surrealism could excavate.”
I excavated a 45-year old surreal memory.
I stumbled across my first Dalí painting, by chance, in a London hotel room, in the late fall of 1975. The small oil painting, I saw—or believe I saw— was a work-in-progress.
My father, never one for museums, cathedrals, concert halls or gardens, slipped away one afternoon and made an acquaintance with Englishman Brian Mercer in the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel.
The well-dressed Englishman sat at the far end of the bar. He ordered a glass of champagne and a swizzle stick. The champagne was placed on the bar. The Englishman took off his Homburg hat and Chesterfield overcoat. He took the swizzle stick and furiously stirred the champagne. Dad was nursing his first gin and soda at the opposite end of the bar. He asked politely what the fellow was doing with his glass of champagne. The Englishman turned slowly toward Dad and said dryly, “I hate the French. They go to so much trouble to put the bubbles in, and I love to take the bubbles out.”
My father and Brian Mercer spent the rest of the afternoon drinking and laughing.
This led to a close-up encounter with a Dalí painting later that evening.
Mercer invited Dad, my mother, my sister Nancy and me to join him and his young wife for a proper, and fancy, English dinner of roast beef and potatoes at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. We returned to the Mercers’ elegant suite, overlooking the Thames, to close out our hours of drinking. Mindlessly (drunkenly), we tossed a frisbee around the high-ceilinged living room. The yellow disk (or was it one of Dalí ‘s fried eggs, masquerading as a frisbee?) kept bouncing dangerously close to a Dalí portrait-in-progress, sitting on the fireplace mantle. The painting was of Mrs. Mercer.
The retelling of this story seems eerily surreal. Did I really see a portrait-in-progress of Mrs. Mercer? I can find no record of her portrait. However, there is a 1973 Dalí portrait of Brian Mercer.
I am clear-minded now, on good days, but my view of what’s going on—all around me—seems especially sobering on days when I can’t escape into nature, a park or garden.
The pandemic threat, political polarization, digital overload, apathy and global warming are frighteningly real. I can forego gin and tonics, but I struggle, at times, for a pleasant dream.
My two hours at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, absorbing Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind, was a turn-off your-screen breather for soul-enriching escapism. I was able to forget briefly about current-day life.
Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams. –Salvador Dalí
My garden adventure with friends Heather Spencer and Charles Murray concluded spectacularly at a showing of Flordalí, 1968, in the garden’s Payne Mansion. The exhibit is described by Dr.Ockman as a “little known series of fanciful color (floral) lithographs from the Dalí Museum in neighboring St Petersburg… the plants in Flordalí are something else.“
Smiling daytrippers, zigzagging around the gardens, provided me with hopeful clues. Everyone—young and the old—appeared to be joyful over Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Minds.
At every turn, I heard variations on an animated garden theme: “Wow. Look at this!”
What a wonderful dream and escape from reality.
Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Minds will be open through June 28th.