June 23 2010 12:00 AM

Artist Craig Mitchell Smith opens his doors for the Gardens Galore tour — one last time


Koi are swimming through the living room. Water lilies are floating beneath the piano. There’s a comet blazing on the kitchen counter. But artist Craig Mitchell Smith isn’t the least bit concerned.

On this Wednesday afternoon, he’s in the process of finishing up some of his exquisite glassworks, which will be seen at both an upcoming exhibition at Michigan State University and in his own home during the annual Gardens Galore tour Saturday and Sunday. The art is everywhere, and Smith apologizes. "Every flat surface in this house has something on it," he said, wearily.

There’s little time to relax: "I’ve given up sleeping," Smith admits, pulling out a checklist of everything he needed to get done within the next two days.

But, at the same time, he seems perfectly calm about the whole process. It’s his third time participating in the Gardens Galore tour; Smith said it’s also probably going to be his last.

“I don’t think I’ll open my home again like this. It’s a lot of work,” Smith said. “It’s wonderful — we had over 600 people here the last time we did this — but it’s just so much work to get everything perfect.”

The stunning, art moderne house (built in 1972) and property originally belonged to Smith’s parents, meaning that certain trees or aspects of the garden are almost the same age as the 46-year-old owner. Smith now owns the house with his partner, Mike Pohnl.

It’s one of six stops on the tour, which is hosted by the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition. Dubbed Art in the Gardens, it features a rain-or-shine, all-day tour around the city. Local artists have teamed up with homeowners to create a partnership of paintings and plants, sculptures and scenery.

Also included on the tour will be the work of Mark Chatterley, Jerri Goodemoot, Paul Nilsson, Paul Thornton, Pamela Timmons and Jim Wolnosky. Some work will be for sale, and garden owners will be on-hand to answer questions about landscaping.

“We are very excited about having the artists and their work represented at these wonderful landscapes and gardens,” Housing Coalition Interim Executive Director Katherine Draper said. “Both the gardens and art complement each other so well. People will be amazed at the talent of both artists and garden designers.”

Several artists (like Thornton and Smith) will showcase their artwork in their own homes, creating a one-of-a-kind look — and learning experience — about how an artist decks out their own dwelling.

Smith’s home sits on an acre of land on top of a hill, his forest-filled backyard butting up to the Grand River. The modest (“kind of Japanese,” Smith says) front yard belies the back, which opens up into trees, water features, stonework — and not one blade of grass.

But there will be plenty of art on Smith’s property, and most of the pieces will be new to spectators on the tour. His work, which features many free-form, natureinspired pieces of brilliantly colored glass, will complement nature’s own artwork in Smith’s sprawling, rolling backyard.

And though he has only been doing glasswork for four years — a random, onetime endeavor that became his life’s dream-cometrue — his garden represents 15 years in the making. "When Mike and I first bought the property, it was like that: wild," Smith says, pointing to a tangled thicket of trees and brush outside the garden area.

Taming the environment required the removal of 30 trees, which were opened up ample space for banks of mulch and sinuous paths leading down the sloping backyard.

"People think I work on this every day," Smith says of the grounds. "I don’t." But he does try to maintain the house and the garden as separate worlds.

"The front garden is all about the architecture of the house," he explains, showing off the pond full of glass koi and water lilies in front of the house.

But step through an archway on the side, and everything changes. "I walk through this portal, and suddenly the house doesn’t exist: It’s just nature," he said.

An estimated 150 sculptures are incorporated into the greenery.

"I was 42 before I found the thing I’d always wanted to do," Smith says of his art.

"I have to make up
for lost time."

Some pieces are complete. Others — like "Audrey," a
creation inspired by the man-eating plant from outer space in "Little
Shop of Horrors" — still works-inprogress. Many of the sculptures are
partially concealed by the foilage around them. You’ll find a
glistening green crown of glass nestled in the midst of a flurry of
ferns, for example.

want them integrated into stuff," Smith says of his glass creatins. "I
like it when my stuff doesn’t jump out at you. I like it to be found."

On this year’s Gardens Galore stop at Smith’s home, tourists can expect to see glass
pieces that work with the landscaping, such as a glass bird’s nest
sitting atop his lily blooms, or a piece mimicking the wind blowing
petals and leaves around.

thing you’ll never find in a Smith garden? Lawn gnomes. “I’ve never
done a lawn gnome,” he deadpans. “I’ve been asked, but I’m sorry. No, I

Smith, who is also an accomplished landscaper, interior designer, carpenter and theatrical designer, explains that his glasswork was the answer to the missing piece he was looking for when constructing gardens.

I would design people’s landscapes, I would try to find artwork for
them, and I could never find a piece that really felt as if it
belonged,” he said. “So then I started making pieces that I felt really
belonged in gardens.”

Gardens Galore

benefit for Greater Lansing Housing Coalition 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday,
June 26 and Sunday, June 27 $20 tickets available at Christians’
Greenhouse, Everlastings in the Wildwood, Hickory Corners Greenhouse,
Mole Hole, Smith Floral and Greenhouse and Wild Birds Unlimited. (517) 372-5980 www.GLHC.org