Switzerland was a fabulous landscape to learn from because it is a beautiful landscape with problems – a whole world opened up, where you had to develop a pragmatic approach: snow would melt all at once, rivers would swell, there would be flooding problems to solve; and how do you build a house or extend a village where topography is so dramatic?
So again my knowledge deepened, I learned everything plant wise you must understand below the surface. There’s conceptually a strange gap to bridge between the ideas part and the earth part of landscape architecture. You learn fast. The garden, the landscape, becomes a studio.
Suddenly in the middle of my early work career I became quite unwell, went home for a diagnosis and discovered I had cancer – it was a shock.
It was bowel cancer. I was 27.
I stayed home in England for two years of operations and cancer treatments – a long cycle – and I instinctually turned to landscape to heal.
I was in the greenhouse every single day, planting seeds, watering, watching things grow; it’s such a wonderful environment if your nervous system is shot to pieces and you can’t feel anything anymore; the warm smell of the glass house, connecting me to the outside, and away from the sheer boredom of being ill. I’ve learned every single second counts, with work, with friends.
During cancer I couldn’t work full time but I was able to paint, that couldn’t be taken away from me.
And I painted as much as I could.
And finally after those years I had the all clear and as a reward to myself I had an exhibition with my paintings from that period. I stood around the paintings once they were beautifully hung and lit – I looked around at the canvases I’d painted and burst into tears. They were so dark and gloomy! I did’t realize what I was doing, I was painting trees at night, and there arose all these other references to famous paintings, like Isle of the Dead by Arnold Bocklin, which was painted in 1880 – I was clearly working through something…
Then and there I decided to change how I painted, how I did things. I committed myself as an artist and designer – as a creative – to work with light.