Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Artist in Residence: Take a Tour of Natalie Bessell’s Sky-High Garden and Studio

Photos by Ryan Benoit

In terms of landscape juju, the iconic California canyon home occupies a wavelength all its own. Its mystique is tied to the idea of backyard as wildlife theater, and to the feeling you get there — a gravity-defying feeling that is, somehow, also very down-to-earth. Here is where shrubby terra firma meets infinite sky meets coyote stories told over dinner.

The studio of artist Natalie Bessell is perched on one of these San Diego brinks. This canyon lifts and interrupts a garden that’s rambunctious with tropics-loving plants, desert-loving plants and species in between. Succulents in half-buried pots, paddle-shaped opuntias, intoxicating plumeria flowers, staghorn clusters, and lustrous philodendron cascade down from the midcentury-modern house — built in 1968 and extended in ’74 — that Natalie shares with her boyfriend John Fraher, friends Renee Moreno and Amanda Morrow, and pooches named Maude and Hutch. Renee and Amanda own the Pannikin coffee shop in La Jolla where Natalie and John work, and where Natalie and John first met. The chickens in the backyard also have a view to squawk about. (Yeah, there are hawk stories too.)

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell’s canyon-perched art studio is surrounded by banana plants, a rubber tree, kalanchoe, plumeria and aloe. The studio was built by Natalie’s father, famed surfboard shaper Tim Bessell, and her boyfriend John Fraher. Materials included pallets, corrugated metal and plastic, and reclaimed wood; an abandoned fence that Natalie and John found along a bike path now serves as flooring.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Last summer Natalie was on the East Coast taking a course on botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Garden. “We dissected all different types of flowers and drew what we saw under the microscope and with the naked eye,” she says.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell inside her studio.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

John Fraher, above, first met Natalie at Pannikin Coffee & Tea in La Jolla, where they work and where selections of Natalie’s art are currently on view. John does the majority of the virtuoso gardening here.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Clockwise from top left: Natalie Bessell’s ‘Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss),’ ‘Golden Prayer,’ ‘Presley, Elvis’ and ‘Plátano Crown.’ In her new work, Natalie says, “I have been developing a type of drawing/painting that maps out the human face. I have had to stare at and focus on such minute details in the human face that it has left me with what I consider a mathematical algorithm. Essentially, I have created my own paint-by-numbers.” High-quality prints are available in Natalie’s Etsy Store.

“Completely and utterly encompassed” is the sense Natalie gets when she’s out here in the yard. She says, “I feel such a connection to the natural world with just that little bit of ‘nature’ we have tucked away on a canyon in Southern California, not too far from the beach. It is getting harder and harder to escape the concrete, plastic environment, and here, I feel far away from it. I become fully aware of my surroundings and notice beautiful, delicate life at play — birds, bees, lizards, and snakes.”

You can see how these surroundings might inform Natalie’s paintings and illustrations. Check it out on her website, and on her Instagram feed: Her art could be described as “mystic realism” — familiar animals and objects brought together in improbable, sometimes ecstatic, often death-inspired ways, like a painting of a haloed, beatific fox, a monkey crowned with plantains and calla lilies, and a portrait of naturalist John Muir with antlers and his shoulders outlined with a mountain range.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

‘John Muir (Iconic Bearded Man).’

You can discover more works on Natalie’s website and by following her on Instagram. (Above, a sampling from the latter.)

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

‘Higher Education.’

Recently Natalie has been working with vintage prints (“I find them at the swap meet, thrift stores, or old bookstores [like] DG Wills”), adding floral Día de los Muertos masks to faces and sometimes UFOs to the background “because I think they are a light-hearted symbol of something profound, questions we have always had: ‘What are we doing here? Who are we? Why are we? What don’t we know?’ Et cetera,” says Natalie, who attended New York’s School of Visual Arts for a year, leaving after she felt the curriculum was taking a toll on her passion.

“Aside from the mask series,” she adds, “I have been developing a type of drawing/painting that maps out the human face. You can see this in the John Muir, Kurt Cobain, Dr. Seuss and the Elvis. This style developed naturally from painting face after face (I am also a portrait artist). I have had to stare at and focus on such minute details in the human face that it has left me with what I consider a mathematical algorithm. Essentially, I have created my own paint-by-numbers. There are so many things happening in the face! The shadows fall in ways that create patterns that I have trained my eye to see, and then I illustrate exactly what I see.”

 The Studio

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell and John Fraher have lived in this home and garden for three years. “I worked with so many great people but I fell for John after a year of working with him,” Natalie says. “His presence in this world is both strong and gentle.”

Natalie’s art studio (approximate dimensions: 10 by 14 by 9 feet) was built by her father, famed surfboard shaper Tim Bessell, and John out of pallets, plywood, corrugated metal and plastic, and reclaimed supplies. The flooring is constructed from an abandoned wood fence Natalie and John found on a bike path. A floor-to-ceiling window/wall is patched with the legs of tables and chairs. Just outside the studio and under flowers of a ponytail palm you’ll find a dirt surface with stripes regularly raked into it by John, inspired by the Japanese “wabi-sabi blend of organic and organized,” John says.

When Natalie isn’t in her studio, you might find her playing chess with John across from the showstopping 7-foot-tall variegated agave, or photographing the bee action inside a cactus flower, or nursing “alongside its mother, a baby hummingbird for two weeks until it was old enough to fly.” All while Dylan, The Doors or Buena Vista Social Club play from the speakers.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A variegated bower vine (Pandorea jasminoides ‘Variegata’) crawls up the southwest corner of the studio.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

This ‘Plant Music’ album — music for your plants, performed by the Baroque Bouquet — is pure 1970s magic.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Succulents, orchids and camellias prosper near a bright studio window.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A magnolia blossom harmonizes with mini succulents in this suitcase arrangement.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

‘Dove Study.’

The Deck

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Howling from a tree trunk: one of the home’s several elkhorn fern clusters.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

As the yard cascades down toward the canyon, you will find desert-inspired pockets (like the one housing the agave, yucca and opuntia below) alongside glossy tropical plots.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Desert denizen or sea monster? An Agave americana ‘Variegata’ spills onto the deck.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

John plays keyboard in a band called Vela Toem. “When people ask what kind of music it is, I either say ‘loud’ or start listing any and all genres in a row,” he says. “Like, ‘You know, it’s like a jazzy folk rock experimental psychedelic hymnal reggae house blend with bluesy hints and classical tones.’ It’s important to keep a straight face, otherwise someone might think I was kidding. Sadly we’re not in playing together at the moment…so it sounds like nothing.”

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Aeonium arboreum.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Crassula perforata, or necklace vine.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

The worm bin. John uses worm castings to enrich the garden’s soil.

The Patio

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

The house sits atop a property that slopes down into a garden and canyon.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Staghorn fern (Platycerium superbum).

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

John planted this vertical succulent bed with agave, firestick euphorbia, aeonium and crassula.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A wine barrel succulent planter with aeonium, graptoveria and sedum.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Fern fest!

The Garden

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A barbary fig cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica var. decumana) basks in the #goldenhour.

The home is owned and the landscape gorgeously designed by Dan Grunow, whose father owns Grunow Construction, a longstanding La Jolla company. It’s John who does the majority of the gardening; he grew up outside San Francisco and here in San Diego, always preferring the outdoors.

“I think gardening is fulfilling for so many reasons,” John says. “The balancing of such delicate needs of the plants and the physical struggle of the labor. It’s much like yoga and meditation, I think. It allows you to use all your stuff. Physical and mental and ebb and flow between focus and play.”

—TH

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Nopalea cochenillifera, or prickly pear cactus, or nopal.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

John planted these succulents in cracked, buried terra cotta.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Aloe arborescens.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

John rakes stripes into a dirt plot outside the studio, influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which highlights the impermanence and imperfection of the natural world.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A tree philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) canopies a Buddha statue.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

The aeonium rock garden.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A kodai maru yukimi, or Japanese stone lantern.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A flowering ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata).

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

The alien appeal of the Kalanchoe carnea ‘Modoc’ comes courtesy of its snaking stems.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Kalanchoe carnea ‘Modoc.’

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Back down at the studio, an elegant fishtail palm flanks the entrance.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Fishtail palm tree (Caryota mitis).

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Coreopsis (tickseed) adds some flash near the base of the studio.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

Plumeria.

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

“For a while the chickens were getting into the canyon by climbing onto the fence and jumping over,” Natalie says. “The palm fronds serve as a further barrier for the little monkeys. Saving John a lot of time from chasing chickens.”

Natalie Bessell - Garden Studio Tour - Featured on The Horticult

A Maude, Maude world.

 

  • Joan Fraher

    Fantastic article!! I love learning the names of the (huge) variety of plants in this beautiful garden yard!! I am also a huge fan of John and Natalie!! Thanks for a great read and awesome pictures!!

    • Thanks, Joan! The diversity in their garden is a marvel — we learned lots while researching/trying to ID all this lovely plant life. And we hoped to do justice to John and Natalie’s awesomeness!

  • incredibly inspiring. i’m a relatively new reader of your blog and just love it. thank you for this beautiful tour!

  • David Waits

    What a wonderful article to highlight the beauty of the nature and the art. Reminds me of Annie Dillard’s in Pilrgim at Tinker Creek:
    “At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, “Come down to the water.” It was an extravagant gesture, but we can’t do less. If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.”

    • The whole show has indeed been on fire since the word go (!). These extravagant gestures of ours that are inspired and framed by the original extravagant gesture to end (and begin!) all extravagant gestures. Thanks for Dillard’s gorgeous words, David.