Visitors to the Elisabet Ney Museum in Central Austin get to see some of the renowned sculptures of the German-born artist who lived and worked at her studio there from 1892 to 1907.
However, some who tour the museum in the Hyde Park neighborhood might be curious, as well, to see the grasses, wildflowers and more on the roughly 2 1/2-acre grounds. About six years ago, the landscape underwent a "re-creation" to approximate the way it was in 1907, at the end of Ney’s life, said Oliver Franklin, museum site coordinator. The plan was developed around 2007, said Franklin, who was hired in 2012, and required several years of fund-raising to implement.
Each year, the museum offers landscape tours in the spring and the fall, Franklin said. The spring tour focuses more on the flowers, he added, while the autumn tour generally focuses more on the grasses.
The most recent tour showed off "the landscape’s quieter side — its many grasses and non-blooming plants. And thanks to this year’s uncharacteristically wet summer, we also have unusual fall blooms as well," according to materials about the event.
People still want to see this landscape with a guide have another opportunity soon. Fall Harvest Family Day will feature landscape tours, as well as free wildflower seeds, sculpting activities and more. The free event will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 11 at the museum, 304 E. 44th St.
According to a biography of Ney posted at the City of Austin’s website, Ney bought this land of "rolling prairie, wildflower and post oaks along Waller Creek. … On this land, that Ney purposefully left in its natural state, she built a small classically-styled studio … She named her studio Formosa (Portuguese for "beautiful") after the studio her husband had created for her on the occasion of their marriage on the tropical island of Madeira in 1863." The site goes on to say that the studio and grounds showed, among other things, Ney’s "deep personal love of nature."
The city took over the property in 1941.
On the city’s website, an executive summary regarding the "Historic Landscape Restoration Plan," said that after Ney died, "Over the years, changes were made to this unique property. Landscape efforts in the 1930s and in the 1960s were well intended but changed the character of the landscape transforming it into a tended garden setting. The landscape of Texas prairie, paths and vegetable garden cultivated by Ney for her studio is unique in character and documented in a series of historic photographs that capture both the feeling and the details of the place. Ney’s landscape embodies both the choices of the artist owner and the characteristics of early development of Hyde Park."
Jack French, landscape technician for the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, who worked on the project and continues to guide it, said (via email), "With guidance by the Ney’s Master Landscape Plan and other consultants, the goal was to make the historic restored landscape all native prairie species in the open areas that would be common to Central Texas with native prairie grasses being the emphasis and the wildflowers simply there as an amenity and learning opportunity since they would have occurred in lower numbers than the grasses. … Of course, the shrubs and trees left in place or added were intended to replicate what Ney would have experienced in her time at the studio based mostly on photos and what we know of how she used the site."
Although such a project is "never finished," Franklin said, "we’re at a place where the landscape is a lot more self-sustaining than it was."
Waller Creek, which cuts through the grounds, offers a "riparian landscape," Franklin said. "Every time it rains, the way the creek responds is very interesting to watch." The north side of the creek, about one-third of the property, "provides us with a different kind of landscape to tell stories." This area now has about a half-dozen limestone blocks set out and provides space for events and "a contemplation place," Franklin said. "People have responded very well." Some people sit on the limestone and drink coffee, have picnics or even play bagpipes, he said.
Nowadays, along the decomposed granite pathways on the grounds, splashes of color from wildflowers are visible. "We have lots of grasses that are native grasses … that function differently from conventional lawn grasses," Franklin said.
At times, Franklin said, "When the butterflies come through here, it’s just gorgeous. We provide more opportunity for pollinators than your typical mowed landscape. … The biodiversity has exponentially increased."
Additionally, the biology of the soil has been restored to a "more regionally appropriate mix," Franklin said.
Ney — who slept on the roof — also did a few unusual things with the landscape, Franklin said; for example, he said, "The banana trees were planted because they reminded her of her former studio."
Currently, five outdoor art installations grace the property. One installation, "Habitat: Quarry" by Renee Nunez "depicts several biomorphic forms as free-standing metal sculptures thriving in the museum’s historic landscape recreation," according to "Now on View at the Ney."
"Putting it in this landscape made a lot more sense than putting it in the cut grass," Franklin said.
As someone who regards Ney as "off-the-charts brilliant," Franklin said, "We here personally consider her intentions in everything we do." Part of the reason for the project, he said, "was to increase awareness of native landscapes and to re-create it as it was when she was here." In addition, it "provides science and nature educational opportunities and a whole new realm of interpretive content."