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Wendy Whiteley: From little things…

Ashley St George

The saying ‘from little things big things grow’ could not be truer for Wendy Whiteley.

The wife of the late acclaimed artist, Brett Whiteley, Wendy is a passionate creative in her own right who has become well known for the creation of the Secret Garden, a captivating oasis on the Sydney harbour-side in Lavender Bay. The story of the garden’s metamorphosis from a derelict wasteland to the tranquil haven it is today has recently been transformed into a book, Wendy Whiteley and the Secret Garden, and to celebrate its release Wendy is in Canberra to engage in a number of public events.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Wendy about the release of her book, gardening and the often-overlooked importance of community spaces.

As a creative person, Wendy poured her energy into the creation of the garden as if it were a piece of artwork.

In fact, she considers it a work of art – but one that is very different to a painting or photograph for example. “One its three dimensional and two, it’s alive and doing its own thing,” says Wendy. “You’ve got things that you can have no control over like the weather for a start. How much rain there is how much wind there is – you’ve got to work in concert with all of those things. You’ve got to work with it rather than against it all the time. In many ways it’s a more difficult process.”

Gardening is not just a past-time for Wendy. It was instrumental in her grieving process firstly for her husband Brett in 1992, her daughter, Arkie, nine years later and in other instances since then. “People have moments when they lose people in their lives and they deal with it in many different ways. Mine was always to try and do something creative with it, rather than go down to disgust or anger at life or how unfair it is or anything else, so gardening was a really good way to go.”

Wendy Whiteley's Secret Garden

Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden in Sydney

Investing her attention into the transformation of the garden was Wendy’s method of coping, an undertaking that has ultimately created a product that embodies her passion for those she loves. “It’s not that I ignored the sadness of what had happened, I just included those people that I’d lost in the process of making the garden so they’re very much a part of it for me. They’re part of the garden so they never are lost.”

The Secret Garden has international acclaim and affords visitors from all over the world. I asked Wendy about the importance of having community spaces.

“Town squares and open spaces and particularly gardens are becoming increasingly important with high density living,” she replied. “I think its very important that anyone who is getting involved in building these new buildings and doing the developing you’re talking about or anybody who is considering living in them insists that it is part of what comes with high density living.”

Just like the little fenced gardens in London, Central Park in New York, or like the old town squares in Italy, Wendy thinks that community spaces are vitally important. “Where people can go out and be with each other, you know meet the neighbours as they choose. There are all kinds of ways of doing it and that’s just one of them.”

“Its also a place for people to meet without feeling stressed about it. They can meet up with each other or walk through with their dogs, or whatever they want to do, just read a book or sit in the sunshine, you know sometimes just to be outdoors. You may live in a high rise apartment may not even have a small balcony but there is something different about sitting out in the sun with people passing by.”

Her argument is so simple, yet expresses an essential element of human nature – the idea of connection and the formation of bonds with people around you.

Connect with Wendy while she is in Canberra, and hear about the spectacular story of transformation.

the essentials
What: Wendy Whiteley & Janet Hawley – The Secret Garden
When: Tuesday, October 20 2015, 7:30pm – 8:30pm
Where: Muse, East Hotel, Kingston
How much: Tickets $10 (includes a glass of wine or soft drink)

What: Janet Hawley in conversation with Wendy Whiteley
When: Wednesday, October 21 2015, 10:30am – 11:30am
Where: National Portrait Gallery
How much: Free event