Let's Zen out!

By Brian Morfitt

 Photo by Alice Wack

Photo by Alice Wack

One design element that seemed essential to our exhibition of Japanese scrolls was a zen garden. So long as I met the aesthetic rules required of zen design by our guest curator Paula Arai, working out the construction according to museum standards was the next hurdle.

These reflective spaces are created by the artful placement of stones, gravel, sand, moss, shrubs and water features. Often when the final object is placed, the space is then traditionally raked, resulting with lines in the sand or pebbles to represent ripples in water.

As a museum, we had a couple obstacles to overcome if our resident sheriff and collections manager, Fran Huber, was going to give us a green light for construction!

First, we had to ensure that we were not going to bring any unwanted critters or natural elements into the Museum through the use of sand, gravel, or boulders since each are typically stored outside in the natural elements. Have you ever flipped over a large rock or stone?  Generally you would find plant roots, little bugs and wet mud caused by moisture, all fugitives on any museums "Most Wanted List." To keep the museum from being contaminated by these natural elements, we used washed, sterilized, dried and bagged sand. The large stones also needed a good bath. They were washed rinsed and washed again and dried before being moved up to the fifth floor.

Quick Tip: If we were not able to wash a certain element, another solution is the freezer! 

After getting the green light from Fran, we started laying out the placement of the garden. We started by laying down a 10’ x 20’ plastic barrier between the museum floor and sand, this will help control any dust spreading to other parts of the museum and prove useful for cleanup!

Next, it was time to place the large boulders donated by Jim Stone Co. Paula carefully selected rocks that avoided right angles and any signs of unnatural extraction. The large ones weighed around 400 lbs so we wanted to make sure we didn’t have to move them too many times! Something you might not know is that each boulder/rocks placement is very important. For example, you want to use an odd number of stones, five to seven preferably. Also, no stone should be centered in the garden space or of equal distance to the outside of the garden or each other, on any side. They also should not be at the same angle, and always face the most natural or beautiful side of the rock facing the front of the garden. Some of these ideas and rock elements are ideas to achieve the popular Japanese concept of wabi. 

To place some of these stones just right a shim…or two…or twenty was needed to keep the stones in place and secure. We took some extra precautions by adding some glue just to make sure nothing wanted to shift. With the rocks in place we brought up our decking and continue the construction. 

With the help of LSU architecture student Dakota Boesch and contract preparator Joey Tipton, we designed the decking with functional and aesthetic elements in mind. From a functional standpoint, we designed the decking so the plastic sheeting could be attached inside to secure the sand. It also had to hold up to four inches of sand, deep enough so that the sand was able to be raked. Aesthetically, we wanted something that hinted Japanese design that was clean and contemporary. We loved the beautiful woods often used in traditional Japanese landscape architecture and thought to stain it black would keep it subtle and blend with the contemporary feel of the rest of the exhibit.   

Last was placing the sand—2,500 lbs of sand! As you can imagine, I skipped out on going to the gym this evening. It was a lot of sand but when carefully poured we minimized any mess and was able to finish with little to no mess. Last we smoothed and raked the sand, replicating waves in water. 

With some spot lights to highlight the beauty of the stones we still managed to have time to sit and ZEN-out, reflecting on our work well done!

Brian Morfitt is LSU MOA's preparator.