Marcia Donahue has lived at 3017 Wheeler St. for 37 years. She has gardened there for 37 years, exquisitely and creatively, favoring lush and jungle-like plantings that change with the changing sunlight of the day. She has created art there for 37 years.
In the early years she carved stone, but for the last ten years has worked in ceramics, She lives in the house with her daughter and son-in-law Sara and Ehren Tool, and their son. She enjoys the rejuvenating friction of multigenerational living.
From the street, you see the luxuriant planting style that carries through to the back garden, which is open to the public Sunday afternoons. You also see Big Beauty, a ceramic sculpture made by Sara and trucked up from Los Angeles piece by piece.
On the steps up to the porch you see eyes, and, on the porch, a large John Abdul Jaami sculpture.
The stairs are lined with bowling balls, which are found throughout the garden.
Not just a few — many, many bowling balls. You reach the back garden by a path on the south side of the house. It is difficult to capture the entirety of the beauty and whimsy of the garden.
Throughout the garden are pieces of Donahue’s ceramic art. Many are over-sized malas, a set of beads – usually 108 – used by Hindus and Buddhists for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally uttering a mantra or the name or names of a deity.
Others are nats, spirits worshipped in Burma as part of the Buddhist faith tradition. There are many lower nats and 37 Great Nats who inhabit the six heavens.
She calls these three nats Sisters Age, an allusion to M.F.K. Fisher’s Sister Age. Floral ceramics abound in the garden, blending seamlessly into the flora.
The back deck is a soaring Mark Bulwinkle creation – steel bamboo railing, a heart-shaped outward-jutting shelf, a large steel screen, and maniacal faces screaming into the sky.
If the spectacular plantings were not sufficient, and the happy exotic chickens were not enough, and the Donahue mala and nats and ceramics were not enough, there are objects, found and made, hidden and not hidden.
Donahue calls this a “Mississippi planter” in honor of southern inventiveness which can take a worn-out tire, splay and slice it, and fill it with plants or, in this case, cutlery.
Donahue’s ceramics studio is ground level, front of the house. Here she extrudes clay into forms which she then carves, paints, and fires.
The house proper is filled with brilliant colors and African fabrics and Japanese obis (decorative kimono sashes) and massive pieces of asian furniture and dappled sunlight and found objects and iconography from Asian and African faith traditions. It is ever-changing and very difficult, if even possible, to take in.
The quirky and whimsical and creative and artistic and glorious abound at 3017 Wheeler – almost four decades of masterful gardening, a decade of making ceramics, and a lifetime of collecting art. Donahue opens her garden to the public Sunday afternoons; it is hard to think of a better glimpse into creativity and the quirky that is Berkeley.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means.
A longer version of this post may be found at Quirky Berkeley.
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