It’s fairly easy to find the studio in Deep Ellum, just look for the potted palm trees out front, a sure sign that the East Dallas landscape artist is nearby. Walk up a flight of stairs to a bright, gallery-size open space with see-through walls and ceilings and you’ve arrived at the creative headquarters of Rod Russell-Ides, creator of Gardens of Russell-Ides.

A hand-crafted futon garden bed, the type you’re likely to see in a Ralph Lauren ad, is more than a conversation piece — it’s available to anyone for a cool 15 thousand dollars. Other less expensive objects d’ art for yard or home range from angelic fountains to boulders and bronze-dipped crepe myrtle branches that seemingly jut out from the walls into the room.

A commanding 6-foot-plus figure walks across the hardwood floor as though it were a stage, with 1940s movie star hair, salt and pepper, wavy and full. He wears earphones and carries a battery pack around his waist. Although legally deaf, Russell-Ides has regained limited access to the world of sound through these high-tech instruments now available to the hearing impaired.

The artist’s studio, with attached office, workshop, and garage is his home away from home. It’s where he does yoga each morning, meets with his ground crew, sketches scaled renderings of a proposed landscaping project, and, in his spare time, works on an opera he is able to write through a visual sound system called Cakewalk (notes are seen through colors and patterns). But the majority of his time is spent co-creating with nature.

“The heart of a garden is a magical place, and to create one is a delicate process. It’s like a soap bubble, it can pop at any time,” Russell-Ides says. Thinking a moment, he adds, “It’s about art and serenity.”

“I don’t do too much of the physical stuff anymore,” he says. But Russell-Ides remains the brain behind the creativity, able to design, build and engineer items that a client may want to add to a project. As a sculptor, he’s equally at home with metal, wood, stone or clay, and comments: “Today, you can create a cliff face by using poured boulders, made from a mold, at a fraction of the cost and work it used to take. They go together like a puzzle.”

Dana Masters, administrative assistant, expresses the Russell-Ides philosophy when she says: “We all build up different shields in which to face the world. We believe a garden should reflect who you are and what you need to nourish your soul. We can take the client wherever he or she wants to go — England, France, the Southwest. We can create a tropical paradise in your backyard. But, even in a small space, our ultimate goal is to create an intimate healing space.”

A beautiful Oriental garden under design, featuring a Koi pond and meditation pool prompts Russell-Ides to elaborate: “It was in the temple gardens where the healing herbs were grown, and where the people came for healing.”

The self-taught landscape artist combines an innate sense of good design with 30 years of experience and study. He says that he “found the Oriental gardeners to be masters of illusion. That’s what I do, garden theater. My gardens are like sets.”

Russell-Ides didn’t plan to go into the landscaping business. His first love was music, a passion he traces back to his grandmother’s lap, where he sat as a young child, watching her play the piano. The 50-something Oklahoma City native came of age when flower children headed to San Francisco and psychedelic colors lit the horizon of a new society. He was in his last year of pre-med at SMU when he made a life-changing decision, one he knew would garner his father’s disapproval, to pursue music rather than medicine.

When he left the city with his rock and roll band, Bedlam, Inc., it was a far cry from the scholarship that the Julliard School of Music had once offered and a generation away from the dreams his father had for him.

“My father is a doctor, a retired surgeon, and he wanted me to be a doctor, too” says the artist whose medium ranges from canvas to stone. It wasn’t until many years later that the relationship between father and son was mended. “We’re great friends now,” he says.

Russell-Ides’ life was rockin’ and rollin’ along just fine, or so he thought, until an annoying ringing in his ears turned into a deafening roar. By 1971, a middle ear disease had claimed his hearing. Not being able to hear or play music ushered in a dark time in his life, “a time of questioning,” he recalls. He found himself “turning inward” to search for answers as he couldn’t imagine his life without sound. A move to the country with his wife and daughter left him “seeing no one for a year and a half,” he says.

Then, on a drive through East Texas when all the earth was alive with spring, he found a sense of acceptance. “Think about it. Where do most people go to recharge or heal? They go outside. They return to nature.” He says he finally saw that “when I lost my hearing, I gained another sense.” A sense that he describes as a “rhythm and flow. Something every garden has.”

And he’s “done it all,” when it comes to working with nature, from planting to moving rocks or setting a fire pit: “Even when I worked in a suit, I’d still get in there and do it myself. I’m very familiar with the available pallet, and, in Texas, with the extremes of weather that we can get, the pallet is not very large. Although I try to introduce something different from time to time, you can’t do that too often when you have a business.”

Whether designing a patio garden to enhance a deck or planning a project that bills out in the six-figures, Russell-Ides says he gives his total attention to one garden at a time. “I find I can’t focus the way I want when I’m working on more than one project.”

Upcoming projects include opening a studio in the Austin area and beginning work on a 45-acre estate in North Dallas that could become his signature project.

“It will look like it was transported from England, with an authentic English garden, stables and dressage ring,” he says.

“The project could take a couple of years to complete,” Masters, adds.

A little closer to home, but a project close to his heart, was helping Stonewall Jackson Elementary School establish an “outdoor science classroom” with a garden and turtle pond. (Stonewall Jackson boasts a highly acclaimed educational program for deaf children). “It’s all about the children,” he says.

In the end, Russell-Ides sums up his approach to gardens with the heart of a composer: “I try to imagine how the garden would sound if I could make it sing.”


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