David Slawson: Finding Universal Truth in the Landscape

A rare peek at the life of Dr. David A. Slawson, one of America’s premier landscape artists working in the Japanese garden tradition. Narrated by David De Lyser.

David Slawson was the first to truly open up the secret world of the Japanese garden to the Western mind.

But before the man who wrote the “Secret Teaching in the Art of Japanese Gardens” walked among the immortals, he was a little boy of robust spirits / born in suburban Cleveland, Ohio on September 30, 1941 to a loving American midwest family. With his younger brother and friends, the suburban forests near home was their one big playground.

The woods were also a place for the young David to dream. He became attuned early on to magical places in the landscape.

On a voyage of self-discovery as a young man serving with the US Marines, David found Japan and its gardens and never looked back.
He remembers sitting for two hours on the veranda at Ryoan-ji, contemplating the rock garden from different vantage points until their sensory qualities and special character sunk in.

Inspired by those gardens in Japan, David would create his first moss garden and stepping stone path in his parents’ backyard. Even to his then untutored mind, it was dawning on him that here was a way to capture the magical places of his childhood.

Years later, as apprentice to renowned garden master Dr. Kinsaku Nakane in Kyoto, he felt an even more powerful attraction to certain gardens in Japan, gardens that have centuries of applied aesthetic techniques behind them for evoking the essence of landscape.

He was particularly attracted to gardens with “craggy rocks and gnarled trees,” that created a sense of being ancient and remote… infinite worlds compressed into a small space.

It was while observing Nakane orchestrate the placement of rocks and plants to recreate impressions of natural landscape, much as a landscape painter would create such impressions with brush and paper, that David realized the power of the Japanese garden art form to evoke the kind of beauty he was drawn to.

A scholar of East Asian philosophies, David’s deep appreciation of aesthetic values nurtured by Ch’an Buddhism and Taoism also provided a pillar for his apprenticeship.

David’s quest for an even deeper understanding of the art eventually led him to write “Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.” This seminal work is also a culmination of his personal journey of learning.

After discovering the garden aesthetics of Japan, David went full circle, rediscovering the beauty of his native country in a special way.

His idea of taking inspiration from regional landscape, rather than the gardens he had seen in Japan evolved in the decades after his apprenticeship with Nakane.

He has also shared his knowledge and artistry to Japanese gardening enthusiasts across North America through lectures and workshops.

The Garvan Woodlands Gardens in Hot Springs, Arkansas, one of his most recent major creations, fully crystallized his vision of using naturally occurring scenery as design inspiration.

His garden creations have truly come to exemplify the true American garden.