At Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art in Nashville, the winding garden paths are designed to lead visitors into encounters with beauty of abundant variety. Bees may be hovering over beds of opened blooms. Gardeners may be watering rows of young shoots. Artists’ assistants may be installing new work along the sculpture trail. With the addition of the Sigourney Cheek Literary Garden and its summer reading series, Annotations, Cheekwood has created a space where writers can also share the germination of their work.
Cheekwood has long been an important showcase of Nashville artists’ work, and the Annotations series, now in its third year, is playing a role in Cheekwood’s ongoing evolution as a place where art coexists with horticultural design. In partnership with Parnassus Books, Annotations provides local authors an opportunity to give a “behind-the-text” glimpse into their writing process and to read from their works.
“It was an especially rewarding experience to discuss the actual writing of one of my books with my fellow Nashvillians—and in such a stunning setting,” says Joel Harrington, a Vanderbilt history professor whose book The Faithful Executioner was featured in last summer’s lineup. “Unlike academic conferences or even bookstore discussions, the Cheekwood series creates a genuinely intimate atmosphere where book lovers of all backgrounds can simply share their passion and curiosity with one another. I truly felt at home, in more ways than one.”
This summer, Annotations will be held on the second Friday evening of each month. On June 13, the first author event will feature Victoria Schwab, whose novel Vicious depicts a dangerous futuristic world. The series continues on July 11 with Robert Brandt, author of Natural Nashville: A Guide to the Greenways and Nature Parks. And the summer season will conclude on August 8 with prolific novelist J.T. Ellison and the latest thriller in her Samantha Owens series, When Shadows Fall.
In addition to the summer author series, the literary garden also hosts children’s events in the fall and spring. Hosted by Rachel Summer, “Garden Tales” provides a story-time experience for young children in a unique setting designed to spark the imagination.
That interplay between nature and imagination is what makes a literary garden a particularly fitting tribute to the late Sigourney Cheek, for whom it was named. “She was both an author and gardener,” says Leigh Anne Lomax, manager of Cheekwood’s botanical garden, “and we wanted to create a space that honors both parts of that legacy.” Cheek’s dedication to Nashville included support for numerous nonprofit institutions, including Cheekwood and the Antiques and Garden Show of Nashville. The Smithsonian Institute has listed her personal garden as “an Important American Garden.” Cheek died in April 2010 of leukemia, a long battle that she chronicled in her own book, Patient Siggy—Hope and Healing in Cyberspace.
Thoughtfully designed by Ben Page of PAGE|DUKE Landscape Architects, the literary garden brings together an elegant blend of features that invite quiet contemplation and evoke the presence of a dedicated gardener. The reading venue provides stone amphitheater seating yet retains the intimate quality of a backyard. The setting subtly incorporates features from Cheek’s own garden, including a stone owl perched above the seats and many of Cheek’s planting preferences. Beds of Oakleaf Hydrangea and Queeny Purple line the edges of the stone circle, which overlooks an open lawn sloping down to the edges of a pond and, beyond that, a view of distant hills.
This is an unusually evocative setting for a literary event, and according to local writer Ann Shayne, it is also a memorable one. Shayne, the Southland half of Mason-Dixon Knitting and author of the novel Bowling Avenue, describes her appearance there last summer: “On a warm June evening, twilight rising all around, the sun was setting to the west as everybody found a perch on the boulders. I had to face away from that lush landscape to talk about my book. I knew I didn’t have a chance, competing with that view, but I was glad to be there anyway. The true magic of this place became apparent as I was blabbing along, noticing that the audience was transfixed—riveted!—by something at my feet. ‘Bunny,’ somebody said, and I looked down to see a baby rabbit nibbling on a plant, right behind me, unfussed by this large group of humans. We contemplated the bunny a nice long while. It was enchanted, this literary garden.”
As Nashville’s literary scene grows, the city’s writers continue to find new habitats in which to thrive. In the Sigourney Cheek Literary Garden’s intimate, picturesque setting, the Annotations series at Cheekwood has the potential to become a treasured venue for local authors.
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her writing has appeared in Yemassee and Tennessee Libraries and is forthcoming in The Florida Review. She lives in her hometown, Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.