OBSESSIONS: Dashing Robert


The eccentric gardener and the landscape that inspires him.

Robert Dash and I are cousins. His grandmother Anna and my great-grandfather Morris were siblings. But, as life marches on, people die, lose touch and move away. Before long, we all barely remember where we came from.

That’s why I was all too happy to receive a voicemail only a week after I had sent Robert a letter in the hopes of finally meeting the internationally celebrated gardener and locally inspired Expressionist artist for the first time. “Come by any time next Wednesday,” he says in his booming voice and curious English accent. “I’ll be at the entrance to the garden. Just look for the dog and you’ll find me.”

As a filmmaker based in New York City, I had created a niche for myself in the documentary world by producing a series for PBS entitled The Souls of New York, about people with the most unusual occupations in the Big Apple, and eccentric creative people were well within my familiarity.

The following Wednesday, after a beautiful drive through the South Fork of Long Island, past the famous duck and the famous windmill and all of the things that make the Hamptons so famous, my grandfather, father and I arrive at the garden named Madoo, an old Scottish word for “my dove.” Barnsley, a small and energetic dog, approaches us with a wagging tail. Just behind, quietly reading a book in a brightly colored shed set among a nook of trees, is Robert Dash.

He has created a Shangri-La, a two-acre paradise in Sagaponack for himself and the world to share. There is something magical about the gardens, ethereal almost—a place where infinite shades of green live as individuals amongst the salty sea and deep blue sky. It is a place where time ceases to exist, if only realized by the height of the trees or the warmth of the sun. “When I moved here they couldn’t even spell ‘Sagaponack,'” he says. “There was nothing here but farmland growing pickles and potatoes.”

In one section of the garden, a pathway of sliced telephone poles winds through a grove of ginkgo trees and boxwood balls with lush rhododendrons keeping close watch in an almost Hansel- and-Gretel-like feel. In another area, white handkerchief trees blow gently near purple alliums with granite cemetery sculptures “drunkenly” half-buried in a rich green lawn. Nearby, a long brick walk with a hundred-foot rill fountain flows slowly under arches of rugosa roses. “What you’re dealing with is an orchestra,” said Dash. “Every element in the garden is capable of making sounds. Every single element wants to be a soloist.”

Long after we say our own goodbyes on this first visit and are on our way home, I am inspired to do a documentary film about Robert Dash, his two-acre Garden of Eden and his artwork inspired by it. Robert (his close friends call him Bob) has become an icon for the Hamptons and of the art world. A man who recognizes the essence of being himself.

It is one of those perfect Hamptons balmy days when I return to Madoo for my first shoot with Robert Dash. Madoo immediately welcomes visitors with its peaceful wealth of sound—the wind raking the leaves in the trees, the trickling of water from the fountains, an occasional birdsong and a gentle bark from Barnsley through the country screen door. Inside, Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff is set at a volume to be heard in every room in the 18th-century barn built from shipwreck timber. Each large room has a very different flair: the brilliant rose-colored living room highlighted with a two-story wall of vintage mirrors, the breezeway lined with hundreds of historical gardening books (among his favorites: A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler and The Well-Tempered Garden by Christopher Lloyd) and the golden art studio with floor-to-ceiling windows lined with a dozen work-inprogress canvases around the perimeter, capturing Madoo and then surrounding area at various stages of light.

Over a brimming bowl of fish chowder and a video camera rolling, I ask him about how he first found Madoo in the mid-1960s. “I had tried Maine and Vermont. I even had a share in a house in Ireland,” he says. But after being invited to a friend’s home in the Hamptons and having a broker take him past the property, he knew this land bordered by farms would be his new land of opportunity. “I found this place. It was a wreck of a barn. But the place winked
at me.” The land that would become known as Madoo was considered “turn-around land.” It’s where the farmers would literally turn around their tractors at the edge of the neighboring farmland. At Robert’s best guess, it has most likely never been farmed.

“I had a grand old time the first summer,” he recalls. “I moved an old milk house over to the barn and whitewashed the walls. The barn had no floor. I was sloshing through the manure and I was as happy as a pig.” It wasn’t long before the opportunity arose to purchase an adjacent acre of land, bringing the total lot to 1.9 acres. “I had the opportunity to buy all the land from here to Sagg Pond for $7,000 an acre. Can you imagine?”

Robert was ready to own his own land. For years he had rented homes and created gardens and then moved, leaving the plants behind. The time had come to create something more permanent. “Gardening is an obsession. You can’t stop—and once you start, you’re doomed. Madoo just grew bit by bit, by instinct and a lot of blunder.”

Robert regularly creates and re-creates each section. “This year, the herb garden has become an English maze for children. If you really want to see the garden properly, you’d have to be here every day. There are revelations every moment.” But there is never immediate gratification. “A garden requires an exasperating amount of patience and an equally refreshing amount of impatience. A garden is changing all the time.” For the last 10 years, Robert has enlisted the help of a soft-spoken, blue-eyed man by the name of Carlos Hernandez to assist him in implementing his garden creations. I inquired how he found Carlos. “Carlos just sort of fell into the garden,” jokes Robert. “He is instrumental in making everything happen here.”

As the camera keeps rolling, I ask him to talk about his art. “The difference between painting and gardening is that you can finish a painting. Gardening is never finished.” He tells me he never formally studied painting and that he learned mostly by observing others. He developed a particular fondness for abstract expressionists while attending the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, specifically de Kooning. “I don’t know anyone who has manipulated art more over the last century. There is always something to learn from a de Kooning.” But other than crayoning
on his parent’s antique wallpaper as a child, art seems to have found him. “All the most interesting people I met were painters and so one day I got a gallon of black paint and a gallon of white paint and I started painting. People at the time were very encouraging. They said ‘just do it’ and I did. Before I got apprehensive about the hugeness of painting, I was in it and hooked.”

In the early days, he tried painting en plein air, but found the flies were getting caught in the paint. “Someone commented that he loved my texture…little did he know, they were corpses.” Typically, he takes many photographs in and around Madoo and creates a sketch back at the studio from a provocation of the photographs. These days, most painting gets done in the Winter House studio on the other side of the property.

“Typically I get up at five in the morning, have coffee, a half grapefruit, two boiled eggs and I’m in the studio. For a long time I did landscapes, then I found that the sky was becoming more important than the land, and the land was being engulfed by development. Lately, my paintings are becoming more internal. I don’t want to paint a disappearing view. That’s something I find quite tragic.”

But Robert doesn’t live on nostalgia. “One has to be realistic. If the Peconic Land Trust can save one-third of the farms out here, we’ve done a good job.” (The trust was established in 1983 by local East End residents to ensure the protection of Long Island’s working farms, natural lands, and heritage.)

Success is no stranger to him. His works have been exhibited all over the world as well as in numerous major American art galleries. He has participated in many group exhibitions including the Museum of Modern Art, Yale University and the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Missouri. His works are featured in museum collections
including the Modern Art Museum (Munich), the Guggenheim, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts and the Corcoran Gallery. Despite all of the accolades, everything still comes back to the basics. After
all these years, his work is still inspired by Madoo and the mise-en-scène of the Hamptons.

Robert also writes a popular bimonthly column for the East Hampton Star and has a gardening book listed in the New York Times as one of the 10 best gardening books, both entitled Notes from Madoo.

“I write mostly about what I’m thinking about as well as what’s going on here in the garden.” In Notes from Madoo, he writes almost stream of consciousness where the plants and the sky and the dirt all talk to him and tell him what they would like to be.

In 1994, the Madoo Conservancy was created as an independent charitable trust that will maintain the gardens and homes of Robert Dash in his style and personality long after his death. “The Conservancy was established so that the spirit of the place will continue,” he said. “Madoo is a jewel and a gift to the community and to the gardening world at large.”

Never short of wit, he adds, “When I die, I want to be cremated and have a small amount of my ashes added to everyone’s peppermill so everyone will say, ‘Why does this steak taste so tangy?'”

Madoo is located on Sagg Main Road in Sagaponack and is open to the public on Friday and Saturday
from noon to 4 p.m., May 15 through September 15. Group tours of 10 or more available by appointment.

Brent Sterling Nemetz, an Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, splits his time between Greenport and New York City.