Charles Stick: The Path Less Taken
For the renowned Virginia designer Charles Stick, landscape architecture is much more than a profession. It’s a never-ending quest for beauty
Six autumns ago, the Virginia-based landscape architect Charles Stick was designing a courtyard garden for a client in Houston. In the middle of the job, Stick traveled to Kyoto, Japan, for twelve days. “There I was, walking through one of the great imperial gardens, and there are men up on ladders,” he says, in a slow, honeyed baritone. “They have these white gloves on, and they’re pruning the needles out of the pine trees with their fingers.” Another day, outside a shop front, he noticed a wooden tub containing a small Japanese maple, its leaves aflame in red. A woman stepped out of the shop, whisked up the few leaves that had fallen to the sidewalk with a rush broom, and carried them inside. Then she returned, grasped the tree’s stem, and gently shook. When more leaves fell, she swept those up and slipped back into the shop.
“That trip was one of the most shattering experiences for me,” Stick remembers. “This is a culture that has taken the craft of gardening and refined it to such a high level that from a Western perspective, it’s almost unfathomable. That, to my mind, is an appreciation of beauty that is to be admired and even longed for.”
When the designer returned to Texas, his client asked about his trip. “I said, ‘You know, I’ve never been so influenced by what I saw in my life.’ And she says to me, ‘Well, Charles, I sure hope that you finish my little garden before you become too influenced!’”
Like most people who hire Charles J. Stick, she had done so because of his reputation as one of the country’s leading classicists, a man trained at the University of Virginia during the 1980s, back when, according to Stick, “you hired a UVA grad because you knew what you were going to get.” But beauty, not orthodoxy, is Stick’s true master, and these days, as he approaches the age of fifty, something akin to a midlife crisis is pushing him deeper into his art.
“Charles is a devotee of beauty,” says Charlottesville architect Russell Skinner, who has worked with Stick off and on for two decades. “He has committed his life to the pursuit of making beautiful things. He is uncompromising. I’m constantly giving ground to clients and contractors. Charles, on the other hand, is insistent, and
he has a wonderful ability to bring his clients along on the adventure.”