Welded Sculptures, Modern Scarecrows and One Extraordinary Backyard

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Chatham County resident Dorrie Casey cultivates an expansive backyard garden featuring one-of-a-kind artwork

Dorrie Casey
Dorrie Casey checks one of the flower beds in her sprawling backyard garden. It’s a living canvas for this mixed media artist.

By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Mixed media artist Dorrie Casey gardens in the same method she creates her nature-inspired works – she just does it. 

“I just plant things,” Dorrie says matter-of-factly. “If I don’t like it, I take it out. It’s kind of like the way I make art. I don’t start with a plan. My hands just go to work. I think that’s good. And then, when it ceases to be good, it’s out of there, and I do something else.” 

Dorrie’s outdoor canvas comprises 5 wooded acres along the northeastern edge of the Chatham County line. Boulders line the driveway, and a path leading to her backyard begins at a rusted metal bird bath filled with water plants. The dwarf mondo grass underfoot is growing into a lush, deep green ground cover flanked by larger liriope borders. The expansive yard features vegetable and flower beds accented by man-made objects. 

Dorrie checks the potted lantana and considers removing the dense liriope border.

“I am really interested in the structure of a garden, the architecture of it,” says Dorrie, a native of Maine. “So to me, the winter garden is every bit as interesting.” 

Adding to the framework of her yard are three types of boxwoods Dorrie and her husband, Archie Purcell, rescued from a cousin’s homestead in Hillsborough that was set to be bulldozed for development. 

“They’re probably 150 years old,” Dorrie says of the American, Korean and English bushes anchoring the yard. “They were just going to dig them up and toss them in the landfill. … So these things came to me at the time we were buying [additional] property and starting to clear it for some more garden space. These boxwoods made instant maturity for the garden and [also] this beautiful structure for the garden, which wouldn’t have been there. [The boxwoods added] all this evergreen, because out here, it’s all hardwood. [It] created a tremendous habitat for the birds and the bees. It was a little miracle that happened.” 

Art in the Garden

The lower slope features a metal kinetic sculpture by the late Vollis Simpson, a self-taught artist from Wilson County who crafted whirligigs from scraps and parts, like the ice-cream scoops and socketlike components in the piece. 

“The last time it really [spun] – I had it up on a telephone pole so it was very high up there – was Hurricane Fran. And then, everything just rusted. After a while it just seized up, so it doesn’t swirl or twirl anymore.” 

A whirligig by Vollis Simpson rusted in place after withstanding Hurricane Fran in 1996. The copper and ceramic globes were added later to brighten the sculpture.

In one of the grassy aisles is a large geodesic sphere called “Buckyball” by Mark Dixon. 

“He did not start with a template,” Dorrie explains. “It was [welded] piece by piece.” 

The metal sculpture is held in place with an airplane tether left over from her father-in-law’s hobby materials for building aircraft. “It will be gone with the wind [otherwise],” she says. “You wouldn’t think so because it looks like it’s more space than span, but the wind will just roll in and I have found it off hither and yon.” 

A large metal geodesic sphere is tethered in place and a fashionably dressed mannequin acts as a scarecrow for a bed of kale and celosia.

The center aisle has a silent sentry in a hat and a belted dress with long sleeves that move with the wind to “scare the critters,” Dorrie says. A second vintage mannequin is similarly dressed and standing guard over another section. Soon, flowers will bloom in turn from early spring with hellebore and iris to early summer with peonies, phlox and lilies. Other summer blossoms include lantana, blue salvia, cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, bee balm and coreopsis. 

A few steps beyond the full-grown lacecap hydrangeas is a tower of “bells” that Dorrie created using glass insulators suspended from a metal étagère from Dillard’s department store when it closed in 2013. Inside her studio building, Dorrie is working on her latest project – a series of decorated wands, scepters and walking sticks “that are too much fun.” 

“My hands are killing me,” Dorrie says, laughing. “They’re pretty arthritic, but I can’t stop.” 

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Anna-Rhesa Versola

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