There was a crescendo. A quick, staccato, nails-on-tile clicking sound that steadily grew louder as it came closer.“Here he comes,” Claudia Thomas half-sang, waiting inside artist Robert Dash’s summer home at the Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack. “Any second now.”
A sandy-colored blur of fur skidded across the floor as Barnsley rounded the corner. The Norwich terrier caught himself and barreled toward Ms. Thomas—his godmother—tongue lolling, tail wagging and eyes expectant.
“Hello, sweetheart!” she beamed at the dog. “Oh, Barnsley, hello, you little thing. C’mon, cutie. Let’s get your leash. I don’t trust him off the leash. Terriers will chase anything.”
Barnsley’s rear-end wiggled as Ms. Thomas clicked the leash into place. “Oh, he’s so excited. Let’s go out.”
She pushed open the back door and Barnsley, who belongs to Madoo founder Mr. Dash, bounded feet-first into the conservancy, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary as a public garden this weekend. The two-day “Much About Madoo” festivities will feature a cocktail party, market, lectures and self-guided tours of the garden, which was first imagined by a single creative mind in the summer of 1966.
Mr. Dash knew the place should be his when he saw it, according to director Alejandro Saralegui. Without much of a plan, the painter traded in his Manhattan flat for two historic sheds on a deceptively small, 1.91-acre swath of tractor turnaround land—real estate that, at the time, not one agent expected to sell as residential property.
But for the artist, it was perfect. There was no refrigerator, no machinery and no noise. Just kerosene lamps, cocktail parties and a romanticism that lives on today.
“I think it’s just his poetic mind at work,” Mr. Saralegui said last week during a telephone interview. “It is idiosyncratic. It is the invention of one person. This isn’t something that is copied from elsewhere. There’s lots and lots of inspiration from elsewhere, but it’s a three-dimensional manifestation of Bob’s brain—in a way of speaking.”
Every winter, Mr. Dash sits alone with at least 50 seed and plant catalogues, considering color, texture and plant material before placing his orders in his “tiny little handwriting,” Mr. Saralegui said.
One of the garden’s proudest specimens is the white, summer-flowering Franklinia tree—first discovered by Philadelphia botanists John and William Bartram in the British Province of Georgia.
“The story goes, John Bartram went back to collect more and it was gone. He never found it again,” Mr. Saralegui said. “All the Franklinias in the world are from that first collection he did, which is kind of wild. You almost get a little bit of a chill, thinking you have this bit of plant history. It’s a difficult plant to grow, and we have a beautiful example.”
Every year, the garden changes, Mr. Saralegui said, though some elements remain the same: the renowned Gingko Grove, for example, as well as Mr. Dash’s optical illusions that play with mirrors and ancient architecture, such as the exedra, a curved seating area, at the end of the rill.
“Supposedly, Greek men would sit on these benches and whisper their secrets to the gods through the operculum in the top,” Ms. Thomas said, pointing to the hole with one hand while holding Barnsley’s leash with the other. “I was telling a bunch of little kids this story and when I came around the corner, there was a little girl missing.”
She said that she then doubled back and saw the 6-year-old girl seated inside the exedra. She pushed her finger against her lips and tried to shoo Ms. Thomas away.
“Aren’t you going to join the group?” she asked.
“Can’t I just have another minute? I’m telling some secrets,” the girl replied, and continued whispering up to the ceiling.
Ms. Thomas laughed at the recollection. “I think kids almost instinctively get it,” she said. “They get the creativity of the space. And there’s something so relaxing about gardens. I always think it’s like visual yoga. They clear the mind.”
And sometimes that type of creativity catches media attention as well, Mr. Saralegui said, just as Madoo did after it went public in 1993. Very shortly after, the garden had its first brush with the international press in the June issue of English magazine Gardens Illustrated. That one article launched Madoo’s fame and image, landing the garden in publications annually, without fail, Mr. Saralegui reported.
“It’s such a special and extraordinary place, and it’s really unique in terms of American garden design,” Hamptons Cottages & Gardens magazine’s editor-in-chief Kendell Cronstrom said last week during a telephone interview. “It’s really the series of smaller rooms that come together to form a cohesive whole. It’s not done in any certain style or way. It’s not English. It’s not formal French. It’s not Italian. It’s a distinct vision of Bob Dash and this American creativity.”
The first time Ms. Thomas saw Madoo—which is an old Scottish word meaning “my dove”—she was puzzled, she said, not knowing what to make of it.
Until she met fellow artist Mr. Dash.
“I certainly knew of him. I happened to own a couple of his paintings, so it was just one of those things. We became great pals,” Ms. Thomas said. “I learned a tremendous amount from him about gardening and about painting. And about everything. Life in general.”
Madoo is constantly surprising in its beauty and irreverence, according to Ms. Thomas, and it’s truly a manifestation of the artist she’s grown to know and love.
“Oh, he’s terrific. He’s a fascinating man, there’s no question about it,” she said. “He’s sort of a renaissance guy. He writes, his garden is unbelievable. He’s good at everything he does, except staying healthy at the moment.”
On Saturday, Mr. Dash celebrated his 82nd birthday from a bed at Stony Brook University Medical Center, where he has been receiving tests since late last month. The diagnosis remains unclear, Mr. Saralegui said.
“His friend said to me, ‘You know, Alejandro, Bob has stared the Grim Reaper in the face and kicked him in the ass many times before,’” he said. “And I realized, ‘You’re right.’”
Accustomed to seeing Mr. Dash during her weekly—or sometimes daily—visits, it is unusual to be in Madoo without the painter, Ms. Thomas said.
She misses him. The garden misses him. And, of course, Barnsley misses him.
“I come here to walk him a couple times a day. He’s been here all by himself,” Ms. Thomas said. “He’s my god-dog. Isn’t that right, Barnsley?”
She looked down at the terrier and smiled as he sat down, panting, tail still wagging.
“He’s so sweet, ah,” Ms. Thomas sighed. “Okay, Barnsley, we’ll go get you some water.”
He hopped up from the grass and trotted back toward the house, pulling Ms. Thomas along behind him.
The Madoo Conservancy will kick off “Much Ado About Madoo” with a cocktail party, garden market preview and silent auction on Friday, June 14, from 6 to 9 p.m. in the Sagaponack garden. Tickets are $125, or $100 for members. The following day, the market will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for public viewing. Tickets are $10, or free for members. Additionally, pruning and flower arranging workshops begin at 11 a.m. and a lunch lecture with Mac Griswold will begin at noon. Tickets cost $50 for the luncheon and lecture, or $40 for members. Reservations are required for all. For more information, call 537-8200 or visit madoo.org.