Where Do The Leaf Boats Go: Q+A with Napa’s A. Cort Sinnes

“Mama, we’re like skyscrapers to the ants,” my five-year-old told me last week on a walk. Admittedly, the way my childrens’ thoughts hit me depends on the day. But on this day it was square between the eyes. “Yes, baby. We are.” I thought about it all day long, this point of view on perspective - not a new thought, but a new light on it.

Context builds each of our worlds. And to the ants, we are like skyscrapers. “Bigger, actually,” I could have said, but didn’t. To another living thing with a life and purpose as valuable as mine (more valuable - surely the ant contributes in a way that I never will), I am bigger than a skyscraper.

When I had the privilege of talking on the phone with A. Cort Sinnes -  writer, painter, and garden-designer - his reminiscences of sending dry leaf boats down miniature hose rivers through jungles of marigolds at the age five painted a clear image in my mind, my brain having been fine-tuned to the wonder of a child just days before. People are like skyscrapers to ants, and leaf boats meet adventure and peril in the hose rivers of marigold jungles.

Sinnes told me, “I [always] just felt more comfortable outdoors than in, and very protected.”

At 72 years old, he hasn't lost his reverence for imagination or his wonder for the natural world. This seems to be one of the primary qualities of artists everywhere. Which leads me to ask, what is an artist? I’m not sure I’ve landed on a concrete definition, but a friend of mine believes that artists have no choice but to make. He says that if you’re not so inclined to create something that you must do it, then you’re not an artist. Again - not totally sure I agree with this. But the concept is compelling and seems to reveal itself as at least partly true.

I’ve noticed a pattern in this vein. My occupation offers me the fascinating practice of conducting interviews. It has proved to be valuable in more ways than I imagined, when I stepped into the role of a freelance journalist (& blogger). For one, it’s a wonderful study for writing dialogue. For another, my life is injected with richness from first-hand experiences of people who are wiser and more interesting than me. But perks aside and back to what I was saying -  I’ve noticed a pattern. Whenever I ask an artist what originally compelled them to create, I receive the same answer. I had no choice.

So it was no surprise when I asked Cort his thoughts regarding the life he’s built for himself, one that has naturally sprung from who he is and what he loves, and he answered, “I can’t take an awful lot of credit… It’s just who I am. And I couldn’t do anything else.” There are, however, some watersheds along the timeline to which he can point. When asked when he started painting, he related another story of a young boy full of wonder.

“I grew up in Napa. And we had Sam Kee Laundry, one of the oldest buildings downtown. My dad was in the merchant marines so he had to have his shirts and khakis…perfectly pressed. My mom would pick up his laundry and it would be wrapped in that blue paper with string, [and] in between the shirts there were nice, white, heavy-weight sheets of paper…to keep them from getting wrinkled. I remember my mother taking the little sheets of paper out - beautiful paper - and giving them to me. They were too cool. I got to draw on them with my crayons, pencils…so that goes back to a very early age.”

Sinnes’ paintings of the natural world carry a nuance that can only flow from an innate reverence for their subjects. Under his brush, a tiger lily (fiery against a background of black) is revealed as a well of curiosity and delight. Juniper Station has the privilege of carrying a series of Cort’s long-stemmed flowers and botanical still lifes in the store.

In 1973, at 20 years old, having grown up with the clear goal of stepping into an occupation that would allow him to write about gardens, he went to work for Walter L. Doty, retired editor of Sunset Magazine. Sinnes and Doty, who was 85 years old at the time and legally deaf and blind, started Ortho Books out of Doty’s garage. Ortho Books would go on to become the most successful garden book series in the history of American publishing. 

“He’s the only true genius I’ve ever met in my entire life. Just mind-boggling, his talent. I worked for him for 10 years, out of his garage in Los Altos… He said he wanted to die at 95 and he died at 95. That’s the kind of guy he was.” When Sinnes threw a 95th birthday bash for him, Doty thanked him and said “it was like attending his own wake.”

Sinnes is also blessed with a life of purpose, the ability to say that he makes a difference in the lives of others through his work. He didn’t intentionally get into the business of designing gardens; it was born out of natural inclination and continues through word of mouth, keeping him “just as busy as [he] can handle.” 

“When I design a garden for someone, I can go back a couple years later and see how it turned out and see what it’s doing for the people and their daily lives. It’s really supporting them in a kind of quality of life… And making them slow down and see what they have.”

Sinnes, among the other artists, can tell us where the leaf boats go. They meander through long-stemmed jungles that open to oceans of possibility and satisfaction. They lead us to worlds where what we do and how we do it matters - worlds that bloom deep within us. As ever, slow down and tune in. Something inside of us is married to the natural world outside, and it’s trying to get our attention. If we’re as lucky as Sinnes, we can let it lead us to our very purpose.

The featured painting is Sinnes' piece, Lotus & Koi, part of his Botanica Noir series.