Designer gets hands in the dirt

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Kayla Bunge
Sunday, January 20, 2008
— It’s not uncommon to find Sharon O’Brien wrist-deep in dirt, her zeal for the here and now infecting everything that surrounds her.

“When you’re out in the garden, you can’t be mad at anybody,” she said, her eyes squinting as she lets out a hearty laugh.

And O’Brien isn’t one to spend much time being negative. Her bountiful energy is far better spent making things happen.

“Most days, it’s just fun to be alive,” she said.

A native of Los Angeles, O’Brien found herself a retiree, living in an old house on the shores of Geneva Lake. She quickly became restless and needed an outlet for her energy.

She joined the Fontana Park Commission and the Geneva Lake Conservancy, among other groups.

O’Brien, a landscape and garden designer and master gardener, has vision, one rooted in history and an appreciation for those who came before her. Her vision for the village was one of restorative beauty—something enduring yet reflective of the village’s history.

“Everyone buys into it,” she said. “There’s no controversy over beautification.”

O’Brien’s “why not” attitude wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, and her vision didn’t remain a vision for long.

Rick Treptow, former Park Commission chairman, said she went from talking about her ideas to being “on her hands and knees digging bulbs.”

“When she wants something, she goes and gets it,” he said.

O’Brien worked on the plantings in the medians on village streets and along Highway 67 and the gardens along the lakefront, in front of the library and at the Geneva Lake Conservancy.

She practices “know maintenance” gardening, which means planting things suitable for the area while being conscious of the time, effort and money associated with keeping the garden beautiful.

“You have to know how much you want to spend nurturing the things you put in the ground,” she said.

O’Brien’s vision stemmed beyond gardens to include the old Mill House.

She was instrumental in saving it from destruction, citing its historical value to the village. An educational pavilion will be built on the site next year.

It’s her follow-through that has made such beautification and restoration a reality.

“She gets stuff done instead of talking about it, paying it lip service,” Treptow said.

Roy Diblik, co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm a few miles outside Lake Geneva, said O’Brien’s energy rubs off on those around her.

“When you’re with her, you enjoy your work,” he said.

Diblik said the entire community feels her touch because her work “challenges people’s emotions.”

“It makes you stop for a moment and think about it,” he said.

O’Brien said she thinks of what she does as art—“painting with plants”—and through her art, she hopes to leave a quiet mark on history.

But she knows that she will be forgotten soon after she’s gone. And she’s reminded of that every time she gets her hands dirty.

“That dirt’s gonna be there forever,” O’Brien said, her laughter indicating a not-so-quiet mark on history. “(Gardening) puts you in your place. You’re here for just a minute.”

Age: 69
Community: Fontana
Occupation: Landscape and garden designer
Family: Husband, Thomas; five sons, ages 41 to 49
Favorite time in history: Right now. “You don’t know what will happen the next minute.”
Best way to spend an afternoon: Gardening or reading
Two words that best describe you: Optimistic and energetic
Words to live by: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Lighten up!”

Last updated: 1:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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