The News Courier in Athens, Alabama


July 7, 2014

Athens man creates artistic topiaries at his home

— Give Serafin Contreras a hedgerow and a pair of hand trimmers, and there’s no telling what he will dream up to design.

Maybe a chicken or a peacock. Possibly a dog or a giraffe.

The 64-year-old Athens man uses the landscape around his home as his canvas, the hedges his medium.

He has been creating topiaries — a horticultural practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes — for about 30 years and learned how to create the works of art in his native Mexico. Though he isn’t professionally trained in the skill. He learned by watching others.

“I started watching how they were made,” Contreras said. “It was interesting.”

Contreras, whose day job is at Wayne Farms in Decatur, has lived on Houston Street in Athens for about 14 years.

The time it takes to create one topiary depends on the figure you have in mind.

“Every figure is different,” he said. “It’s not something you’re going to make in one day.”

He explained that at times you have to let the shrubbery grow or just bend a branch here and in there until the figure is complete. 

“It takes time,” he said, adding it also depends on the plant. Some plants grow slower than others and figures can take up to a year or more to create.

Contreras has to think ahead when it comes to his ideas.

“When I start making one figure, I have to have in mind what I want to create,” he said. “For example, if I want one chicken, I have to start making the body, then the neck and create the form.”

In Alabama, plants grow slower than they do in central Mexico’s mild climate. Plants sometimes grow all year, according to Contreras.

“It’s a hobby,” Contreras said, adding he likes to garden.

His wife, Leonor Abarca, jokingly calls him “Edward Scissorhands,” in reference to the 1990 film in which the title character, portrayed by Johnny Depp, creates elaborate topiaries.

Abarca admits she loves plants, but she is indifferent when it comes to the topiaries. Since her husband started making the figures, she notices people stop near their home to take pictures. Others stop to ask questions about his designs. 

“I would like to learn to make different figures,” Contreras said. “It depends on time and the plan.”

Athens resident Mary Nelle Clem rides her bicycle near the Contreras home. She recently noticed the figures and was impressed.

“It’s an expression of art,” Clem said. “I think he has a gift and that needs to be shared with others.”


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