Posted on June 1, 2019
The ride from her home in Elfin Forest to the Del Mar Fairgrounds is but a hop-skip for topiary artist Jennifer Coburn and her Wizard of Oz characters making their debut at the San Diego County Fair this summer for its “Oz-some” theme held through July 4. After all, her massive topiary masterpieces have made their way to Walt Disney Parks and Resorts around the world: There was a Fantasia display in Tokyo, Dumbo in Hong Kong, and Mickey Mouse at the Shanghai Disney Resort. Closer to home, Coburn’s creations are central to Disneyland’s most cherished ride, It’s A Small World.
With 40 years in the field, there appears to be no twilight of Coburn’s career as she continues to design, weld, and plant topiaries at her three-acre Elfin Forest compound, which doubles as an open-air museum. Here, she is grooming top-secret Disney characters alongside race horses, which will grace the Winner’s Circle at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club this summer.
“I’m amazed at times about the reaction and joy I see that people get out of it,” says Coburn. “And I can only assume it’s the joy that I’m feeling when I make it.”
The art of topiary dates back to Roman times when the most noble of gardens would be brought to life by galloping horses, trunk-swinging elephants, battling heroes, and ruling Gods. Today, most topiaries are made from chicken wire forms filled with sphagnum moss and planted with ivy. Coburn takes it further with AutoCAD and high-definition plasma cutting techniques to create sculptural metal framework, which serve as planters. They are equal parts sculpture and living thing; form and function brought to life.
At Coburn Topiary, experiments take shape across the craggy landscape. There’s swinging monkeys, an undulating shrub that rivals a barrel at Black’s, and the original snake featured in Edward Scissorhands vies for eyes.
The compound is the result of a double vision of the artist and her late husband, Charles Coburn, the former head of horticulture at the San Diego Zoo. Together they created the business after meeting at a topiary conference held for the Zoo’s 75th anniversary. Today, it’s a shared passion with her sister, Tischia O’Farrior, who is also a longtime horticulturist.
Coburn’s collaboration with Disney began in 1990 when she was recruited to make Mickey and Minnie for the Disneyland Hotel entrance in Anaheim. Today, she is a scholar of the genre with a library of Disney books in her office and a fluency of characters shared by an elite class of artists. Then came Legoland, Hotel del Coronado, and Las Vegas’ Wynn and Encore Resorts — a feat that required 40 semis. Private commissions are also a central part of her business, including a recent one for a Menlo Park estate.
She is also hard at play for a lifelong dream project: Coburn has been tapped by Disney to create an exclusive new retail line of at-home topiaries. Consider it the ultimate memento for Disney super fans and the apex of a career.
“I guess I don’t need the White House,” she laughs. coburntopiary.com Jamie Reed
Photography by Vincent Knakal