Nestled between Zeigler Boulevard and Forest Hill Drive in Spring Hill, the Mobile Japanese Garden is one of Mobile’s most beautiful secrets. The path at the entrance leads one through rows of exotic flowers, bushes and trees to the garden’s beautiful ponds filled with koi. After wandering between these ponds one finds a line of azalea bushes, a wooden garden path and a gorgeous natural spring.
In June, Charles Wood, the founder of this garden and, as of 2010, its namesake, turned 95 years old. Wood spoke about his life and his 20-year effort to create and preserve the garden.
Wood was born in in 1920 in Pontotoc, a city in northern Mississippi between Tupelo and Oxford.
Wood relocated to Mobile in 1942. Three years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, where he was trained to work in electronics involving radio and radar navigational systems. After the war, he worked at Brookley Air Force Base, running test flights until the airfield’s closure in 1964.
“I went up sometimes two or three times a day, calibrating equipment and checking. I was in charge of troubleshooting any electrical problems they had in the aircraft,” Wood said.
Wood’s fascination with art began around 1960, when his wife began taking oil-painting lessons.
“I began as kind of a critic of her art … I learned a lot by just working with her, coming in with a sketch of charcoal, you know, how to develop a face.”
He soon advanced to painting in watercolor, through which he was introduced to Sumi-e, or “black ink painting.”
“I liked it because it was the most demanding form of art … so critical and so precise,” Wood said.
In the 1980s, his passion for Sumi-e led him and others in the Gulf Coast area to form the Shibui chapter of the Sumi-e Society of America, for which Wood served as treasurer.
After several years of involvement in the society, Wood was selected to become membership secretary of the national board for seven years as well as a member of the jury for its annual art competition.
It was during this time he learned about Ernest and Mary Fenollosa. Ernest Fenollosa was a late 19th century art curator from Boston who was instrumental not only in the spread of Japanese art and culture to the West but also its preservation in Japan. His wife, Mary McNeil, was a native Mobilian who brought Ernest to live for several years in Spring Hill in a house they called “Kobonata” or “Little Sunshine.”
“I learned about his contributions to bring Japanese art to this country and all around the world and the honors that he received from the emperor. I kind of became a student of Fenollosa,” Wood said.
When Ernest died suddenly while visiting museums in England in 1908, Mary committed herself to the completion of his magnum opus, “Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art.” She lived in California for many years before returning to Alabama in her 80s, residing in Montrose with her daughter until her death in 1954.
While hosting a Sumi-e exhibition in Mobile, Wood was inspired to create a Japanese garden so Mobilians would have access to the beautiful flora of Japan.
He mentioned this idea to other members of the Sumi-e Society and according to Woods, “One of the ladies that owned this garden that had all of this area leased at that time spoke up and said, ‘Well, we have more than we want. We just want this little house to meet in.’”
The land to be donated had several lakes that had been constructed by the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression to serve as trout hatcheries.
In 1995, Wood organized the nonprofit Japanese Garden Foundation Inc. After receiving a topographical map of the location, he invited world-renowned designer of Japanese gardens and professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona Takeo Uesugi to design the garden.
When Uesugi first visited the location where the garden is today, he was amazed by its natural beauty, particularly the spring water and azaleas. He stated that this was “one of the best formats for a Japanese garden he had ever seen.”
Mike Dow, the mayor of Mobile at the time, had traveled around Japan and collected Japanese art and sculpture. With Dow’s support, Wood was able to receive a 40-year renewable lease and the money and labor required to build and renovate the garden.
In 1995, the Mobile-Ichihara Sister City Association was formed. This organization still exists and coordinates annual summer delegations of high school students from both Mobile and Ichihara to experience each others’ culture through two-week homestays. It also coordinates trips for delegations of politicians and community members.
“When the first delegation came from Ichihara,” Wood says, “all of the people were excited by the plans for the garden.”
In 1998, Wood travelled to Kyoto, Japan, where he gave a presentation on the Mobile Japanese Garden and the Fenollosas at the prestigious Kyoto University.
“There was a professor of English there named Akiko Murakata who was the president of the Fenollosa Society of Japan. The members are academics at the universities and a group of us visited her to commemorate the life of Mary Fenollosa,” Wood said.
He also visited the Fenollosa Society’s headquarters and Ernest’s gravesite at the Homyo-in Temple in Otsu.
“Fenollosa converted to Buddhism later in life … At the Homyo-in temple, you go in this building and they have a wing for the Buddhist portion and a wing the same size for Fenollosa.”
In 2010, the Mobile Japanese Garden was renamed the Charles Wood Japanese Garden in perpetuity in honor of his efforts to build and preserve the garden.