Little Interview: Crystal Bridges’ Clay Bakker

by | Oct 16, 2020 | People

Clay Bakker is Director of Trails and Grounds for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Crystal Bridges was featured among our Top 10 Gardens in the South.

How did you get into the industry?

Tinkering around in my yard turned into a passionate pursuit of plant and landscape knowledge. Then with even 15 years of experience in my previous career I took a colossal leap of faith, quit that job and bought a landscaping company!

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

One of the great challenges for our industry is training and then retaining staff. While it is somewhat of a compliment to have former employees go out and be successful with their own landscape companies, it is also very difficult to replace those people. Luckily we have been able to build a system of fair pay, plentiful benefits and job satisfaction through support, trust and the chance to grow skills. We also have the benefit of working at a place that is incredibly beautiful and super important to our surrounding community.

What’s the best part of your job? 

People! I love my daily interactions with both our staff and our guests which come from all over the country and the world. Our team is full of funny, happy people who have a passion for this place and its mission. Working with them every day is an absolute joy. And our guests are always so excited to talk with any of the Trails and Grounds staff. They seem to love our work and are always so complimentary. That fills your day with pride.

Neutral or colorful?

Colorful I cannot deny.

Formal or casual?

Growing up I always wanted to have a career where I had to dress in a suit. My entire working life I’ve been an outdoor person so that never happened but the sentiment carried on, I guess. I’m definitely a person that gets a little obsessive about the details so “formal” speaks to my life more than people might think.

What’s your favorite kind of plant or flower?

There’s such a vast variety of plants that you can be constantly awed by something new and spectacular for an entire lifetime. But if I had to pick one group it would be flowering understory trees. Growing up in the Ozarks, spring was always very beautiful with all of the dogwoods, redbuds, fruit trees, etc … I remember my first self-realization of the beauty of nature was a hillside of Ozark hardwood forest awash in blooming dogwoods and redbuds.

What has the quarantine taught you? 

Well not as much as maybe some other people. We figured out a way to keep on working safely through all of this. We did learn that our strong sense of team work and commitment to training prepared our staff to go out and work very productively as individuals also.

What are the biggest issues facing the industry in 2021?

I hope it’s “how to keep up?” I think Covid-19 has changed the perception of what we think are safe spaces to live and enjoy life. Outdoor activities, outdoor work and living are all on the rise as we clamor to find life experiences in safe way. I think the landscape industry has a great opportunity to become a bigger than ever part of the American way.

What’s something you’re doing to make the world greener? 

We make our own compost for all of our fertilization needs. Since our grounds consist mainly of typical Ozark hardwood forest we have an abundance of ingredients. Some more components come from our landscapes and museum restaurant also. We make about 70 cubic yards twice a year.

What would you blow your money on? 

Whatever my wife wants. I’ve learned your own happiness is easier to achieve when you concentrate on someone else’s. Plus she’s pretty good to me also.

Where is your happy place?

The Rocky Mountains are my happy place for sure. I love backpacking, fishing, mountain-biking and skiing and there’s no place I’ve been with such range of “awesomeness” throughout.

What is your ideal Saturday?

Fall morning, my latest yard project completed early, my wife’s setting up the backyard patio for a day shared with old friends watching college football and eating BBQ.

Who do you admire?

Piet Oudolf. He’s a Dutch garden designer who has done some amazing landscapes around the world. I feel he is truly an artist and uses plants and terrain as his paints and molding clay. Check out Lurie Garden in Chicago for one of his great works.

What’s one thing that would make the industry better?

Consistent industry professionalism. It’s been a problem forever in our business and I really don’t know how to overcome it. I do dream someday that customers will respect the level of training and experience to do our work and will be compelled to spend the money it takes to do good work the first time.

What’s the key to great design?

Perfecting the basic principles of design and layout. And then having the courage and belief in yourself to break rules when the right opportunity presents itself.

What advice can you share with others starting out?

Pay attention to the best versions of our industry that are around you and make (or take) note of the differences from the run-of-the-mill type. When you travel, never stop looking and evaluating the best work and breaking down how it may have been achieved.

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