The Magic of Madoo Conservancy

Exploring painter Robert Dash’s hidden-in-plain-sight gardens and home in Sagaponack.
The verdant gardens and lily pond at Madoo Conservancy. Photo courtesy of Madoo Conservancy

by Ray Rogers

“This is a 1740 barn, from a legit Sagaponack farm. When Bob first saw it, a cow was still in here,” says Madoo Conservancy’s executive director, Alejandro Saralegui, as he walks through the art gallery where Robert Dash once painted. “Bob renovated this space as his studio and worked here for the rest of his life, pursuing his three passions: writing, painting and gardening.”

Saralegui has been associated with the property for 13 years, working with Dash the last four years of his life, and continuing on in the spirit Dash intended for the land he dubbed Madoo, which means “my dove” in Old Scots. “He was very clear about not wanting it preserved in amber. He wanted change, and change happens in a garden naturally—plants die, the deer eat something, better plants come up in the market. We work within Bob’s color palette on the hardscape, but we do change colors. He changed things all the time.”

A colorful gazebo with complimenting flowers at Madoo. Photo courtesy Madoo Conservancy

The painter’s artistic aesthetic is as alive in his gardens as on his canvases, thick with acrylic paint, and often depicting scenes from his beloved Madoo, such as his painting of giant yellow hollyhocks that hangs inside the gallery. “He had a fun expression: ‘I paint with a trowel, and I garden with a brush.’ So they are very intertwined but there’s nothing obvious about it,” says Saralegui. “Usually, you get either a designer’s garden that might have a very limited palette, or you get a plantsman’s garden, which has got a zillion things but not much design. Here, you get the two really closely intertwined, and that doesn’t happen terribly often.”

The 2-acre garden has been completely been an organic garden since Dash started tending it 55 years ago. It borrows inspiration from diverse areas around the globe (like the 18th-century French decorative vegetable garden that’s a direct copy of the artist’s friend Rosemary Verey’s famed Barnsley House in England), with delightful surprises along the way, from the purple flowering weeds that give pops of color behind a row of sculpted topiary Regency hedges, to a green spire from the old Woolworth building that juts out of another verdant patch—a gift from another friend of Dash’s that adds a touch of whimsy.

A scene from God’s Fool. Photo courtesy Madoo Conservancy

“Over there, you’re in Asia, basically,” says Saralegui, pointing to the near distance. “Here, you’re in the ancient world with the gargoyles, the pavers, oil jars, obelisks and the temple. Yet you’ve got a really American tree here, the pawpaw tree, which is mentioned in Where the Wild Things Are—there’s a little nursery rhyme under the pawpaw tree,” he notes.

Things are certainly more manicured around here than that childhood favorite, but it still feels wild and wonderful. A baby bunny nibbles away in the midday sun; buzzing pollinators dart from one flowerbed to the next. The fragrant gardens are like a portal to another era. “It really is this crazy slice of old Sagaponack—a place with a lot of character. Little by little, that’s been getting wiped out in the area, and it’s really important to us to keep that. Weeds and all.”

The grounds are open to the public Wednesday, Friday and Saturday during the summer and Friday and Saturday in spring and fall, and they’ve seen an uptick throughout the pandemic of visitors eager to do outdoor activities. “Part of the goal is to continue expanding our audience, while at the same time keep it special, like a secret, which is tricky; you want people to feel like they’re stumbling upon something for the first time.”

Robert Dash’s “Dining, Spring,” 1972, acrylic on linen, 24 x 24 inches, in Madoo Conservancy.

As an added draw, cultural happenings spring up in the garden from time to time: Earlier this summer, a group of 50 was treated to God’s Fool, a new Martha Clarke piece that just premiered at La MaMa. “That was its first outdoor staging,” Saralegui says of the theatrical musical, based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, “and the company is next going to Umbria to perform on-site.” This year, they’ve instituted a kids’ makers camp for the end of August. And off-site, a show at Tripoli Gallery through September 5 features the floral paintings of Dash and Connie Fox, an artist who lives in Springs and was college friends with Dash from their days at the University of New Mexico. 618 Sagg Main St., Sagaponack;