A good way to appreciate Deborah Triplett’s life? Consider what was behind her house.
If you’d been close with Deborah Triplett at any point over the last 25 years of her life, it’s more than a little likely that you eventually wound up with her in the backyard garden hidden behind the white Craftsman-style house she owned in Plaza Midwood.
So this, then, is fitting: If now you were to ask her Charlotte friends what they remember about Triplett — the beloved local-arts-scene fixture who died Monday at age 73 — eventually the conversation will wind its way back to that weird, wild, wonderful garden of hers.
And that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of other unique, sometimes almost-fantastical aspects of Triplett’s life and her legacy.
Like the fact that she escaped the northern N.C. town of Elkin to avoid working in the local factory, opting instead to learn, among other things, how to make a Caesar salad as a New York City-based flight attendant for American Airlines.
Or the fact that she appeared, with one of her former husbands, on the cover of the December 1973 issue of Playgirl magazine. Or, after moving back to N.C. from L.A. in the 1980s, that she was hired as office manager for Curb Racing, then a NASCAR team in Kannapolis that fielded cars for drivers including Richard Petty.
Her long second career, as a whimsical portrait and wedding photographer based in Charlotte. Her brainstorm that turned a decade ago into the annual city-wide event called Yard Art Day, which encourages residents to get as creative as they want to in decorating the fronts and front yards of their homes. Her warrior-like attitude toward living with lung cancer, and the gracefulness she showed in the past year as her health declined, her body having been beaten down by the aggressive treatments that had expelled her disease.
But this garden defined Triplett as much as (if not more than) any of that.
‘Like nothing I had ever been in before’
She bought this place, the only piece of property and the only house she ever owned, in the summer of 1998. It sat near the northwest edge of Charlotte Country Club, and at the time, there was no development behind her; the huge lot that backed up to hers was overgrown and untamed, basically just this wall of greenery.
She’d always dreamed of having her own garden, so she almost immediately got to work planting things — colorful but unusual things, like rambling roses and climbing hydrangeas.
She dug a big hole for a koi pond.
She decorated funkily, with a big metal chicken and a big metal goat here, a broken statue there, a spray-painted chandelier hanging from a tree branch.
“Anything that struck her as beautiful,” says longtime friend Dru Quarles, as her remembrances of Triplett drifted toward the backyard, “she would casually throw that in there. And it worked. It was just crazy-magical-cool. She had that kind of eye. I mean, she just sort of left behind this wake of beauty.”
In 2014, when Quarles was president of the Charlotte Garden Club, she pitched “Flowerhead Farm” (so named because Triplett often put flower-like wigs on the heads of brides she photographed) for inclusion on its “Art in the Garden” tour.
Some resisted, wanting to keep it about opulence and not oddities. But they wound up featuring her property. It was, Quarles says, “a massive hit.”
“Visually, that garden was amazing,” adds Elizabeth Tolley, a friend who spent years working with Triplett as a makeup artist, including numerous jobs that led her into the beloved backyard. “You felt like you’d walked into a wonderland. And it was totally private. No one could see anything you were shooting. So we did some artistic nudes back there, and Deborah was great at that, with women, making sure there was (privacy). ... It was a beautiful space, like nothing I had never been in before.”
Indeed, after Triplett gave up her photo-studio space in South End, her backyard became a frequent location for taking portraits of people. But it also was a favorite place for her to catch up with friends.
Or to do both at the same time.
Quarles, for instance, says she and Triplett would sit in the backyard drinking prosecco with a sugar cube in it back when her now-twenty-something son and daughter were young, and invariably there’d be a moment when Triplett would go inside to get a girl’s dress from her prop collection and flowers to pin in Quarles’ daughter’s hair. Then the impromptu photo session would begin.
Candice Langston, another old friend of Triplett’s, tells a similar tale — of, oftentimes, sitting and drinking glass bottles of Coca-Cola with Triplett, and of, once, stopping in to have Triplett take professional headshots of her in the backyard; bringing along her then-4-year-old daughter out of necessity; and it, without warning, turning into a photo session for her daughter that yielded what Langston calls “the most amazing pictures.”
“They’re hanging on my wall. Deborah’s work is literally in every room in my home. And, you know, I mean —” Langston, who was among a group of friends who shared responsibility for caring for Triplett after her cancer diagnosis, pauses to collect herself as she fights back tears.
Then, finally, her voice shaking: “She just knew how to bring out the best in people.”
‘She just chose happiness, always’
Triplett, who smoked for much of her adulthood, was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in October of 2018. The cancer had been declared gone in 2019, after 33 radiation and 18 chemotherapy treatments, but her health slowly declined in the years that followed.
Meanwhile, the land behind Triplett’s house started changing around this same time.
Development would consume it, as the canopy of trees just beyond her backyard were removed, with a row of huge new homes springing up in its place. She wasn’t able to tend to her garden, so it naturally lost some of its vibrancy.
But even though these changes must have saddened Triplett, they didn’t make her bitter.
“She told me,” Quarles recalls, “‘I was in my backyard, and I’ve got this big house there behind me’ — this was a Sunday afternoon — ‘and I could hear young families back there. I could hear Mom and Dad and kids, and the kids were playing, and it sounded like they were grilling out, they were hanging out in the backyard.’ And she said, ‘That just makes me happy. It makes me happy to know that there are happy people living behind me.’
“Me, I would have been like, ‘Oh, I look up in my backyard and now all I see is three stories looming over me and my trees are gone and the birds are gone and the green space is gone.’ But she just chose not to see it that way. She just chose happiness, always, and chose positivity, always.”
Even in September, when an estate sale was held to sell off Triplett’s vast trove of treasures, in preparation for selling her beloved home to cover the rising costs of her care, she looked on the bright side.
“There were young girls looking through the dresses,” Quarles says, “to take them home to wear them — high school girls and college girls, and there were people there with their daughters who were buying dresses and hats for them to wear to have tea parties and to dress up ... and it just made Deborah so happy. Rather than being like, ‘All my stuff is gone!,’ she’s like, ‘No, I’m ready for a change. This is good.’
“She was happy knowing that everything was going on out into the universe and having a life of its own.”
Triplett sold her house on Nov. 8 of last year. One can only guess as to what she felt when she took her final look at Flowerhead Farm, or if she said anything out loud to commemorate the moment.
But in a 2018 interview with Mark Peres for his podcast “On Life and Meaning,” conducted with Triplett as she was undergoing treatment for her cancer, she said this:
“Gardeners are people who love life. Gardens are the perfect metaphor for life. There’s death in the garden, there’s rebirth in the garden, and it’s constantly changing. Just like we do in our own lives.
“No day is the same for any human being. And it’s true in a garden. It’s constantly changing.”
Triplett leaves behind one sister, three brothers, a ragtag collection of foster pets, and countless photographs of people smiling in her backyard.