It was a hot September morning and I was wandering the exhibition halls of the Heirloom Seed Expo in Santa Rosa, California, when some striking botanical illustrations caught my eye. As an edible gardener, who loves art and science, I found myself attracted to the work and rushed over to see more.
I’m not alone. Many others have the same reaction, according to Pria Graves of the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists. The botanical artist agreed to chat with me a bit about the historic craft that remains strong today.
Q: Botanical art is rather unknown. What surprises most people about botanical art?
The main thing that surprises folks is the fact that the art form is alive and flourishing. Most people think it’s something that was done long ago, if they know anything about botanical art. When they learn that our Northern California chapter has 187 members and that the American Society of Botanical Artists is well over 1000 members it astonishes them.
Q: How important is scientific accuracy in botanical art?
Scientific accuracy was absolutely mandatory in botanical art, traditionally. That was the primary purpose of the art form, originating at a time when there was no other means of clearly documenting plants. During the Age of Exploration, when new plants were being discovered all over the world, seeds and dried samples were being brought home. But many voyages also had artists along to create a record of these new plants.
Today, most botanical artists focus more on the aesthetics of the image rather than pure documentation. Few show all aspects of the plant (such as roots, seeds, flowers and leaves) in each painting. However, it is still deemed vital that whatever is shown must be correct. Juries selecting paintings for botanical art shows generally include someone with botanical knowledge, and pieces will be rejected for flaws such as incorrect leaf attachments, number of flower parts, etc.
Q: How do botanical artists educate the public on plant diversity, regional plant ecology and preservation of plant species – especially edible plants?
First, despite the advent of photography, botanical art is still used for its original purpose of documenting plants. Plant identification books still frequently use drawings for the sake of clarity. The artist can focus the viewer’s attention on the salient points more easily than a photo can.
From time to time there are also themed exhibitions, which may also include written information about the topic. Examples include The Art of Saving Oaks (sudden oak death syndrome), Losing Paradise? (endangered species) and Following in the Bartrams’ Footsteps (North American native plants collected and grown by the Bartrams).
Another educational use of botanical art is in the form of a florilegium. This is a collection of images documenting a group of plants grown in a specific place or with a specific theme. Best known among contemporary florilegia is the Highgrove Florilegium, commissioned by Prince Charles to document the plants of his home. In our own area of northern California, there have been several florilegia created recently. These include The Legacy of Luther Burbank, a Filoli Florilegium (including a number of their heirloom fruits) and just finished, The Alcatraz Florilegium, 127 paintings of plants on the island, created by members of the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists.
Along with more formal educational uses of botanical art, some botanical artists choose to work with themes, creating a series of paintings showing either different species or varieties, or perhaps different phases of the same plant through time.
Florida artist Hilary Parker has painted a number of different types of mango, cleverly drawing an outline map of each variety’s home location behind the fruit. And northern California artist Peggy Irvine is working on an expanding series showing apples bred in the 20’s and 30’s by Albert Etter. I’ve worked on several series over the years, including a variety of heirloom vegetables.
Botanical art is certainly intended to educate. But, at the end of the day, most of us paint because we love plants. We hope to move and excite the viewers of our art, to share our enthusiasm with them.
Q: What are some ways your members are educating people about rare and unusual edible plants?
Paintings of vegetables are less “popular,” unfortunately, so most artists focus on flowers and fruits. I hope someday to see a major themed exhibition, similar to Losing Paradise? that focuses on endangered or rare food plants. To get my fellow artists thinking about the many wonderful food plants we may lose, I’ve written a series of articles for the ASBA Journal entitled Endangered Foods.
Meanwhile, in addition to the Burbank Florilegium, which includes a number of edibles he bred, our members have been well represented in The Art of the Heirloom exhibition at Heirloom Seed Expo since the very beginning.
Q: Tell us about your organization’s “Plants Illustrated” annual event at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden each winter.
Since 2010, the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists has held an annual members’ exhibition called Plants Illustrated at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden each winter.
This is an all-inclusive show, assuring every member will have at least one piece of work included. We want to encourage everyone, including the newer artists among us, to show their work. The UC Berkeley Botanical Garden staff has always encouraged artists to depict plants grown in the garden, and have supported our members by making plant material available. This past January, however, selections from the Alcatraz Florilegium were displayed.
For our 2017 show, February 10 – 21, we will be featuring Seeds and Pods. The Garden suggested this theme, based on a photographic exhibit on the same subject to be shown at the garden prior to our show.
Sounds like a great event! Thanks for your time.
Botanical Art and Artists is a compendium of resources that contains historical references, information about classes, exhibitions and much more. It’s a #mustread.
One of America’s earliest and most noted botanists was John Bartram. His homestead is considered by many to be the nation’s first significant botanical collection and garden. You can learn more about the family’s history in this Smithsonian article.
With Ben Franklin, Bartram was one of the founders of the American Philosophical Society, which houses a substantial collection of botanical illustrations. Other members of the Bartram family, including his son William and granddaughter Ann, also contributed to the vital task of documenting America’s botanical treasures. Bartram’s Garden remains a thriving enterprise today, hosting visitors at its site in Philadelphia, proving that agriculture can endure and thrive in urban settings.
The body of American botanical art was added to greatly by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which was tasked by President Thomas Jefferson with documenting the full range of natural life it encountered in its travels. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History developed an online display of some of the plant and animal illustrations to commemorate the bicentennial of the Expedition. It’s definitely worth a visit.