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Botanical Art and Ecological Education

Contributed by Diane Barthel-Bouchier, American Society of Botanical Artists, Inc. P.O. Box 943, Wading River, NY 11792, USA

Introduction

There is a botanical art revival going on and it is going on in countries around the globe; Great Britain, the United States, Japan, Australia, South Africa and Brazil are in the forefront, and there are botanical artists practicing in many other nations. Evidence of this worldwide revival is to be found in the prestigious International Exhibitions mounted by the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh. Another very prestigious exhibit, the Dr. Shirley Sherwood International Collection of Contemporary Botanical Art, opened to highly positive reviews in the spring of 1996 at Kew Gardens Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK and generated lots of public interest in this art form. This collection subsequently toured the United States, where it was shown in New York, Pittsburgh, Charleston and New Orleans, amongst other venues.

This paper will focus on practical ideas that can be undertaken by botanic gardens. First, however, the definition of botanical art needs to be agreed upon. This paper only discusses the Western tradition, but the long-standing and well-developed botanical art traditions of China and Japan. Botanical art is best defined as art that depicts a botanical subject in a way that is both scientifically accurate and aesthetically pleasing. It can be traced back to ancient times, to the stone relief carvings on the Egyptian tombs at Karnak.

Botanical Art Through the Ages

The earliest known botanical artist was the Greek physician Cretavas, who lived in the first century BC. While none of his work survives, copies of his work illustrated a very famous book, the Codex Vindobonensis. This medical manuscript dates from 510 AD, and was itself a copy of an ancient Greek medical manuscript, De Materia Medica, by Dioscorides (c. 40-90 AD).

In the Middle Ages, botanical illustrations appeared in books called herbals, which focussed only on plants useful for their medicinal value. Many of these illustrations were copies of earlier illustrations, however, and inaccuracies abounded. Only with the rise of humanism, which joined art to science, did work appear that took nature for its model, as in the work of two great early sixteenth-century artists; Albrecht Durer and Leonardo Da Vinci.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century artists still painted herbals. However, their illustrations became increasingly decorative, and more concerned with the beauty of the plant. In addition, explorers brought back exotic plants from all over the world. As a result, there was increased demand by botanists and other horticulturalists for accurate depictions of new species and varieties.

The mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries may rightly be called the golden age of botanical art, with practitioners including Georg Ehret, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, and Franz and Ferdinand Bauer. There is insufficient space to go into this fascinating period, save to say that all of these artists understood the science of the plants, their morphology, as well as the demands of their art. They worked in close association with scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and at the Jardin des Plantes, France, for example.

There is also insufficient space to go into the many reasons for the decline in botanical art. Suffice it is to say that botanical art declines substantially in prestige and visibility. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, through its Curtis's Botanical Magazine, keeps some recognition of its value alive in Britain, and scientific illustrators continue to eke out a living. But in other places, including the USA, it has all but vanished from public view.

A Contemporary Revival

The increased interest in horticulture and ecology has helped spawn a contemporary revival. There is now (1998) an international organization, the Society of Botanical Artists, based in Britain, and there is also a Florilegium Society at Chelsea Physic Garden. There are two botanical art organizations in Japan, and also the American Society of Botanical Artists, founded in 1995. The American Society of Botanical Artists is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting public awareness of the botanical art tradition. There are approximately 400 members, including 25 International Associates. Many of the members have a strong ecological interest, for example Pat Savage of North Carolina, and Katie Lee of New York, who paint both the wild flowers and wildlife of the north eastern United States and also the animals and plants of the Galapagos.

Some of the specific ideas and activities that the above-mentioned organizations, and also various individuals and institutions, are involved in activities that can be adapted for individual institutions. Adapt, rather than take, as it is recognized that each social context is somewhat different. Also, different levels of resources exist to serve different audiences. Below are some of the ways botanical art is being used to further ecological education.

Exhibiting Art on Endangered Plants, with Civic/Educational Group Tie-Ins

One example of the potential of botanical art for ecological education is provided by Kate Nessler, a botanical artist living in Arkansas who is also the chairperson of the American Society of Botanical Artists. Kate was so inspired by the native plants she found growing on the Baker Prairie, a 71-acre virgin prairie in Harrison, Arkansas, that she wrote to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, which manages the Prairie, to see if they would be interested in mounting an exhibit of paintings of the Prairie plants. They were, and in March of 1993 Kate started gathering plant specimens, working very carefully with a botanist on the site to guarantee that not a single specimen was lost.

The original goals were to document the wildflowers and grasses growing on the Prairie throughout the seasons; to create a traveling exhibit for artistic and educational purposes; to increase public awareness of the beauty and fragility of such a prairie; and to raise funds through the sale of limited-edition prints (a collection of four selected wildflowers which best represented the Prairie).

By August of 1994 Kate had completed 38 paintings. In addition to the paintings, the exhibit included information signs for each plant depicted, general information about the Prairie, a visitor's guide with educational facts and folklore about the wildflowers, print purchase information, and visitors' response sheets.

The exhibit traveled to sixteen different sites across the state of Arkansas, and each site approached the collection differently. It hung at art centers, universities, libraries, and in a high school media center. The media center used the exhibit as an informal, interactive project involving the entire community; county extension groups, art clubs, garden clubs, grade and high school students and so on. A high school Spanish class, for example spent a week learning plant and flower vocabulary, then viewed the exhibit speaking only Spanish and writing their reports in Spanish.

Moreover, the exhibit has been a topic for talks on the preservation of the tall-grass prairie as well as on the usefulness of botanical art. It has encouraged prairie walks and discussions on how the prairie ‘sounds’ and ‘feels’. The artist and commission representatives did substantial outreach work, talking with art students and science students at all levels of education from grade school to colleges. For those places that did not have facilities to hang the exhibit, a complete set of slides was and is available for lectures and other presentations. Whenever possible, Kate herself participated in lectures and discussions about botanical art and the Prairie Project.

Thus what started as an artist idea based on a spring walk on the Prairie became a co-operative venture involving many different public agencies, from the Heritage Commission to civic and school groups. The great thing about paintings is that they are mobile; they can travel to different sites, and people can too – if like Kate they are dedicated to making a difference and raising public consciousness of endangered local ecology.

Inspiring Adult Students with a Serious Program in Botanical Art

At present, three botanical institutions in America offer certificate programs. The first to be set up was at the New York Botanical Garden, the second at Denver Botanic Gardens, and the third at the Morton Arboretum, outside of Chicago in Lisle, Illinois.

Each program is slightly different, and is tailored to the particular needs and interests of its audience. What they share in common, however, is a substantial time commitment; upwards of 70 class hours, a program that usually takes adult students about two years. Each program has a scientific component. Students learn the very demanding, precise techniques that have characterized fine botanical art since the seventeenth century, and work in a range of media. Rule number one is that the work must be accurate and rule number two is that every detail must be readable by a scientist. All programs include a course in plant morphology, with students appreciating the fact that they cannot paint clearly what they do not understand intellectually.

The work that results is a far, far cry from the French Impressionists, or the more relaxing, less demanding paintings that you might see from family draw-ins in different gardens, or from courses where you use the garden as a background for feelings or emotions.

Why should someone want to get involved with such a demanding program? Obviously, for the challenge. The experience of the New York Botanical Garden, the Denver Botanic Gardens, and the Morton Arboretum has been that when serious certificate programs in botanical art were set up and publicized, enrollments climbed, and support for the programs grew

Forming Botanical Art Organizations or Sponsoring Chapters of Existing Societies

At the New York Botanical Garden, a chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators meets, which keeps both students and alumni interested in the program and the Garden. At the Morton Arboretum, artists formed a Nature Guild, which included both plant and wildlife artists. The Nature Guild not only holds meetings and exhibits, but is active in all kinds of public outreach and special events held at the Arboretum, and has also donated work for fundraising in sales and raffles.

Sponsoring Workshops that Combine Ecology and Art

At the annual meeting of the American Society of Botanical Artists at the Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco, (with the Strybing as co-sponsor) a workshop was presented by Barbara Adair on painting the ‘Rare and Endangered Plants of California’. Another Californian artist, Irina Gronborg, has presented workshops on the ‘Trees of California’, and also one in Arizona on ‘Desert Plants’. Topics abound, for the ecologically aware.

Using Botanical Art in Publications and Collaborative Efforts with other Agencies

One of the key words associated with ecology in the American West is ‘xeriscaping’. The botanical artists associated with the Denver Botanic Gardens, working under the guidance of Angela Overy, undertook a collaborative effort with the Denver Water Conservation Office. Twenty-five graduates of Denver’s certificate program provided the illustrations for the Xeriscape Plant Guide, published by Fulcrum Publishing in 1996. This publication was aimed at helping the public use less water in an arid climate. Each artist completed paintings of three to five different plants selected for inclusion by the Denver Water Commission. A professional designer gave the book its overall look and sense of unity and all work was done for free. The Denver Botanic Gardens sponsored a two-day event to celebrate the book's publication. This event included water-wise plant seminars, a display of photographs and artwork, and an opening reception for the hundreds of people involved in the projects.

Angela Overy, who has written about this project and its challenges, says ‘I recommend similar projects to other institutions. Although the challenges of working with so many groups can be intimidating, the result is well worth the struggle. Botanic gardens, plant societies, and many non-profit institutions are anxious to find fine-quality plant drawings and paintings at little or no cost for their publications, and there are fine botanical artists wanting to get their work published. Good botanical illustrations can impart information more precisely, and often even more beautifully, than plant photographs, and the Xeriscape Plant Guide represents a successful example of a co operative effort to create a book combining the best of both.’

Sponsoring Ecological Art Tours

Many are familiar with the controversies surrounding ecotourism. But for those who approach it responsibly, there is an audience of artists and art students who are interested in learning about the ecology of other localities. For example, two ASBA artists have sponsored tours focusing on the medicinal and flowering plants of the rain forest and another artist, Katie Lee, has taken a small group of artists with her to the Galapagos.

Involving School Children in Courses and Exhibits

Much more of this has been done in Japan than in the states. In Japan, they hold annual botanical art competitions for older children and adolescents. In Brazil, the Fundação Botânica Margaret Mee raises funds to exchange students between Brazil and Kew. The Fundação also holds an annual competition with botanical paintings exhibited in the National Gallery in Rio de Janeiro. Children are involved in voting for their favorite painting – and last year their choice agreed with that of the judges.

There is so much that can be done in this area. Botanical art is a superb way of teaching careful observation and respect for nature's variety.

The American Society of Botanical Artists will be mounting a major educational initiative and will seek outside funding. Already a public clearing house has been established with information on both American artists and our overseas Associates. A slide lecture has also been produced that can be tailored for presentation to a variety of audiences. The newsletter, The Botanical Artist, includes columns such as ‘Working With Others’, that focus on how botanical artists can become involved with community organizations and programs. And another column informs the American audience about what is happening in botanical art elsewhere.

In conclusion, a reminder that people learn through many different channels. There is not one single form of intelligence, there are several different ones. Art is a form of intelligence that communicates to people in ways that other forms cannot, it can reach audiences who remain unmoved by lectures, by tours, by printed materials, by moralistic calls to ecological consciousness. A botanical art revival is under way, and the artists are increasingly ready and able to respond to institutional needs. This paper aimed to give you some ideas of how botanical art can be used to raise ecological awareness among different audiences and in different settings. It is hoped that it will set readers thinking about what they might do in their own position and institutional setting.

   
 
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