Drawn to Nature
Botanical illustration, then and now. Plus a quirky garden that delivers.
When I learned that the Summer Garden Flower Fiesta (Saturday, August 24, at the Silver City Farmers Market) will feature a botanical drawing class, my memory experienced a smithereens burst: first trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
It was the mid-1970s. Women Studies departments were slowly forming on American campuses. At Kew, I viewed a collection of botanical drawings that spanned four centuries. Rendered mainly in watercolor, finely detailed and often stunningly beautiful, the objective of the illustrations was scientific accuracy. The women who created the drawings frequently ignored convention and downright misbehaved in order to pursue their interest in the natural sciences.
British women who observed the natural world first hand — from Beatrix Potter of "Peter Rabbit" fame to Elizabeth Blackwell — stood apart from "drawing-room ladies" who embroidered bluebells on bed linen, or sketched wildflowers during countryside excursions. Ladies operated under norms dictated by men — that the study of nature "abates the taste for frivolous amusements, prevents the tumult of passions." More to the point, this pastime "diverted female energies which were showing unsettling signs of vigor and independence."
In his 1818 treatise on flower painting, George Bradshaw wrote, "Many ladies that I have had the honor of teaching, sketched flowers so correctly after my manner, that I mistook them for my own drawings."
More than a century before the publication of Bradshaw's remarks, Germany's Maria Sibylla Merian spent two years in South America exploring and painting insects and plants in the jungles of Suriname. Merian's stage-by-stage description of metamorphosis helped to disprove the previously held belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation.
Merian's improprieties included leaving her husband, selling her belongings, and taking her daughter on the voyage. The publication that resulted from this adventure, The Insects of Suriname (1705), also criticized Dutch colonists for their treatment of slaves and indigenous people.
Shortly before Merian's death in Amsterdam, Czar Peter the Great of Russia purchased her watercolors. More recently, Germany named its most modern research vessel in Merian's honor. An exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2008 portrayed how her work "raised the standards of natural history illustration and helped transform the field of entomology."
The rebuffs that Beatrix Potter experienced by the British scientific establishment instigated her shift to children's literature. She was barred by the all-male Linnean Society of London from presenting a paper on spore germination — a natural extension of her mushroom drawings. About the same time, in 1897, her illustrations of fungus and mosses were rejected by the then-director of Kew.
Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902, began her journey toward international acclaim as a children's writer. Fame brought her the funds to eventually conserve 4,000 acres in England's Lake District, now held by the National Trust. The majority of her mycological illustrations were bequeathed to a museum there — not to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1997, a century after the fact, the Linnean Society of London issued a posthumous apology to Potter.
Where Potter's natural history focus was the English countryside, Sally Ginet — much closer to home — also draws from live specimens, often wildflowers, in the Mimbres Valley.
Ginet will demonstrate how to complete a four-stage botanical drawing in the 15-minute mini-class format set for the Summer Garden Flower Fiesta. Other mini-classes are also featured, including Bill Nolde (former owner of Flowerings) on flower arranging and Blythe Whiteley on edible flowers.
A raised rectangular area, formerly the site of a prefabricated log house, now allows John Foldan a perfect stage for his flower garden in Silver City. Ox-eye daisies in spring and Gloriosa daisies in summer grew from one organic seed packet mixture.
Ginet's background includes farming and sign painting. She and her husband have traveled extensively, often serving as volunteer interpretive guides in various national parks.
"We are also interested in the early botanists and naturalists who surveyed the West," Ginet says.
At San Juan College in Farmington, NM, Ginet studied botanical drawing with Linda Reeves, who is both a botanist and an illustrator. "Linda is one of my idols," says Ginet. "She taught me to draw plants from live specimens, never photographs."
During two or three drawing sessions a year, Ginet produces 10 five-by-seven-inch illustrations rendered in watercolor pencil. Her drawings of 20 different plant species — from domestic garden plants to wildflowers — are available as note cards at the Raven's Nest in downtown Silver City.
Gardening with Fibromyalgia
From the sidewalk, John Foldran's raised-bed garden reveals a flower monoculture: in the spring, calming ox-eye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucantheum); in summer, exuberant Rudbeckia gloriosa.
As is often the case when you grow one species in a large area, the effect is striking. Creating drama, however, was not the goal for this small corner garden with preexisting fruit trees.
Foldan suffers from fibromyalgia. Over the years he has learned that broadcasting and watering seed are nowhere near as strenuous as digging.
A gardener in Washington before moving to Silver City, Foldan describes the severity of his fibromyalgia as "somewhere in the middle." He says, "If I had to show up regularly for my nursing job again, I just couldn't do it."
A registered nurse for 20 years, Foldan thinks the best approach to gardening is "to pace yourself and see what works. In my case, a bit of gardening several days a week is good therapy and exercise."
Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.