Article About the NESBA Exhibit at Fruitlands

Up close with plants: Botanical art at Fruitlands
Botanical art combines scientific accuracy with artistic principles and aesthetic appeal. Although no longer essential to scientists, physicians, and horticulturalists, botanical art continues to attract those who want to capture the beauty and complexities of plant life and interpret them in a personal way. Fruitlands Museum is currently exhibiting botanical art by members of New England Society of Botanical Artists (NESBA), on display in the Wayside Gallery and the Shaker Museum until Sept. 8. Called “Shaker Gifts: Seeds, Herbs, and Medicinal Plants,” the show affords visitors the opportunity to closely observe the intricacies of the plants, discern the artist’s intention, and learn the uses to which the Shakers put the plants.

Longtime Harvard resident, gardener, and artist Nancy Horrall, a member of NESBA, worked with Fruitlands Curator Shana Dumont Garr to create the show. As Horrall explained, a NESBA member can find a venue, choose a theme, and then “be in charge of” receiving applications and choosing artists for that show. Fruitlands, especially the Shaker Museum and garden, is a perfect venue, Horrall said, because of the Shaker tradition of cultivating and using the plants depicted in botanical art. Storyboards give background information about Shakers, botanical art, and NESBA, and a notebook provides bios of most of the participants. Each work is labeled with the name of the artist and both the Latin and common name of the plant. In rare cases the artist has titled the piece.

Early on, Horrall invited the selected artists (all women) to a presentation by Galen Beale, former herbalist at Canterbury Shaker Village. Horrall said she had been surprised by how little many in the group knew about the Shakers, and she felt it was important for them all to learn more, as it would inform the work they did for the show. She said the women discovered how knowledgeable the Harvard Shakers were about plants and their uses, how they created a lucrative business of packaging and shipping seeds as far away as England, and that they made regular trips to Boston to sell their herbal medicines to doctors. The Shakers were pragmatic in their approach to plants, keeping their seed packets simple and saving any decorative use of plants for their gift drawings. 

Horrall said she chose to pursue botanical art in retirement because she was anxious to get back to closely observing nature, to seeing things in clear detail. After a career of teaching art in elementary school, where subjects are treated in an age-appropriate, broad, general way, she was excited to linger over a flower and “narrow the vision with what is there.” She enrolled in a class at Tower Hill Botanic Garden with an instructor she found to be “superior.” Seven of the 14 students in the class have stayed in touch and continue to meet once a week in Harvard. 

Nature in art

I was fortunate to have Horrall as my guide through the exhibit. Although American naturalist and writer John Muir had the natural world in mind when he wrote, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks,” I found his words applied as well to my experience with the art. We looked at Horrall’s own watercolor of sage, and she said what had intrigued her about the plant—growing in her garden—were the “innies and outies,” the “bumpy” texture of its leaves. To draw the viewer to what she thinks sage “is all about,” she first draws the viewer to a closeup of a sprig of leaves where the “bumps” are very clear. Next to that is a lighter-toned image showing an entire stem of which those leaves are a part.

To the right of Horrell’s sage on the front wall is Marilyn Kulsea’s poppy, in colored pencil, where the full bloom of the pink flower is the dominant feature. On one side is a poppy bud and on the other a seedhead, and feathery foliage connects them. Each stage is scientifically accurate, but Kulsea has exercised artistic choice in putting the three together at the same time. A useful handout, “Uses for Shaker Plants,” says that poppy, as well as being a narcotic, can be a poultice for painful swellings.

Sue Neff chose a black background for her hellebore, perhaps to better show the light creams and greens of the flowers. For Kay Kopper, the important thing about wintergreen seemed to be its context. In her work, the bright red berries and green leaves are just one layer of the forest floor, with twigs and fallen leaves beneath them. Kitty Gilbert’s skunk cabbage is all about layers and textures, before the leaves unfurl.

Who’s in charge?

In looking at just these works, I see what Horrall means when she says the artist has a lot of choice, within the bounds of scientific accuracy, and her point that the challenge is how to get the illustration to convey the artist’s intention. I realize how much more complex botanical art is than I had ever noticed and how much room it leaves to be expressive. Asking,“Who’s in charge of this piece of paper?” is Horrell’s way of finding focus.

On another wall, Bobbi Angell, who, Horrall tells me, worked as a scientific illustrator and is a well-known botanical artist, has a tall stalk of pink digitalis, or foxglove. I have heard that the plant can be deadly, and perhaps that colors my sense of something slightly ominous about the dark speckles hiding on the insides of the hanging tubular flowers. Horrall pointed out the clarity of the work and the particular angle from which Angell has chosen to look up at the plant. Further down the wall, a sharply contrasting work is the monotone hollyhock, done by Barbara Nachmias-Kedesdy. Here, rather than stark details, the plant is somewhat blurred, but accurate. Horrall describes this artist as being at the more “arty” end of the spectrum of the genre.

A distinctive style

“Dandelion” is one of three paintings in the show by Elizabeth Golz Rush, whose style seems to be one of the most distinctive of the artists represented. In the center, the dandelion dangles its long roots, spreads out its jagged leaves, and waves both the full flower and the seed head, just ready to let go its hundred new dandelions. What is unusual is that there is a background, in this case, Shaker women gathering herbs with the buildings of a village behind them, recessive because of its light graphite, but still meticulously detailed.

The bright red pomegranate by Diane Piktialis immediately conveys its volume—it feels heavy as I imagine it in my hand. A three-branched sprig of yellow woad seems to be dancing. Around it is a border of blue. Horrall tells me that woad is a dye and that blue is the color of things dyed in it. I never realized that the color of a dye into which a material is put is not necessarily the color of the dyed material, because of certain chemicals in the plant.

While the Wayside Gallery is a large, open space, the historical Shaker office building is small and not as well lit. But what it has is authenticity, and one can imagine how this building once sat at the center of an active Shaker village, where plants, with their many uses, were an important part of life. Two more works of Golz Rush hang here, a clump of red clover and one of violets, both, like the dandelion, unobtrusive wildflowers. Again, all the parts of the plant fill the center of the composition, the colors vivid. Insects and other details fill out the space, either as balancing forms or background interest. “For me, closely examining a flower is a voyage of discovery,” wrote Golz Rush.

I had not noticed the frames in any of the Wayside works—which, Horrall said, is exactly the intent—but here I did notice thin gold frames on a couple of the paintings. A broad frame in a complementary tone seemed to work as very much a part of the milkweed pods, one open and one still closed, painted on vellum by Judith Bloomgarden, an artist with a most appropriate name.

The botanical works, which range in size, medium, and intention of the artist, could well have been inspired by an observation of 19th-century French scientist Henri PoincarĂ©: “If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living.”

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