Botanical art makes for lush display

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The “14th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration,” on display at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, is a tidier display than those in previous years, but, in this case, less is more, says Hunt curator Lugene Bruno.

“We just accepted one work from each artist this time,” she says. “So, it's a much smaller show than normally, but we feel that it represents the best of the best.”

That means visitors will find just 41 works by 41 artists from 10 different countries, as opposed to the 100 or more pieces typically presented in years previous. Begun in 1964 and held every three years since, the International series features the works of talented botanical artists from around the world.

In this iteration, 18 of the 41 artists are from the United States, and some of their works are real standout pieces.

“This has been the first international (exhibit) since I've been here that we've represented so many American artists,” Bruno says. “There has been a real surge of development of talent in this country. There's been a longstanding tradition in England, and a long history of flower painting in Japan, and there has been and are really dynamic things coming out of Australia and New Zealand, but the American artists are really taking off, and that has been really exciting to see.”

For example, Portland, Ore., artist Eric Wert's drawing of a common cactus is anything but common. A highly detailed drawing in pencil, it looks like a photograph. So extreme is the level of detail that even the soil looks so real you could touch it.

“Branches #3” by the late Janice Glimn-Lacy (1935–2013) of Indianapolis is another standout piece. A forest drawn in black ink on Mylar, it may look complicated, but it is a deceptively simple composition that is a superb study in the use of negative space.

Then, there is the work of Lara Call Gastinger of Charlottesville, Va. Her piece, “Winged sumac and Queen Anne's lace” from her series “Winter collection” shows two phases of plant growth simultaneously, from buds to full bloom.

Visitors will no doubt take notice of the work of Esther Klahne of Lancaster, Mass. Her painting of a Rose Mallow hibiscus is probably the most unique piece in the exhibit for what it is painted on — dyed goatskin.

“I like how she used the defects in the skin within the composition,” Bruno says. “It feels like something from the 18th century. There's just something about it.”

It's also worth noting that there is another work by an American artist painted on animal skin. Deborah Shaw of Newport Beach, Calif., displays “Screwbean Mesquite,” a watercolor of a Tornillo seedpod laboriously detailed in pencil and watercolor on honey-toned calfskin vellum.

As for the artists from other countries, a work by Australian artist Dianne Emery of Elsternwick, Victoria, Australia, is worth noting for its large size. And that's saying a lot because, at nearly 3 feet high, it is a life-size and realistic-looking version of a tongue orchid that is dripping with dew.

Just as realistic is a watercolor of four heirloom tomatoes by Asuka Hishiki of Kyoto, Japan, which, again, look so real you could pluck them from their page. And a drawing of a chrysanthemum, “Chrysanthemum #2,” by Roberta Mattioli of Milan, Italy, is just as detailed, which is amazing considering the whole thing was drawn in black ball-point pen. “The background is just layer upon layer of scribbles,” Bruno says.

Finally, Julie Dagmar Nettleton of Seaforth, New South Wales, Australia, shows a watercolor of a Heath-leaved Banksia, that features the plant's blooms from such an unusual perspective that Bruno just had to use the image for the cover of the show catalog.

Depicting several banksia blooms from a downward perspective, Bruno says it's different because that plant is usually depicted in side views.

“It's a really unusual perspective, looking from the top down, through the florets,” she says. “It just gives you a completely different perspective on this plant.”

The full-color, illustrated catalog, which includes biographical data, portraits of the artists and reproductions of the artworks, is available for purchase ($28). Collectively, the 14 International catalogues include 1,129 artists and are the most comprehensive record available of contemporary botanical artists and illustrators. Most of the previous International catalogues are available for purchase at the Institute, as well.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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