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Science, beauty unite in botanical art exhibit

| Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004

Opening today, the 11th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation is a sight to behold.

On display in the Hunt Institute's gallery on the fifth floor of Carnegie Mellon University's Hunt Library, the show features 94 artworks by 62 artists from 12 countries. It's the 40th anniversary of what has become the pre-eminent international series of botanical art exhibitions in North America.

If the show reflects anything in particular, it's variety. From delicate pen-and-ink drawings completed for scientific study to complex watercolors detailing not only every vein of plant life but, in many cases, its eminent decay, each work has something to say that is worthy of the viewer's full attention.

Part of the reason for such varying degrees of expressive detail is that botanical art, which was once practiced almost exclusively as a means of scientific observation and record, has become, ever increasingly, an art form unto itself, says Lugene Bruno, assistant curator of art at Hunt Institute, who organized the show along with chief curator James White.

"Nowadays, botanical art is also shown in galleries," Bruno says. "It's not just created specifically for scientific publications, and there is a wider range of styles than ever before."

For example, in this exhibition viewers will find such things as a cascade of rotting red maple leaves by Japanese artist Toshi Shibusawa; an extremely detailed, scientific illustration of Myristica crass King (nutmeg) by Jan Hendrik van Os of the Netherlands; a most delicate watercolor rendering of the conical head of a teasel by Celia Crampton of Oxon, England; a more graphic than most pencil drawing of a bouquet of wild daffodils by Amy Elizabeth Paluch Epton of Chicago; and a 5-foot-tall watercolor of Amorphophallus konjac by Japanese artist Yoko Nomura.

Although these represent some of the more extreme examples of the genre, many of the works on display still adhere to traditional means of rendering and presentation of plant subjects, such as Sharon Hegner's study of an orange amaryllis, which shows the plant in various stages, from bulb to bud to bloom.

But even so, the Denver artist says, "I use the traditions in botanical art as a guide only. I feel free to go wherever my exploration of nature takes me."

Hegner was in town this weekend to attend the 10th annual meeting of the American Society of Botanical Artists. The organization of more than 200 botanical artists meets for its annual conference every three years in Pittsburgh on the eve of the Hunt Institute's triennial International Exhibition.

A supportive group, its "ego-less" members reflect the field at large, Bruno says.

"Botanical artists are supportive of each other," he says. "It seems a bit different from the rest of the art world. It's not as competitive. When they are together -- the support and the networking, and how they help each other -- it's just really wonderful."

Enthusiastic, Hegner is like most of the artists who belong to the botanical artists' society. "I love art, and I love flowers," she says. "The combination is heady."

But it's not just the love of art and plants that draws people like Hegner to this genre of art making. It's also an amazing sense of awe they share in the presence of nature.

"I shake my head in wonder with every flower I paint," Hegner says. "It is the discovery of how nature puts together a bunch of simple little flower parts into a complex whole that can then protect itself from extinction, reproduce even if there is no outside pollinator and become food for other forms of life that is the most exciting."

Olivia Marie Braida-Chiusano of Sarasota, Fla., shares Hegner's enthusiasm for the particulars of plants. As an instructor of botanical art and coordinator for the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Braida-Chiusano knows a thing or two about the fine-art side of painting botanicals.

Her watercolor of a magnolia branch titled "Little Gem #2" is just as smooth and delicate as any Basil Besler (1561-1629) print or watercolor painting by Pierre-Joseph Redoute (1759-1840) -- two giants in the history of the genre whose levels of accomplishment are still aspired to today.

"Traditional classical art techniques are very important to botanical art," says Braida-Chiusano, who admits to a particular fondness for Redoute and the "Peintres du Jardin" of 16th- to 19th-century France. "Aerial perspective, light passing through planes, chiaroscuro, and glazing techniques used by these masters helped develop this genre of realism."

Be they realistic or graphic, scientific or more decorative, the works in this exhibition prove that this genre of painting still is as strong, beautiful and true as ever.

Perhaps it is Braida-Chiusano who sums it up best: "One of the oldest art forms there is, botanical art takes its future from its past and will always continue to attract either by need for science or beauty." Additional Information:

Details

'11th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration'

When: Through Feb. 28. Hours: 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Closed Nov. 25 through 28, Dec. 17 and 23, and Jan. 2.

Admission: Free

Where: Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Hunt Library, Fifth Floor, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland

Details: (412) 268-2434 or huntbot.andrew.cmu.edu

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