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New generation of botanical artists on an environmental mission

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A work in progress at Filoli (Courtesy of Desert Botanical Gar)

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A crocus in watercolor by Catherine M. Watters, Filoli (Photo complements of Filoli, Woo)

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Instructor Jim Astholz at a botanical drawing class at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix (Photo courtesy of Desert Botanic)

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Linda Beech draws a primrose at the New York Botanical Garden (Photo by Dara L. Miles)

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Instructor Kathi Miranda advises Linda Beech on a drawing at the New York Botanical Garden (Dara L. Miles)

In a bright classroom at the New York Botanical Garden, Linda Beech studies a pink primrose that brims from a pot on her drawing table. Carefully, the 67-year-old puts pen to paper and, with lines and dots, recreates a leaf in black and white. It’s a far cry from her “real” job, writing textbooks and teachers manuals.

“It’s intensely satisfying,” Beech said of the hours she spends creating botanical art. “I think it’s good to use the other side of my brain once in a while.”

For centuries, botanical illustrators have faithfully rendered flowers and plants by hand, using pen and ink, colored pencils, and watercolors. While other creative disciplines like animation and architectural drafting have yielded to the digital age, botanical illustration remains rooted in the past. And its popularity is surging, as newcomers find modern relevance in the anachronism.

Fifteen years ago, botanical art classes in the United States were as rare as blue roses, and only the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx offered a certificate in illustration. Today, gardens in almost every major city offer art classes, and about a dozen have certificate programs, with classes filled to capacity. Some students seek careers as scientific illustrators and others hope to succeed in graphic or decorative arts. Many just want a hobby.

Botanical illustration is a marriage of art and science that results in something that is “scientifically accurate and at the same time, aesthetically pleasing,” according to Nancy Knauss, adult education coordinator at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pa. Its scientific nature attracts people who otherwise might not feel they’re creative enough to be artists. Furthermore, instructors say, botanical illustration provides a quiet haven in a high-tech, high-stress world and taps into a growing environmental consciousness.

Long a favorite among art collectors, antique botanical prints have become a home décor staple in the last few decades. Robin Jess, executive director of the American Society of Botanical Artists, says this has fueled a demand for more affordable contemporary botanicals. Would-be illustrators wanted classes and botanical gardens obliged. So many people are making botanical art, says Jess, that the Society’s membership has grown from 50 at its inception in 1985 to about 1,300 members today.

Botanical illustration first emerged around 500 A.D., with “herbals”--books of drawings physicians used to identify medicinal plants. In the 17th century, the Age of Discovery, artists worked side-by-side with botanists to record the exotic plants they discovered in the New World. Even after the invention of the camera, illustrations of plant species in scientific treatises and monographs were, and still are, done by hand.

“We can show details at so many levels,” said Jess. “It’s hard for a camera to do that and to get everything in focus at once, particularly in close-up.”

Additionally, an artist can exaggerate in a drawing the key characteristics that help a research botanist or botany student distinguish one plant variety from another.

The work is painstaking and, even in a classroom setting, solitary. Using a dissecting microscope, the artist examines the plant and takes exact measurements of its anatomical parts before attempting to replicate them on paper. The scientific aspect of the work intrigues Christine Leddy, 49, a student from Darien, Ct., particularly pulling the plants apart to view them under the microscope.

“It’s fascinating to see how everything fits together, like puzzle pieces,” Leddy said. “It all makes perfect sense.”

A single mother of two, Leddy will earn a botanical art certificate this summer from the New York Botanical Garden. She hopes to supplement her income as an office administrator by selling her work and representing other artists.

Precision--not efficiency--is prized in this art form, and some artists take months to complete a work. For Lauretta Jones, 54, of Somers, N.Y., botanical art was the perfect antidote to her career in computer graphics. She grew weary of the speed at which her virtual world turned and opted out to articulate flowers and plants in watercolor.

“You can’t rush watercolor,” said Jones, who is in her eighth year of teaching at the New York Botanical Garden. “You have to slow down because of the medium. And being able to see as an artist is essential, which means that you have to slow way down.”

Not only does botanical illustration take time, it takes intense concentration as well, according to Marilyn Garber, a 58-year-old artist and instructor. Garber founded the Minnesota School of Botanical Art in Minneapolis in 2000, and the certificate program at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix four years later.

Garber says botanical art requires such focus that the rest of the world just fades away.

“Time doesn’t exist, outside problems don’t exist,” she said. “It’s just you and the pencil or the paintbrush, and that subject you’re looking at so intently.”

The art's popularity has led more gardens to start classes. Filoli, a botanical garden in Woodside, Calif., is the latest to offer a certificate program, which just launched this year. Program coordinator Cathy Rampley says Fioli’s students, like most botanical art students, are women, many of them retired. Some have never taken a formal art class.

Experience isn’t necessary, Rampley says, just a desire to draw. People who don’t consider themselves particularly creative or artistically talented may find a niche in botanical drawing, because of its scientific bent.

The centuries-old mission of botanical art is quietly being reshaped by environmentalism. In the past, illustrators worked to document new species. Today, there’s a heavy focus on endangered and disappearing plants.

The program coordinator at the New York Botanical Garden, Wendy Hollender, 53, says the growing number of botanical art exhibitions with environmental themes plays to the artists’ heightened interest in the environment.

“Botanical artists are in the forefront of trying to educate the public about preserving the environment and how plants play a role in that,” Hollender said.

Garber encourages her students to select disappearing plants as their subjects. She views it as a form of environmental activism.

“What we’re creating is a snapshot in time about what was here, in our time,” Garber said. “It’s a documentation of these plants and of our environment that’s changing so quickly.”

E-mail: dlm2142@columbia.edu