Thursday, April 9, 2020
The art of botany (story audio)


The art of botany
Larger view
Douglas Fir Mushroom, watercolor and gouache by Jane Ferguson (Otis) (Weisman Art Museum)
Scientists say that when it comes to getting a good picture of a plant, a photograph just doesn't cut it. In the field of botany scientists still depend on artists to document plants. The Weisman Museum has more than 60 examples of contemporary botanical paintings and drawings in the juried exhibit, "Fresh Cut."

Minneapolis, Minn. — For centuries artists have been an important part of expeditions documenting the unfamiliar flora and fauna of new worlds.

Over the past several years as University of Minnesota assistant professor of Plant Biology George Weiblen has researched unknown species of plants in New Guinea, he's relied on botanical artists to document his discoveries.

"Botanical illustration still plays a vital role in science," Dr. Weiblen says. "Observations put down by an artist convey the features and the details that a photograph simply can't pick up on."

The work of contemporary botanical artists blends scientific fact with aesthetics. Artists strive to accurately illustrate the detailed structure of a plant while still creating a work that's visually appealing. The Weisman

Art Museum's new "Fresh Cut" exhibition features the work of 52 botanical artists from the U.S., India, Canada, England and Australia. There's a detailed watercolor of a ginkgo stem with brown leaves and a cut-open seed pod and an illustration of a rhubarb plant showing its twisting red stalk, billowing leaves and knotty root.

These works, like others in the "Fresh Cut" exhibit, depict isolated plants without the clutter of their natural surroundings.

Marilyn Garber is the founder of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art. She says that while a photograph can capture the likeness of a plant, an artist can document it in more intricate detail.

"What the scientists want to show are the important characteristics of a species that make it different from one plant to another," Garber explains. "Artists can do that. We can take the imperfect and make it perfect."

Garber says botanical artists have to depict the full plant, including the roots, flowers, front and back of the leaves and how they connect to the stems. University of Minnesota botanist George Weiblen says this detail is important for identifying plants - and not just for scientists.

"There was a plant that some kids were collecting in a park," Weiblen says. "They thought it was marijuana and they were smoking it. The neighbors were terribly concerned and they reported this to the authorities. A specimen was presented to me. It was perfectly obvious that it was not marijuana. It was the five-fingered cinquefoil. How did I know that? By looking at the details of the leaves in this plant; how the veins were arranged. That's information that is conveyed through botanical art"

Dr. Weiblen says there are guidelines and standards for botanical art. It must be a realistic portrayal of a natural subject. But yet there can be room for personal expression on the part of the artist.

Jane Ferguson (Otis) has a watercolor and gouache of a Douglas Fir Mushroom in the Weisman's "Fresh Cut" exhibit. She says botanical artists each have their own unique ways of observing a plant and reproducing it on paper.

"I think one of the interesting things is when I'm in a class and we all have the same subject," she says. "There are eight of us in the class and there are eight very different ways of looking at the same plant. For instance, we were doing a radish one time and one woman had her radish upside down another was lying down and a third was kind of dancing in air."

Jane Ferguson (Otis) has been a botanical artist for only a couple of years. While she had collected and studied antique prints before then, she was unaware that people were still creating botanical art or that there was a school for it in the Twin Cities. Marilyn Garber, the director of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, says the art form has experienced a renaissance over the past decade.

The U of M's George Weiblen says he's encouraged by this because it shows that the public is still curious about nature.

"Botanical art is one way to bring the wonders of nature to life for people," he says. "It's my hope that as we go forward in this digital information age that people not forget that there is a need to carefully observe and document the world of nature through art and that this need is on-going."

The Weisman Art Museum's "Fresh Cut" juried exibition of botanical art is up through October 2nd.