Jungle Fever

BLENDING SCIENCE AND art as intently as paint colors on their palettes, 15 students of botanical illustration hunch over watercolor works-in-progress. To better scrutinize their subjects—minuscule live pansies—the mostly middle-aged artists peer through magnifying optivisors, which resemble metal-framed 3-D glasses. Teacher Marilyn Garber examines the lavender petals of a student’s work. “Aren’t the colors in that scrumptious?” she asks. Voices hushed, the students make meticulous strokes. The air is electric with concentration—a small slip-up could turn pansies into peonies.

The high-voltage atmosphere may in part stem from the Minneapolis building where the students meet: the Bakken Library and Museum, which specializes in the history and application of electricity. A strange setting, perhaps, for a painting class. But the museum’s medicinal garden provides brush-ready subjects for the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, which Garber opened at the Bakken in 2001. (When she first decided to study botanical art, there were no classes in Minnesota, so Garber taught herself with illustrated books and field guides. Her nine-teacher school now offers classes in Minneapolis and Rochester.)
Botanical art, which documents plant features with varying degrees of artistic latitude, dates to King Tut’s time, and has enjoyed several periods of popularity since the Renaissance. Illustrators helped catalog the myriad plants that European explorers encountered around the world, and botanical drawing was considered a proper art for Victorian ladies to practice. Beatrix Potter painted mushrooms in addition to the adventures of Peter Rabbit.

The Twin Cities have lately hosted several botanical art exhibits, including a show at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum featuring the work of students and teachers from the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, which closes September 17, and the Bell Museum of Natural History’s “BLOOM! Botanical Art Through the Ages,” which closes August 27.

Garber’s students have documented plants in a Brazilian coffee farm, in the Tibetan highlands, and in the Dalai Lama’s garden. Her own work with medicinal plants in the Panamanian rainforest has been displayed at the Royal Horticultural Society in London. (Though her time in Central America was memorable, Garber doesn’t miss the nighttime visits from insects and, once, a jaguar.)

All this attention has meant that Garber can focus on teaching and painting rather than marketing her work. “I got really tired of people wanting me to match a painting with their sofa colors,” she says. “I want to paint what interests me.” She takes botanical art seriously; equally devoted students can pursue her school’s certification, which requires 18 courses and an independent study. Those less wedded to the traditional format can be certified through the Como Conservatory’s program, where students experiment with pastels, water-soluble crayons, and ink wash.

Some students are gardeners-turned-artists. Others revel in the form’s scientific aspect, taking classes in botany along with drawing and painting. New plant species are discovered all the time, and most scientists still prefer the hand-drawn illustrations that portray a plant without the clutter of its surroundings. Artists are able to orient their subjects so that salient features—leaves, flowers, and fruit—can be easily identified for classification. George Weiblen, a University of Minnesota botanist, says Garber’s students are “at the interface of art and science,” and has asked them to create pen-and-ink illustrations of the figs he has discovered in Papua, New Guinea.

“A lot of people assume that a digital photograph or a DNA sequence might be sufficient to characterize a species,” says Weiblen. “But there’s really no substitute for a good botanical illustration.”

Garber hopes that the growing interest in botanical art extends to the plants themselves. “If we appreciate them more, then maybe we’ll take better care of the environment,” she says.