Behind The Scenes

Duxbury exhibit showcases botanical artists

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent  
May 23, 2013

Botanical art goes back to the Middle Ages, when healers began illustrating their records of medicinal plants with drawings to help identify them correctly. Botanical illustrators accompanied expeditions and sketched new plants found all over the world. And even with today’s technology, well-drawn illustrations are still in demand to provide more details in a single image than a photograph can offer.

Kay Kopper of Pembroke, cochairwoman of the New England Society of Botanical Artists’ new exhibit of its best work, calls the painstaking, detailed portraiture of plants an “obsession.” And her subjects are all around her.

Of her three illustrations in the show at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, two of them are of plants she spotted in the open areas near homes where she walks, runs, or bikes. The third is of an iris, a favorite of backyard gardeners, growing on the property of her 200-year-old house.

“You’re working with a living specimen,” said Kopper, a graphic designer. “It’s evolving each day and you have to be with it and keep refreshing” the portrait.

The show, titled “From the Mountains to the Sea: Plants, Trees, and Shrubs of New England,” includes some 60 works by 41 artists. The theme is plants native to this region.

The show is scheduled to be moved to sites in all six New England states. In Duxbury, it’s supplemented by a second component, an exhibition of 23 more works that broadens the scope to include portraits of non-native plants.

“Wait till you see it. It will blow you away,” said Laura Doherty, the museum’s communications coordinator, after seeing the show hung for last weekend’s opening. “I am amazed at the patience these artists have. One leaf will take a day to do.”

Craig Bloodgood, the museum’s contemporary curator, was one of three artists who juried the show, choosing which pieces to include in the exhibit.

“I like the idea,” said Bloodgood, a University of Massachusetts School of Agriculture graduate. “I’m a plant guy.”

“It’s a lot different from what we usually have,” said Bloodgood, whose own 3-D work includes making sculptural trees from old toys found at the Duxbury dump. “These portraits have to be really accurate. It’s the kind of stuff you find in a textbook. It’s tightly done, and beautiful. . . . It’s watercolor, but not the kind of watercolor you usually see.”

Kopper found her wild grape specimen, called river grape, growing along one of her town’s numerous cranberry bogs. Her portrait includes broad leaves and a small bunch of hard, round grapes in various stages of ripeness, from green to dusky purple.

Her second native plant was a cinnamon fern. She dug it up when it emerged from the earth in spring and painted it as it unfolded into an “incredibly large” plant.

Among the show’s many other detailed portraits, Pamela Geer Gordon painted the bottle gentian. “Found in damp meadows,” she states in the show’s catalog, “these closed flowers resemble a cluster of Easter eggs with petals in various shades of blue to violet.”

Kelly Leahy Radding found her nodding ladies’ tresses orchid growing amid wild mosses and other grassy plants. “At first glance, the September roadside looks like a carpet of mosses and grasses, but on closer inspection I spied the tiny white orchids scattered around in a miniature fairyland.”

Bobbie Angell of Vermont contributed a copper etching of leaves of the American beech. “Beech leaves hang on all winter, twisted and curled inwards, ready to capture the slightest breeze to fill the air with a gentle rustling sound,” she states in the catalog.

Patrician Buchanan illustrated the bird’s nest fungus, investigated by ants, in a forest floor setting not far from her house. The fungus’s spores are released after passing through an animal’s digestive system, she stated.

The herb wild bergamot is used for teas. Barbara DeGregorio found her specimen growing along the Charles River in Cambridge.

The museum will accompany the exhibit with demonstrations and talks. Next month, botanical artist Sarah Roche, who holds a degree in graphic illustration from the University of the West of England, will hold a gallery talk on June 6 at 11 a.m.

  • (C) Pamela Geer Gordon Bottle Gentian
  • (C) Kay Kopper River Grapes