Conversations with our Artists

Kathleen Garness

By Joyce Westner

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 2


Kathleen’s schedule made for a tricky conversation as she was either at work, taking down one of her exhibits, helpingat an orchid show, monitoring native plants, teaching an art class, or when the time seemed right to talk celebrating her birthday! I was exhausted!  “I’ve been fascinated with plants since I was three and saw a little yellow oxalis pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk.  It’s a metaphor for the artistic struggle.”

How did you get into botanical art? Orchids have fascinated me for many years and it was a short step from collecting them to painting them. But when I realized the threats to our native orchids’ habitats I had a focus for a consistent body of work.  After 11 years in the Chicago Botanic Gardens “Plants of Concern” rare plant monitoring program I became a volunteer nature preserve steward, which gave me some great material as inspiration! Right now I am working on a series of all the native orchids of Illinois.

Are you an artist or a plant person at heart? Do I really have to choose?? I don’t see a dichotomy between those. We love plants, so we paint them! Goethe observed, “You really do not see a plant until you draw it.” The art and science of botanical illustration meld when we deeply observe and patiently, accurately, even lovingly, draw the tiniest details, for truth’s sake. In my early 20s I lived near the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, knocked on their door and a little white-haired man invited me to observe his class. I eventually became their second woman president.

Where do you get your subjects? I feel blessed to have two tropical greenhouse retailers in our area: Orchids by Hausermann and Oak Hill Gardens (which specializes in unusual species), as well as permits to visit many nature preserves. I have been taught how to walk carefully in pristine sites, and I take lots of photos, work from herbarium specimens at the Field Museum, Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden, and make detailed sketches in my notebooks, especially for color. I try to paint as much in the field as I possibly can.

What is your favorite medium? Watercolor, by far. It’s so versatile! What is interesting is how often people will comment on my work done on colored grounds, even more than my traditional botanicals. When I saw the amazing paintings by Albert R. Valentien at Chicago’s Field Museum, I was surprised by how his work just popped off the page and was so fresh-looking!  I’ve also been doing a lot of digital black and white images of regional plants to be used for field botany training.

Do you enter juried shows? Yes, my Yellow Lady’s Slipper was accepted into ASBA’s Losing Paradise? and other pieces have been in many non-ASBA exhibits over the years. But the primary focus of my work is natural areas education, as well as documenting our native threatened and endangered species so that people will know they are worth the ongoing investment in their habitat.

When do you paint? In addition to my stewardship and family responsibilities, I work full time [Kathleen started a Montessori preschool when her son was 3], so mostly after dinner a couple of nights a week. I have orchids on my windowsills crying out for their portraits to be done, but there never seems to be a convenient time. Having a show to paint for gives me a push in the right direction! I’m recovering right now from hanging two large concurrent solo exhibits, plus finishing up three new orchid paintings for our Illinois Orchid Society’s 60th Anniversary Gala show.

Where do you paint? In my dining room at a small drawing board. My setup is very simple.

Do you teach, and if so, what special aspect of botanical art? This year Suzanne Wegener at Morton Arboretum asked me to teach a botanical book arts class. I’ve been quite involved for several years with making my own hand-crafted books and recently produced a limited-edition volume of paintings of Illinois’ trilliums, with poems by Illinois Natural History Survey writer Susan L. Post.

What technique are you still trying to master? Watercolor.  Refining and deepening my understanding of color, of glazes, being spontaneous and accurate at the same time.

What one thing do you do that would surprise other artists? I’m given coordinates so I can visit rare and endangered plants using my GPS. I follow the protocol to cover myself in bug spray and then I go out and count the plants, identify any threats to them or their habitat: plants like the prairie white-fringed orchid, stemless pink lady’s slipper or the grass pink orchid. I am asked to speak on our findings. I’m no expert on native orchids but the experts call me for information!

  • Paphiopedilum venustum, painted life size, about two months ago ©Kathleen Garness 2012