2015 Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art
by Barbara Rose
Long before anyone knew she would become a leading botanical artist, Denise Walser-Kolar loved collecting small fruits and flowers: violets, berries, rosehips.
One fall while wearing her best dressy raincoat, she spotted shiny red things on a rose bush taller than she was. Captivated, she pulled down as many as could and stuffed her pockets full, oblivious that their juices seeped through her pockets and stained the front of her good coat.
She laughs at her memory of what happened when her Austrian grandmother saw the mess: “My Grossmutti scolded me and threw them all away.”
Today, her 2009 painting, “William Baffin Rosehips,” watercolor on vellum, is included in the permanent collection of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh. And she still loves rosehips; she paints them at least once each year.
“Who she is as a person and her work, there’s no separation,” says Lugene Bruno, Hunt’s curator of art and senior research scholar. “She is very authentic. What she does is part of who she is. Somehow she just captures the essence of whatever she’s painting. I think she’s an extraordinary artist.”
Art dealer Susan Frei Nathan of New York’s Susan Frei Nathan Fine Works on Paper scouted her work for several years before deciding to represent her in 2011.
“I decided to represent her because I felt the work was in some respects a portrait of who she was,” she says. “Nature speaks to each artist in a different way. It’s that intimate connection between the artist and nature that’s magical. The way she looks at nature is quite romantic. There’s an empathy, a sympathy, a great understanding. There’s a voice that needs to be heard.”
Her work is prized for its sensitivity, luminous color and timeless Old World quality. She is a sought-after teacher whose watercolors have shown in museums and international competitions including the Royal Horticulture Society’s 2011 Botanical Art Exhibition in London, where she was awarded a silver-gilt medal. For her many achievements, she is the 2015 winner of the ASBA’s Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art.
Her art is rooted in childhood experiences in America’s heartland and European art capitols, all grounded firmly in family. There was never a time she can remember when she didn’t draw.
“I always wanted to be an artist,” Walser-Kolar says.
Her father, Adolf Walser, a retired physician, liked to draw landscapes, especially the Alpine landscapes of his native Austria. He met her mother, Helen Lillehaugen, a nurse, in North Dakota while on an exchange program. Denise was born near her mother’s family, in Grand Forks, N.D., but she visited Austria often when her father was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War to train U.S. Army Medics. Her family returned to the United States when she was seven to settle in Rochester, Minn., where she stayed and reared a family of her own with her husband, Scott Kolar.
Her path to botanic art took more than two decades after graduation from St. Paul, Minn.’s College of Visual Arts in 1982, but it reaches back to childhood visits to a dimly lit room in the Albertina Museum in Vienna, looking at masterpieces by Albrecht Dürer.
His small flower painting, “Bouquet of Violets,” watercolor and gouache on parchment, held her rapt.
“I recall standing and looking at it for a very long time,” she says. “I bought a postcard of it in the museum gift shop and kept it on my bulletin board.”
She worked for 12 years after college as a graphic artist at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic making slides for physicians’ presentations, in the days before presentations were computerized. When an opportunity to open a design business presented itself she jumped on it and soon after broke away to work on her own as a freelance artist.
“I loved it when people hired me to do menus,” she recalls. “I think it was all the little detail” in depicting dishes of food. She did portraits of adults and children and a lot of pen and ink illustration for businesses.
Meantime, the younger of her two children, Garrett, now 27, struggled with severe dyslexia and required private tutoring and, eventually, an expensive private school near Minneapolis. Denise became a vigorous advocate for Garrett, all the while focusing her art on generating income to pay tuition.
She left their Rochester home with her son at 6 am on school days for the two-hour commute to school and spent the day at a sister’s nearby home painting decorative items to sell in gift shops. Garrett thrived, but Walser-Kolar felt the strain of a demanding schedule.
She spotted an advertisement for the Minnesota School of Botanical Art and mentioned it to her parents, who enrolled her in a 2003 class as a birthday gift. The instructor was the school’s founder, Marilyn Garber, a charter ASBA member who, coincidentally, also won a prestigious ASBA award in 2015: the James White Service Award for Dedication to Botanical Art.
“I’ll never forget that feeling in that first class,” Walser-Kolar recalls. “There was a blizzard and I arrived 30 minutes late, all stressed out and wondering if I should just go home again. Up until then, my life had been consumed by advocating for Garrett and doing art to make a living. The class was magical. I thought, ‘I love this, I’m happy,’ and I hadn’t been for a very long time.”
It was a year before she could afford another class but she continued, progressing in three years to become an instructor in 2006. The Minnesota School introduced her to some of botanical art’s leading artists, and she and her work flourished.
A class painting pansies with Kate Nessler introduced her to vellum, and painting an eggplant with Jean Emmons gave her confidence to discover her own method.
“Where’s your black?” Emmons asked when she struggled to paint her eggplant’s darkest darks. Traditionally, botanical artists mix black from opposite colors rather than buying black paint.
“She gave us permission to do whatever we wanted,” Walser-Kolar recalls. “I thought, ‘This is how I used to paint when I was an illustrator’” – mixing thick puddles of multi-hued transparent color, rather than layering single-color washes from a limited warm-cool palette.
“It was the beginning of doing whatever I needed to make it work,” she says.
Still, there were difficult moments. She returned exhausted from the Royal Horticultural Society’s exhibition in London in 2011with a silver gilt, or second-highest, medal. She had worked five years completing a series of eight paintings of hybrid hazelnuts from the Badgersett Research Farm, traveling to southeastern Minnesota to observe the new hybrid multiple times in every season. When she missed a stage, she had to wait a full year.
The RHS critique of her series discouraged her because the judge criticized aspects she felt convincingly conveyed her observations and intent. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” she recalls thinking.
She didn’t paint for several weeks before deciding to paint for her alone, “whatever I want.”
She sketched raspberries from her garden, put her drawing on a copier and blew it up, then painted the two- by two-inch raspberries on vellum. She lit her specimen from the lower left instead of the traditional upper left. Her painting made the cover of the catalogue for ASBA’s 2011 “Small Works” Exhibit in Boston.
Next she painted blackberries, then blueberries. “I was really happy,” she recalls. “I never went back to paper after that. I put in all the colors I saw. Nobody even notices that raspberries come in all those colors. In a quarter of an inch, there are at least 20 colors and all the transitions.”
Her artistic confidence is evident, says Frei Nathan.
“She’s committed to a stylistic interpretation that’s paid off for her,” she says. “She’s not wavering on it. I saw the consistency in her work over a period of time. Her work has a subtle strength. It has all of her in it.”
These days, Walser-Kolar still struggles to find time to paint. She works ten hours a week at The Reading Center/Dyslexia Institute of Minnesota, in Rochester, and she succeeded Garber in 2015 as ASBA’s Annual Meeting and Program Coordinator.
She limits her traveling workshops to three a year—she will teach vellum classes in southern California, Washington DC, and Wellesley in 2016—and still teaches occasionally at the Minnesota School.
Among her first students was Connie Scanlon, who later won a silver Grenfell metal at the 2013 RHS Exhibition for “Preludes and Postludes on a Stem.”
“Denise gives her heart and soul to her students and shares everything that she knows without holding back,” Scanlon says. “She is one of the most humble artists I’ve ever met. She’s such a wonderful role model. Some artists end up with their egos all wrapped up in their art. To keep it all in perspective and enjoy the ride--she helps keep that balance.”
Walser-Kolar’s studio occupies her former living room, with two skylights and a large window. “My husband thinks my studio is the whole house,” she jokes.
Her painting table is a roomy five-feet by eight-feet Duncan Phyfe dining table with all the leaves in. She paints on an angled wood frame that a student purchased for her at auction from Mayo.
When she can paint an entire day, she starts at 6 am and works until 8 pm. She prefers natural light, but when she paints at night or on dark days she uses an old gooseneck lamp with General Electric Reveal incandescent bulbs. She has ten boxes of the bulbs stored because she worries they’ll be discontinued.
In late fall 2015 she completed a two-week marathon painting session to meet a commission deadline for Hadley Table, which designs and sells cork-back placemats. The first of three Hadley commissions, her design is reminiscent of her “Hoefnagel-Inspired” series of small paintings on vellum, featuring a seemingly random collection of small, delicately-rendered natural objects.
Her inspiration springs from a small 41-page volume she spotted in a bookstore decades ago, “Nature Illuminated: Flora and Fauna from the Court of Emperor Rudolph II,” featuring Joris Hoefnagel’s tiny portraits of flowers, fruit, insects, seed pods and creatures such as toads.
“I love the beautiful little paintings,” she says. “I love how the subjects seem to have nothing to do with each other, yet go together so well.”
From Garber, she learned about the source for the paintings, the 16th Century calligraphic manuscript, Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, housed in California’s J. Paul Getty Museum. She painted “Hoefnagel-Inspired #1” in preparation for a class she offered at the Minnesota School. It was so much fun, she decided to continue.
The 4-inch by 6-inch watercolors on vellum are clever, whimsical and very personal, featuring natural objects she collected or were given to her by family or friends. Each has a story.
For her most recent, #11, she used a peony that came from her garden by way of her late grandmother, Viola Lillehaugen, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 103. The painting further honors her grandmother’s memory with a wheat stalk--her grandfather was a wheat farmer—and a shamrock for her Irish ancestry.
Walser-Kolar originally planned to paint 25 Hoefnagel-inspired pieces, but it occurs to her now that the series may continue. “They may never end, I’m liking them so much,” she says.
Her advice to aspiring botanical artists is simple. “It really is just a matter of painting and painting and painting and coming up with whatever works for you,” she says.
“And it never gets easy. It’s not easy for me. It’s harder than it ever was before because I’m seeing more things. It doesn’t ever get fast. It doesn’t ever get easy. It’s always satisfying.”