How ASBA First Began

By Diane Bouchier, Ph.D., ASBA Founder

A seed of a thought and many helping hands made our beloved ASBA what it is today.

At the Annual Meeting in Chicago, several members encouraged me to write an article about how it all began. I am delighted to do so, and grateful to The Botanical Artist editors for affording me this opportunity. 

It started with a serendipitous encounter. In autumn 1994 Anne-Marie Evans was teaching her first master class at The New York Botanical Garden, and I was among her students. At some point, Anne-Marie asked, “Why isn’t there an ASBA?” But there were several reasons why the British Society of Botanical Artists that Anne-Marie had in mind as a model wouldn’t translate to the US context. It was immediately apparent to me that an ASBA could not, like the British organization, be by “invitation only.” We needed a broad-based organization that would combine educational outreach with recognition for excellent achievement. It was also clear that we would need institutional support. In spite of the obstacles, I was intrigued by the challenge of seeing what could be done. 

The first move was to contact Curator Jim White at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation to see what he thought of the idea. Jim spent so long mulling over the question that he later liked to joke that, by the time he got around to responding, I’d already launched the ASBA. This is only half true, for the ASBA would never have succeeded without Jim’s help and that of Hunt Director Robert Kiger. For a start, Jim provided a mailing list of botanical artists, and put me in touch with Roger Vandiver, then Curator at the Chicago Botanic Garden, who provided a second list. The GNSI also published the first solicitation for members in their autumn 1994 newsletter. Soon the first responses of members began arriving in my mailbox out on eastern Long Island, New York. With initial membership set at $35, many artists were willing to give this new organization a chance. 

It would have been easier to base operations at the NYBG, where I was finishing my certificate studies, but I felt we needed wider geographical representation among our officers and directors. I had seen Kate Nessler’s art work at an exhibition at the NYBG, and was so impressed by it that I called her up to talk about ASBA. When she told me about her educational initiatives aimed at spreading awareness of native plants in Arkansas, it was clear that she needed to be involved with ASBA in a big way. After a certain amount of persuasion, Kate agreed to become the first Chair of our Board of Directors. Other directors of that first board were Dr. Brinsley Burbidge, Director of Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Gardens; esteemed botanical artist Jessica Tcherepnine, and Jim White. Dr Shirley Sherwood, Dr. Pat Kay, and Dr. Elizabeth Scholtz also offered valuable advice during the early years of our society. 

The question of fellow officers was somewhat trickier. While I received many, many supportive letters from artists delighted at the very thought of an ASBA, most people were so busy with their artwork that they didn’t have time to volunteer to play a major role. But two people did, and so Michele Meyer of Santa Rosa, CA, and Pat Kernan of Albany, NY, became respectively Vice President and Secretary. They each played an important role in the early years. 

Finding a Treasurer was even more complicated, and for a while I filled the dual functions of President and Treasurer, even commuting into New York City to take courses in basic accounting and fundraising. But then we got lucky. A friend put me in touch with Julius Brown, a recently retired corporate Chief Financial Officer with an interest in botanical art. “Julie” added an important measure of professional fiscal advice, and made sure that ASBA was on a sound footing for many years, taking his “second” retirement only in 2010. 

Throughout these early days I kept a journal of my activities. The journal pages are filled with the sheer mechanics of getting a viable national organization up and running. These included preparing announcements, writing and designing the newsletter, making frequent trips to the printers, and stuffing envelopes. Then there were the phone calls to new and prospective members, to fellow officers and board members. The journal shows that I was putting in over twenty hours a week in 1995-1996: no wonder my husband David thought I had gone slightly mad. In addition to such activities, I made trips, such as one to the Morton Arboretum to meet Nancy Hart Stieber and the talented circle of Arboretum artists, another trip to Filoli in California and then up to the Sonnenberg Gardens in upstate New York, which hosted an early ASBA exhibit. I also made presentations at Longwood Gardens, at numerous local garden clubs, and at a conference of the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboretum hosted by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Along the way, many other people became actively involved. For example, Linda Funk of Maine played a major role in organizing our first exhibition at the New England Wildflower Society headquarters, outside of Boston, MA. 

The groundwork for our first annual meeting was laid back in May 1995, when I traveled out to Pittsburgh to meet Jim and Bob at the Hunt Institute. I asked Jim if the Hunt would be willing to host an annual meeting for us. He not only accepted, but suggested we hold it alongside the Hunt’s 8th International Exhibition, in November. That way the ASBA members could meet the international artists and the internationals could learn about the ASBA. One of the key people to become involved through this ASBA-Hunt alliance was Kazunori Kurokawa. Himself an accomplished botanical artist, Kurokawa was an enthusiastic promoter of friendships between Japanese and American artists and an unfailing ASBA supporter. It was also at this first meeting that Bob Kiger proposed that the Hunt host a web-page for the ASBA, an offer that was readily accepted. 

The energy and camaraderie that existed at this first meeting were just incredible. Artists who had been working largely in isolation met each other and developed a sense of combined purpose. The basic Meeting pattern of classes and trips, dinners and reports, was established. We also gave our first awards: the award for outstanding artistic achievement went to Anne Ophelia Dowden while that for service to botanical art was awarded to Jim White. 

Of course, there were bumps along the road, as there are with any organization. But we found our way past them, and now the ASBA has a permanent institutional home at The New York Botanical Garden and has developed in so many ways. 

It was a lot of work to found ASBA, but also a privilege, and I am grateful to all those who lent a hand, from the officers and directors to the financial angels to all those members who took the time to write encouraging letters and/or say thanks in person at the annual meetings. Their letters and cards are now gathered together in a scrapbook, which I treasure. Looking forward toward our twentieth anniversary in 2014, I hope to meet more of the new members and to continue to be amazed at how ASBA has grown and developed from its beginnings back in 1994. 

  • Diane Bouchier
  • Diane presents the first ASBA Service Award to Jim White at the first Annual Meeting