Marilyn Garber

2015 ASBA James White Service Award for Dedication to Botanical Art

by Mary Bauschelt


Marilyn Garber’s passion for beauty and love of nature was inspired in childhood, growing up in the middle of a 15-acre natural prairie on her 375-acre family farm in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Every few years she would witness the monarch butterflies, as they would migrate through Iowa, settling for a few days in the farm’s grove. Her mother Helen knew a lot about plants, gardening and nature. Marilyn worked with her mother in their large garden and the family would take walks in the woods by a nearby lake. All of this was a huge influence on her and would work to weave together her bond to nature.

After moving to Minnesota and while working full-time, Marilyn attended The Atelier School of Classical Realism in the evenings; she signed up for a watercolor class and became hooked on it. Marilyn bought books on Redouté’s works and studied them, and also visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art and observed an original Redouté on vellum. She contacted The New York Botanic Garden and inquired about distance learning, but that was not offered as part of their certificate program.

When Diane Bouchier founded the ASBA in 1994, Marilyn attended the first meeting at the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation. She has been an ardent supporter of the organization ever since. She said, “I have been so fortunate to be a part of this organization. I’ve learned a lot and made some wonderful friends.  I will always be thankful for the vision and force behind the birth of this organization.”

Pursuing her botanical art, Marilyn entered art shows and exhibited in three Minnesota galleries. Around the same time in 1993, Marilyn decided to travel to the Kuna Yala, a remote area in Panama where she painted the medicinal plants used by the Kuna Indians. This was a six-year project, wherein she traveled to Panama every year for the next six years. These works, along with the paintings of Milton Alba Andreve, a native Kuna who Marilyn trained as a botanical artist, were exhibited at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center, Panama City, Panama, in 1999.

In 1999, the Como Conservatory in Minneapolis contacted Marilyn to teach botanical watercolor classes.  She also developed a curriculum for a botanical art program there as the program had strayed from botanical art. Marilyn was still working full-time as a Marketing Director when she decided to start her own school. In 2001, her proposal was accepted by the Bakken Museum and Medicinal Garden where she began to teach her classes on Saturdays. This was the beginning of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art.  It was a timely move, as her marketing position was eliminated and she put her efforts into the school. She hired six other instructors and augmented the program annually with master classes. The School has continued to grow and on January 1, 2013, Longfellow House became the new residence of the School.

If this wasn’t enough in 2005, Marilyn started the Desert Botanic Garden Art and Illustration Program in Phoenix. The crowning glory of this program in Phoenix was a project called the Grand Canyons Green Heart, The Unsung Legacy of Plants, an exhibition at the Grand Canyon in 2010. It was the first time that the Grand Canyon ever had an exhibition that focused on plants. Unfortunately the art and illustration program no longer exists; however a group of approximately 25 botanical artists still meet and work together on various projects.

Two major steps forward were the two ASBA Annual Meeting and Conferences that Marilyn volunteered to host, one in Minneapolis in 2005, and the other in Phoenix in 2009. Both conferences had exhibitions that were held at major art museums; the first ASBA exhibitions ever held at these prestigious venues. Fresh Cuts was held at the Weisman Art Museum in a fantastic building designed by Frank Gehry. She also helped organize the Legacy exhibition at the Desert Botanic Garden and the ASBA exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum.

Marilyn’s dedication to teaching is unparalleled. Marilyn has taught countless classes and numerous students about botanical art. In August of 2006, the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, the Botanical Garden Organization of Thailand, arranged an International Conference, Exhibition and Illustration Workshop under the theme: “Botanical Illustration for Tropical Plants.” Robin Jess and Marilyn Garber attended the conference to help build a relationship with the ASBA.

Robin reminisces about their trip to Thailand: “Marilyn is probably the most natural teacher I have ever seen. In Thailand, at the end of a long day of traveling through a cloud forest, visiting historic stupa, and touring His Majesty the King's Royal Project, I was ready to crawl into bed. Marilyn, however, sat up in the pavilion with a few other conference attendees, including a botanist/artist from Malaysia. Marilyn was teaching her some watercolor techniques!”

During a visit to Ireland as a personal trip, Robin and Marilyn were staying at a lovely bed and breakfast where the family had a daughter about nine years old. Robin says, “When Marilyn found out that the daughter liked to draw, Marilyn immediately got out her materials and sat with the little girl at the backyard picnic table and showed her how to draw a flower. The girl was thrilled and we left her with an ASBA exhibition catalog - a future Irish member?”

Robin also recalls Marilyn's mind never stops. “No matter what happens during the course of a day, it will give her an idea of something that could be done relating to botanical art. Actually, at one point in Thailand, I said, ‘Marilyn, no more ideas today - I can't keep up with you!’ It is a joy to be around her for this reason. I was in awe of her energy and ideas. Marilyn is someone who truly eats, sleeps, breathes - and dreams - botanical art!”

Marilyn retired after the 2015 conference from her staff position as the Annual Meeting and Programs Coordinator. She has served on the ASBA board and as President from 2007-2009, Vice President, Co-Chair of the Education Committee, and Exhibitions Committee member. In 2008 she spearheaded the first official Long Range Plan. She directs the Eloise Butler Wildflower Florilegium, which includes artwork from students and instructors of the Minnesota School of Botanical Art. Marilyn was the catalyst in bringing Weird, Wild & Wonderful to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and she has organized our workshops and activities at the annual Botany Conferences.

A quote from one of her students, Scott O. Stapleton:

“The Minnesota School of Botanical Art is itself a garden seeded, watered and nurtured by its founder, Marilyn Garber. To be a student in the school is to be encouraged at every turn. You enter intimidated by all that you have to learn in the midst of the great number, or so it seems, who are already masters at their craft.  How can you hope to join their ranks? Marilyn knows, and with characteristic modesty and cheerfulness she shares it without hesitation. And it is astonishing that before long you find yourself saying, Good grief, I did that! And this, too, needs to be said: her garden grows. It is breath-taking to see how many new plantings--new course offerings, new instructors (many of international repute), new exhibits and new opportunities to exhibit, and new occasions in general to expand our knowledge--she generates. I would almost say you can't help but grow here, but I know that's not true. Something is required, and again, she knows what that is and she freely shares it with us: "Keep your brushes wet." And I'm now thinking, you know, I can do this.”

As a tribute to her late mother who inspired her love of nature, Marilyn provides the $500 Helen Gray Garber Award at the Annual International exhibitions.

  • The hills of the Garber Prairie
  • Anemone pulsatilla (pasque flower) - watercolor by Marilyn Garber
  • Milton Alba Andreve, painting the Medicinal Plants of the Kuna Yala
  • Longfellow House-The Minnesota School of Botanical Art
  • The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
  • Marilyn Garber