Mieko Ishikawa

2017 ASBA Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art
by Barbara Rose


When she was growing up in Tokyo in the 1950s, long before she ever visited a rainforest, Mieko Ishikawa came across a book that featured a large flowering plant from Southeastern Asia. Its strange fleshy bloom captivated her.

“It is a mystery how a plant like Rafflesia was born on earth,” says Ishikawa, now recognized for her striking portraits of Borneo’s Rafflesia and other rainforest jewels.

 Her interest in rainforest plants later led her to another book, this one about Margaret Mee, the intrepid British artist who painted plants of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Mee’s life inspired her.

“It was difficult for her to make a trip (into the jungle),” Ishikawa says, “so Margaret Mee was a very strong woman.”

Ishikawa might well be describing herself. She is a humble yet very strong woman with the talent, dedication, and focus to emerge as a leading influence in contemporary botanical art. Through classroom teaching and special workshops given in her Tokyo studio, she mentors artists who distinguish themselves internationally.

While pursuing her own life’s work in Malaysia’s rainforests, she fosters ties with researchers and botanists whose goals are to communicate their discoveries in order to protect these vital natural resources. At the same time, she plays an important role in introducing global audiences to Japanese artists and Japan’s native flora.

For these and many other accomplishments, the American Society of Botanical Artists awarded her the 2017 Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art.

“She’s an extraordinary artist,” says Lugene Bruno, curator of art and senior research scholar at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh. “She has an important presence in the direction of art in Japan, and in Europe and the US. She’s such an inspiration to other artists.”

Ishikawa loved drawing and painting from an early age. Perhaps her gift for art came from her father, who designed machinery. He died when she was too young to remember him making art, but he left many drawings and landscapes to remind her of him.

She began painting with oils in junior high and took sketching classes in high school to prepare for becoming a graphic designer. She studied graphic design at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University and, after graduating in 1973, began her career as an illustrator. Her illustrations regularly appeared in children’s books, botanical guidebooks, and popular magazines.

When she chose the natural world as her specialty—plants, insects and animals--she began studying botany and visiting gardens and preserves throughout Japan. 

In the course of her study she met the late Junzo Fujishima, one of the pioneers of Japanese botanical art, with whom she studied from 1986 to 1989.  He taught her not only basic techniques but also a philosophy that guides her work to this day. “Just capture the spirit of the plant and paint it,” she recalls him telling her. “That’s the meaning of the painting.”

Her botanical art was gaining notice in Japan by the 1990s when she joined her husband on a life-changing vacation to a resort in Borneo. Her husband travels widely in Asia, South America, and Africa for his work as an editor for a geography publication. After many visits to South America, he journeyed to other rainforest regions throughout the world, and he later published a guidebook about the world’s tropical rainforests.

On their vacation in 1994, they flew into the jungle in a small prop-plane over a remote mountainous region that took her breath away. “It was a magnificent landscape,” she recalls of her flight to Malaysia’s Mulu. “The first time I went into the jungle, I was overwhelmed by the enormous trees.  I was so overwhelmed by the beauty I couldn’t paint.”

When they returned the following year, she had a chance to climb the 7,795-foot Mount Mulu, the second-highest mountain in the remote Gunun Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. They climbed for three days with a guide and porters. Climbing Mount Mulu was extremely strenuous, she said, but its environs were utterly fascinating to her. Once back down from the mountain in Bako National Park, she painted the Myrmecondia, the mysterious ant plants that for years she had longed to see in the wild. It was her first painting of the rainforest plant.

Since then she’s returned to Borneo 12 times, visiting more than a dozen national parks, preserves, and research areas and climbing two mountains—Mt. Kinabalu, 13,435 feet; and Mt. Trusmadi, 8,668 feet. While ascending Low’s Peak on Mt. Kinabalu, she drew her first sketches of Nepenthes, a genus of carnivorous plants with pitchers that grow bigger as the elevation increases. Among her paintings is a lyrical watercolor on vellum of Nepenthes villosa.

“Each time I have been deeply impressed with the magnificent rainforests, which are full of wonder, energy, and life,” she wrote for a recent issue of the ASBA’s “Botanical Artist” quarterly journal. “I return home speechless with admiration and excitement beyond description.”

On every visit to Borneo, she returns to the natural habitat for Rafflesia, a parasite on a group of vines. Rafflesia flowers only briefly, for three to four days, and no one can be certain when the plants will bloom. But her diligence finally paid off. “In 2000, I finally saw a blooming Rafflesia pricei, and could hardly contain my excitement as I sketched it.”

She has also sketched and painted Rafflesia keithii, and her most recent painting of this species was shown in “Weird, Wild & Wonderful,” the Second New York Botanical Garden Triennial Exhibition in 2014-2015.

About the time Ishikawa began visiting Borneo, her career took another important turn. Her paintings caught the eye of the late Kazunori Kurokawa, a Tokyo businessman who introduced Japan’s contemporary botanical artists to the rest of the world through his relationships with artists, collectors, and institutions. An Honorary Curator of Art at the Hunt Institute, he received ASBA’s 1999 Award for Excellence in the Service of Botanical Art.

Kurokawa recommended Ishikawa’s work to the Hunt, and her painting, “Japanese Fagaceous Fruits and Acorns,” was accepted for the Institute’s 8th International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration in 1995.

At the exhibition’s opening, she met not only the collector Dr. Shirley Sherwood, but also a staff member of the United States National Arboretum in Washington, DC, who later introduced her to the Arboretum’s then-director, Dr. Thomas S. Elias. These contacts led to exhibitions and many other opportunities in the US and Europe. She was invited to do a solo show at the National Arboretum in 2001 and another at the Embassy of Japan’s Information and Culture Center in Washington, DC, in 2003.  Dr. Sherwood visited her home in Tokyo and has added her paintings to her private collection.

Today, her work is held in many public collections including the Lindley Library, Royal Horticultural Society, London; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation; The Shirley Sherwood collection; and The Highgrove Florilegium for the Prince of Wales’ Charitable Trust.

Her evolution as an artist has been remarkable, Bruno says. From her lovely acorn painting (14 x 10 inches), with its rich browns, quiet symmetry, and precise detail, she’s gone to monumental works such as “Amorphophallus titanium,” a life-size portrait of a five-foot, five-inch rainforest flower.  The giant bloom is exactly as tall as Ishikawa.

She was awarded a Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal in 2006 for her paintings of flowering cherries, a tree associated with centuries-old Japanese traditions. In all, she submitted ten works to RHS, including two large weeping cherry paintings on which she worked for five years.

Because cherry flowers are very short-lived, she worked overnight without sleeping during bloom seasons. She brought branches to her studio from a preserve of cherry trees maintained by Japan’s Minister of Agriculture, plunging them into buckets of ice water to keep them fresh, because air-conditioning would have dried them out.

“Because cherry trees have a long history in Japan, there are many stories and books about them,” she says. “Some are very happy; some are very dark. Cherry flowers evoke very complicated feelings so they are very difficult to paint.

“If you look at one flower it looks very fragile and fleeting, but if you look at the bough it’s very heavy and massive,” she says. “The aesthetic of Japan’s cherry blossom culture is a rather curious amalgam of both warm and cool. Sometimes it feels as if the flower is cold and distant. On the other hand, during the cherry blossom season, the flowers welcome people to picnic underneath the boughs.  Japanese feel differently about them depending on the time of life.”

On days when Ishikawa finds time in her busy schedule to paint, she spends one to two hours in the morning and four to five hours in the afternoon in her studio. She sometimes continues painting into the midnight hours. But teaching and related activities consume many days. One-third of her time is spent teaching weekly classes at five different institutions. She also organizes workshops at botanical gardens and offers special classes in her home to guide advanced students who are preparing work for submission to international exhibitions at the Hunt or the RHS.

“Mieko observes students' artworks one by one, and asks the students what they want to express through their work,” says student Akiko Enokido. “Rather than demonstrating and teaching specific techniques, she encourages each artist to think, practice, and develop their own style.”

Enokido recalls coming to class six weeks before the 2016 RHS exhibition with works she thought she had finished. “You made very good progress,” Ishikawa told her before pointing out areas to improve, “so please keep working on it to complete the work.”
After recovering from her shock, Enokido says, “I learned the depth of perfecting the work until the last minute. I owe it to Mieko wholeheartedly for being able to win a Gold Medal at RHS.”

She is one of four of Ishikawa’s students who were awarded RHS Gold Medals within three years, through 2017.

In addition to teaching, Ishikawa helped organize a Flora Japonica that drew 60,000 visitors during its run at Kew Gardens from September 2016 to March 2017.  She remained involved as the exhibition returned to Tokyo and as it prepares to open in June 2018 in Kotchi Prefecture, a southern region where a pioneering Japanese botanist was born.

Meanwhile, she continues to work to expand her connections with botanists and others who study rainforests. In 2019, she plans to join the Flora Malesiana Symposium meeting in Brunei. The international group, which meets every three years in a different country, aims to name, describe and inventory the vascular plants of Malaysia, a hotspot of biodiversity that includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea.

Her painting focuses mainly on Rafflesia and Nepenthes species, plants that continue to fill her with wonder. She hopes her work will convey the beauty and mystery of the huge jungles that created such plants, and inspire people to protect them.

“Tropical rainforests, sometimes called the ‘Cradle of Diverse Life,’ are considered the last treasure land of biodiversity on the earth,” she wrote for the “Botanical Artist” in March 2014, which featured her Rafflsia keithii on the cover. “It is the home of great variety of plants and animals, including species that are yet to be discovered. This is the reason why such magnificent plants like Rafflesia flowers exist. I very much hope that these mysterious plants and humankind are able to live in good harmony forever.”

The interview with Mieko Ishikawa was conducted via Skype with translation assistance from Yoko Harada, one of her students.


                           Mieko Ishikawa

  • Myrmecodia tuberosa, 47 x 34 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 1995 Mieko Ishikawa (Ishikawa's first artwork of Borneo)
  • Amorphophallus titanum, 2 x 1.1 m, Watercolor on paper, © 2012 Mieko Ishikawa,
  • Dischidia rafflesiana, 35 x 30 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2012 Mieko Ishikawa
  • ET, Dried pitcher of Nepenthes villosa, 40 x 34 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2012 Mieko Ishikawa. This work is included in the Shirley Sherwood Collection.
  • Nepenthes rajah, 70 x 48 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2010 Mieko Ishikawa
  • Rafflesia keithii, 57.5 x 75.5 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2013 Mieko Ishikawa,
  • Cerasus spachiana 'Ujou-shidare' , 87 x 42 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2012 Mieko Ishikawa
  • Paulownia tomentosa, 61 x 42 cm, Watercolor on paper, © 2015 Mieko Ishikawa (From Flora Japonica Exhibition)