Botanica Collected

Nature Promotes Me and I Promote Her

Stephen Sinon

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


The New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library is known for the size and scope of its holdings, dating from the twelfth century to the present. The Art and Illustration Collection comprise numerous collections of original art, largely botanical. It is a valuable and useful resource in the study of botanical illustration, an invaluable teaching tool for students in the Gardens’ botanical illustration classes and an outstanding source of materials to enhance the Library’s ongoing exhibitions program.

This collection currently contains over 24,000 original works in pencil and pen and ink drawings, watercolors, oil paintings, woodcuts, lithographs, engravings, photography and sculpture.  It represents the broad range of illustrative techniques employed in depicting natural history subjects and includes examples of the works of many well-known botanical illustrators.

In addition, the collection contains artworks which were created to illustrate the Garden’s scientific publications, and continues to grow as scientists donate original illustrations used in their publications, and artists donate their works to the collection knowing they will be housed in climate controlled storage and made available for study and exhibition for future generations to enjoy.

There is one collection which deserves to be much better known. This article celebrates the most recent donation to the Mertz Library, the work of Manabu Saito. Having taught in the Botanical Art Certificate Program, he recently moved to Arizona to enjoy the benefits of the climate and paint the region’s flora. The Library was given 220 pieces of his artwork with the promise of more to come. The gift ranges from original illustrations, submitted for publication, to pieces painted in situ in the Costa Rican rain forest and Sonora Desert.

Manabu’s work joins that of well-known botanical artist, also found in the collection, Anne Ophelia Dowden, which holds some 600 of her research paintings. They first met chosen by the Frame House Gallery in Louisville, KY in the early 1970’s as part of a select group of contemporary natural history artists, whose work was offered by the gallery in a limited edition prints. When Manabu was first starting out, he took evening classes at The NYBG to learn basic botany. He later taught here, and continues to teach when his schedule allows at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

Born in Tokyo, Manabu developed a deep interest in nature, reflective of traditional Japanese interests in the harmony of man and nature. After World War II, Manabu came to the US in 1953, studying industrial design at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. After graduation, he joined the staff of Raymond Loewy Associates, where he designed award winning showrooms for Nikon and Sony, developed exhibits for Expo 67 in Montreal and Expo 69 in Osaka, illustrated a film for the United Nations and designed a helicopter interior for President John F. Kennedy.

He became much sought after for book illustration, and his work appeared on stamps for The National Wildlife Federation and The United States Post Office.  Like many botanical artists, Manabu created a garden of his own and filled his home with more houseplants. Well might one wonder how such a successful designer could turn his attentions solely to botanical art? Manabu attributes the profound change to a rainy weekend in the Hamptons when he began to draw and paint flowers. Manabu states, “The flowers in the garden communicated to me in ways things like toasters never had.” His botanical illustrations were first published in an eight-page spread in Audubon Magazine in July 1973, and, like his subjects, his career has blossomed ever since.

Manabu always works from life to get the coloring and texture of the flower on the spot. His advice for botanical artists is to paint all you can – everyday, always from life.  Painting around the globe in Costa Rica, Surinam, Bangladesh, Trinidad and South Africa, his largest commission was illustrating 1,600 flowers appearing in 1984’s Wildflowers of North America which took some ten years to complete.  Manabu has exhibited his work at The New York Botanical Garden, The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Horticultural Society of New York, The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, The Tucson Botanical Garden and New York State Museum in addition to many galleries across the country. His artworks are in the collection of Dr. Shirley Sherwood and are published in her volume A Passion for Plants: Contemporary Botanical Masterworks. 

Manabu’s preferred medium is watercolor and he paints as often as he can for several hours each day in his studio and outdoors in his garden or wherever his travels may lead. One time he painted some mushrooms in the mist by lying on a shower curtain while a friend held an umbrella over him. Manabu has had the honor of painting an endangered flower in Arizona, being led to its protected habitat by a team of rangers who watched over him as he labored in the soaring temperatures to capture the fragile beauty of the plant in bloom. Often while painting in the wild he finds his lap becomes his studio.

All of Manibu’s works are signed with a red insignia which he identifies as a salamander, his good luck symbol. Working in the Oriental manner with his paper laid flat and his brush held vertically, his paintings can take up to two weeks to complete. He says, “I always look at the color of the flower first, then the shape and then the habitat.” Layers of watercolor are applied so that each petal and leaf have depth and brilliance all their own.

After his first trip to Arizona in 1967, Manabu has harbored a dream of building a garden of native cacti and succulents. It is this group of plants that he is currently painting.

  • Magnolia grandiflora, Magnolia, 19.5x24”, watercolor on paper, ©Manabu Saito 1976
  • Wild plantain, 32x26”, watercolor on paper, ©Manabu Saito 2007
  • Red Rose Mallow, watercolor on paper, ©Manabu Saito 2002