Story behind the art of Jean Emmons

Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Sorbus gonggashanica 

Sorbus gonggashanica
University of Washington Botanic Gardens, Seattle, Washington

On October mornings in Seattle, nothing is more wonderful than walking through the Brian O. Mulligan Sorbus Collection at the Washington Park Arboretum. The Arboretum sits right next to the water and the marine air brings in lots of mist.  The light is soft with no strong shadows. The berries in the collection glow in colors of ivory, rose, topaz and garnet set against leaf colors ranging from lemon to crimson. The trees are small, so the berries and leaves are down at eye level where they can be appreciated.  I wanted to do a painting that implied what it is like to walk under these small trees and look up.


I began to work from my photos of Sorbus gonggashanica, but the painting was kind of flat and lifeless. Then Ray Larson, Curator of Living Collections, gave me permission to collect berries and leaves from the ground. Having actual specimens to look at, I began to see lots of color reflected in the berries. The painting started to go better. But while I was working on the painting, I was using a mask over the vellum to protect it. About 60 hours into the painting, water somehow got under the mask and created a permanent warp. I had to abandon the piece and restart the whole thing. It went pretty quickly though.  I had already struggled through the tough parts of the painting and knew what to do. The eye and the hand remember… Later, I added some mosses and lichens for textural contrast.


I’ve never been much of a tree painter, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  Trees have a gravitas and a timelessness lacking in other plants.


The collection is named for former arboretum director Brian O. Mulligan, who loved Sorbus and worked on the collection for decades. The collection contains almost 100 taxa, making it one of the most extensive in North America.

Read more about this artist’s work: 19th Annual International
  • © 2017 Jean Emmons
    Sorbus gonggashanica
    Sorbus gonggashanica
    Watercolor on Vellum
    10" x 12"