Conference Memories 

Phoenix 2009 

By Pria Graves  

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 15, Issue 4 


As soon as the shuttle leaves the airport it’s clear that we’re not in Kansas (or San Francisco or New England) any more. I can’t help noticing the landscape: cactus, palo verde trees, aloes, saguaros, and other plants unknown in our home climes. The day is hot, the predominant color of the plants is a soft blue-grey tone and the soil is reddish. We’ve arrived in Phoenix! 

The conference starts with the ever-popular portfolio sharing. Student work from Kate Nessler’s pre-conference master class, on vellum,painting Indian corn , was a big hit. It was also fun to see Carol Hamilton’s new images from favorite works, cropped selections reproduced as note cards. Molly Gill’s “naked” cactus studies were lovely, a good preparation for her drawings of them with their spiny clothing! 

Too quickly it was over and we all moved to the Annual Meeting and lunch. Our new board was introduced including new President Dick Rauh. Several speakers reminded us that our board is very hard working and that they are our board, available to us whenever we have questions or contributions. Board members come from all over the country. 

Executive Director Robin Jess pointed out that our art form is more relevant than ever. The conservation and restoration of plants everywhere is necessary for the future of the planet and our art speaks to and for this need. Carol Woodin reported on our busy year of exhibitions – the annual exhibition in New York, the two shows currently on display in Phoenix, and our first traveling exhibit, Losing Paradise? She reminded us that many individuals and groups make these exhibits and catalogs possible. 

The financial news from Julius Brown, our treasurer, was mixed. Accountants are, as he said, a glum sort by nature. Fortunately, he has long counseled the ASBA to practice a conservative approach, with the result that while we are certainly suffering from the current economic climate, we’re still able to hold our own. Julius also reported that in response to increased costs and decreased income from our endowment, the board has voted to increase dues to $85 ($75 through chapters). Even so, this only covers 2/3 of the cost of membership so additional fund raising is crucial. 

We’re encouraged to spread the word about ASBA and to recruit new members. To this end, there is a new membership brochure, updates to our website, and some tuning of guidelines for chapters and artists’ circles. 

Journal editor Libby Kyer called on attendees to give her their ideas for various columns and to submit scans of our work for the Image Bank. She passed out forms for members to write their suggestions She then stood at the exit and gleefully collected over 100 completed forms. You’ll see that bounty reflected in future issues of TBA. And you can still contribute images and ideas just by contacting Libby at or PH: 303.322.3242. 

The Education committee continues to focus on linking up educators. This year’s goal is the creation of a children’s curriculum. The Awards Committee announced three grants again this year: $3000 Anne Ophelia Dowden Grant goes to Maria Alice de Rezende of Brazil, while the other grants of $1000 each go to Debbie Bankert of Virginia and Jeanne Debons of Oregon. 

Finally, in celebration of the ASBA’s 15th anniversary, our first board chair, Kate Nessler, cut a huge cake decorated to commemorate the event. We all quickly finished up our dessert and boarded the buses to head out to the Desert Botanical Gardens! 

I opted for the silverpoint introduction with Judy Kula for my first workshop. She did an amazing job, supplying us with a holder (an inexpensive propelling pencil!) and a length of silver plus a wide range of surfaces to try out. Known as the “queen of seed pods,” Judy also gave each of us a baggie full of wonderful things to draw. 

After a quick introduction to the use of metalpoint through history, we all had fun drawing with silver on Yupo, watercolor paper prepared with Golden’s silverpoint ground and most surprisingly, samples from the paint store! Dr. Kula pointed out that silverpoint is the ultimate portable medium – you can prepare the pages in a sketchbook with the silverpoint ground, pack your holder, and away you go! When the workshop ended the garden was tempting but the buses were waiting so we headed back to the hotel. 

We were soon on our way again, this time to the Phoenix Art Museum to enjoy a reception and view the exhibit, A Natural Perspective.  The nibbles were lovely but soon we all crowded in to see the impressive collection of work.  I was struck by the thematic organization of the pieces: groups of fruits and vegetables, cactus and succulents, and autumnal leaves as well as flowers.  We ooh’d and ah’d over some of the amazing paintings including Jean Emmons luminous cabbage and Karen Klugleins’ gorgeous sunflower. 

Friday started with the essential search for Starbucks and then a flock of buses to carry us all in different directions.  In the cool of the morning I almost envied the folks heading out for various garden tours but I had signed up for Elaine Hulgren’s Illuminated Desert workshop so I found the bus headed for the desert Botanical Gardens. 

Before the conference, each class participant had chosen a plant and a font for our project. When we arrived Elaine handed each of us a prepared packet containing all the information and photos we needed. She showed us lots of magic, including the use of shell gold to gild larger areas and tricks for the use of a ruling pen with gold watercolor for fine lines and dots.  She also gave us tips on how to mount and frame our finished pieces to protect the vellum. At the end of the day we had each made a good start on our own illuminated letter: Hoefnagel watch out! 

After the long day it was tempting to relax but I couldn’t miss the Wildflower Forum.  Carol Woodin started things off by talking about the Losing Paradise? exhibition. Botanical art is a living art form and we have an important role to play, informing people that “endangered species” applies to more than just large animals! Plants provide the very basis of life on earth and the loss of plant species threatens the whole future of life as we know it. 

The artists creating these pieces faced challenges beyond just capturing the portrait of the plant: they had to develop relationships with scientists and gain access to plants not widely available. They were not normally able to take material back to their studios for work, so relied on sketches and photos made in the field. 

Derek Norman then introduced a panel including Bobbie Angell, Wendy Hodgson of the Desert Botanical Gardens and Dick Rauh. They stressed the importance of adhering to the new Code of Ethics (available at after the first of the year) the ASBA has developed, especially when working with threatened materials. 

The panelists encouraged artists to get involved with native plant societies, arboreta and other sources of collected plants. Be persistent when seeking to develop a relationship with a scientist! And local groups of artists should consider partnering with such organizations for exhibiting their work. 

On Saturday I went to Painting White Flowers with Elaine Searle. Many of us are timid about tackling white flowers so it was a pleasure to have some pointers from someone who loves painting them! After experimenting with the creation of a range of different shadow tones and observing how the appearance of each changed when placed next to green we got to work on single petals and then on a flower. Hopefully we’ll all feel confident enough to tackle white flowers when the opportunity presents itself. 

The Silent Auction was great fun as always – each of us pondering how much to bid on the lovely original works, trying to score a favored book, a beautiful scarf or a goody for our studio. We snatched a final chat with friends we see only once a year until the tables closed. 

At the banquet dinner, well-deserved thanks were given to the local chapter and to committee chairs Joyce Peters, Lynn Reves and Marilyn Garber for organizing this fabulous conference, as well as to Dr. Ken Schutz of the Desert Botanical Gardens for all their support and to Dr. Ballinger of the Phoenix Art Museum for making the exhibit of A Natural Perspective possible. The awards committee announced that this year’s well-deserved ASBA Award for Service goes to Carol Hamilton, and the Diane Bouchier Founder’s Award for Excellence in Botanical Art to Francesca Anderson. Congratulations to both! 

Keynote speaker Wendy Hodgson of the Desert Botanical Gardens shared her perspective on botanizing in the unique environment of the Grand Canyon. Because of its range of altitudes, geologic formations, and soil types, the Canyon is home to a huge variety of plants including many endemic to the region. It was exciting to hear that much of the early botanical research in the area was done by women over 70 years ago. Some of their observations about cross species hybridization have only recently been verified! Wendy also announced that there will be an exhibit of work by the Desert Botanical Gardens team of artists at the Kolb Gallery at the Canyon next summer. The theme will be the area’s botanical bonanza. 

As the banquet dinner drew to a close and we waited to collect our auction items, I snatched one last chance to visit with friends and hear what others had been up to during the days of the conference. As always, other people’s choices of excursions and workshops sounded fabulous. I always find myself thinking “what if…” and “next year…”! Next year, the annual meeting will rise like a phoenix in Pittsburgh, for more education, art and camaraderie, including the reception of the 13th International Exhibit of Botanical Art. Don’t miss it! 

  • The iconic boojum tree in Wallace Gardens.
  • Artist and cactus square off - drawing and evading spines takes talent!
  • Front approach to the domicile space at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen West. Interns still study here.
  • Elaine Hultgren demonstrates illumination for botanical artists
  • Martha Kemp discusses her artworks in the Legacy Exhibition.
  • Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski and Martha Long studying a seed pod in the silverpoint workshop.