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In a Multi-Year Project, Our Native Flowers Sit for Their Portraits

Botanical art has been around for centuries. Immortalizing beloved everyday plants, as well as those that have vanished over time, the art form is practiced by artists all over the world--including many who are currently hard at work at Minneapolis’ Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden.

The artists are students from the Minnesota School of Botanical Art, and they have been working on a florilegium of the garden under the direction of Marilyn Garber, the school’s founder, since 2010. Simply put, says Garber, a florilegium is a “fancy word for a group of drawings or illustrations of plants that grow in a particular place.” The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden florilegium is just the third contemporary American florilegium to get underway.

Car Keys in the Garden

Florilegiums date back to the 15th century, when explorers would take artists with them on their travels to record the flora and fauna of the lands they discovered. But there hadn’t been much call for the practice until 2000, when the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Filoli in Woodside, Calif., both launched their own florilegium projects.

Garber, past president of the American Society of Botanical Artists, has been visiting the wildflower garden since moving to Minnesota in 1969. She had been looking for the right place to do a florilegium since she started her school of botanical art in 2001. She thought the garden’s beauty and history seemed perfect, but she wasn’t quite decided—until one day, while walking the garden’s paths, she lost her car keys.

After looking everywhere, she went to the shelter to see if she could call a friend to bring out her extra set so she could get to work on time. “One of the wonderful volunteers offered to take me to my house, get the keys and bring me back,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘These are nice people here. This is where the florilegium needs to be. I want this little jewel of a place to be remembered five hundred years from now.’”

A Painting a Year

Garden Curator Susan Wilkins selected the 110 plants that will be included in the florilegium, and the first artist chose a plant to work on in August of 2010. The plants chosen are representative of each part of the garden, and Wilkins also picked out a few plants that were important to Eloise Butler. “It’s a really significant project because the art will become part of the garden’s legacy, and the pieces will serve as a kind of record of the plants found there,” says Wilkins, adding that she hopes the florilegium will raise awareness about the garden and native plants.

More than 50 of Garber’s students are working on the project, which she expects will take six to eight years to complete. Much of the timing depends on Mother Nature.

 “Our goal is to finish a painting in one year, but some can take two to three years to complete because the weather doesn’t cooperate,” she explains. If the plant doesn’t bloom well or produce pods the way it usually does, we have to wait another year to paint those stages the plant normally goes through in order to document all of them.”

Even with nature’s cooperation, creating each illustration takes a considerable amount of time. Nothing can be removed from the garden, so artists visit at different times of day to take reference photos and do sketches, which they take back to their studios to work from. Students are also being asked to give detailed accounts of why they chose the plant or plants they’re working on and to provide samples of the paints and the paper they used. “We want to document all sides of this process so artists 100 years form now will be able to see what we were using and how we did what we did,” Garber explains.

So far, 35 paintings have been finished and accepted into the florilegium. Most are now on display at the Longfellow House near Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, where the school is located. They can also be viewed online here. Plans for a spring exhibition at Minneapolis’ Central Library are in the works.

Meleah Maynard's last article for The Line was a portrait of urban beekeepers, in our July 22, 2013 issue.

Photos courtesy Minnesota School of Botanical Art.

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