CCA+D: Botanical Treasures of Lewis & Clark: New Art for the Bicentennial
With the 1996 publication of Contemporary Botanical Artists by D. Shirley Sherwood, another chapter in botanical art began. What previously had been considered a minor skill had gained new respect and found enthusiastic support among students, artists, collectors, and galleries. From its roots in antiquity though its important place in the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, and its incarnation as flower painting in the Golden Age of Dutch culture, botanical art never left the scene. It merely changed its painterly aesthetic to reflect its time. Born in the realistic tradition of documenting nature with scrupulous fidelity, botanical art has recently taken cues from the impressionistic water lilies of Claude Monet and the abstract constructions of Georgia O’Keefe. Dr. Sherwood’s collection has shown the world that artists, in the solitude of their studios, have long been applying contemporary principles to a genre often placed on the lowest rung of the hierarchy of subject matter.
In organizing Botanical Treasures of Lewis & Clark, I sought to bring together artists from the Corcoran College’s burgeoning botanical art program who were open to exploring this new territory of plant imagery. The artists selected were chosen for their technical expertise, their interest in botanical research, and their receptivity to such modern works as the plant drawings of Ellsworth Kelly and Piet Mondrian. We all live and work in the 21st century. We want our botanical art to remain relevant. We must allow it to continue to evolve and reinterpret its time-honored heritage.
Botanical Treasures of Lewis& Clark is a group exhibition that demonstrates the disparate ways that today’s artists render plants. William R. Tuthill’s lithograph pays homage to the prints of 18th century florilegia, while Marcia DeWitt’s exquisitely rendered penstemon echoes the Victorian tradition of watercolors on a white ground. Along with Julie Wolfe’s fantastical jewelry and Vicki Malone’s formal gold-leaf scorpion-weed, Neena Birch’s blanket-flower sculpture takes a contemporary approach. The splendid balsamroot of Christine Andreae and the elegant trilliums of Julie Weihe reflect the influence of the pencil work of William Bailey and Stone Roberts, while the precise pen-and-ink drawings of Michael Rawson evoke the high standard of illustration set by Alice Tangerini. And it is in Wendy Cortesi’s lyrical and refined snow-on-the-mountain that we see the past and the future come together.
With the opening of Botanical Treasures of Lewis & Clark our years of research, work, travel, and thousands and thousands of preparatory drawings come to fruition. I want to thank the artist for their enthusiasm and dedication to the project of interpreting the plants collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. I am deeply indebted to Jan Denton for inviting me to help realize her vision. I am especially grateful to Corcoran Dean Christina DePaul, who never wavered in her support of this project. We hope visitor’s will enjoy and appreciate our work as they become acquainted with what we view as a new chapter in botanical art.
Leslie Exton is an artist and teacher. She is Associate Professor at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, Chairman of the Corcoran’s Department of Drawing & Painting/CE, and coordinator of the botanical art program. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.