Philadelphia is often portrayed artistically through illustrations of a sweeping skyline, but Sarah Maxwell believes the Philadelphia area contains a subtler brand of art: one that stems straight from the soil.
Maxwell, a former college professor and vice president of marketing at the international company Aramark, said she hadn’t planned on being a botanical illustrator.
“I had no interest in botanical art,” Maxwell said. “Until I saw it.”
Maxwell is one of many artists involved in the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators, an association less than 20 years old of about 75 illustrators who are dedicated to exchanging ideas about, studying and showcasing botanical art.
The society also intends to educate college students about the foundations and fine-tunings of botanical art through a unique partnership with Arcadia University. A concentrated, highly-focused education on botany is required to learn and master botanical illustration, Maxwell said.
“Botanical artists want to show a plant very accurately and they’re very concerned about the accuracy,” Maxwell said. “It’s very different than other kinds of arts because the emphasis really is on nature, and it’s celebrating nature as opposed to celebrating the painter.”
Brenda Aiken, a prominent member of PSBI, does not hesitate to disclose the difficulties, rewards, trials and tribulations of a botanical artist. Aiken had always been an artist, but, like Maxwell, botanical art was not initially part of the plan.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to concentrate on and I had always been afraid of watercolor,” Aiken said, referencing watercolor as the primary painting tool for botanical illustrators. Aiken got over her fear one day with the help of her friend.
“I sort of wandered around with the watercolors myself, and my husband saw that I was doing this and he read in the Inquirer that the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators was celebrating its 10th anniversary,” Aiken said. “It was an article about what PSBI was all about and some of the members and so forth and it gave a list of teachers and he said, ‘I think this is what you need.’”
Aiken said she quickly fell in love with the practice.
Only two of the Society’s members – including Maxwell- live within the city limits.
“I think botanical artists generally love plants so they generally love to have a garden and it’s difficult to have a garden in the city,” Maxwell said. However, Maxwell said she found a few community gardens that make perfect spots to paint flowers in the city.
Although many of the artists live just outside Philadelphia, many of them come into the city for the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, where their illustrations can be displayed alongside the plethora of flowers. Each botanical artist can submit two paintings, and three jurors must approve each of those paintings in order to be displayed at the show.
“We’ve kept some of the comments that people write down, and they just love it,” Maxwell said. “And at the flower show we have people who come to our booth every year. Last year it was rather hard to find us. But some die-hards did find us.”
Aside from the Philadelphia Flower Show, the botanical artists meet when their pieces are showcased at the Jenkins Arboretum.
“I think anyone who goes to an arboretum or knows of one is a plant person and so people tend to react to the paintings for their realism,” Aiken said. “They look at them and say, ‘Oh yes, that is the way that grows.’ And I think they appreciate that.”
What sets botanical art apart from so many different art forms it not only its specificity, but, Aiken said, its high prioritization of realism. The botanical painter must paint as accurately as possible, by showing each and every detail of the plant.
Aiken said making a flower look like a “pretty picture” is not the goal of a botanical artist.
“It’s very detailed,” she said. “You must paint plants and vegetation as they grow…You can’t decide ‘my composition is unbalanced, I’m going to stick a leaf over here.’ Unless the leaf actually grows organically from that particular point you can’t add it. It’s very exact. You must do what the plant dictates and I like that. I like that order of it. I guess I’m kind of nit-picky: I like details.”
Often these illustrations are used in publications that teach the anatomy and growth of flowers, giving botanical art an almost scientific aspect.
“Quite often a plant will grab you and say ‘paint me’ because it’s something you find interesting,” Aiken said. “Once you take that plant into your world, the world of the artists and paint it as it is, it becomes part of you.”
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org