By Kelsie Radziski
The New York Botanical Gardens’ Orchid Show and the Heckscher Museum of Art’s Art in Bloom exhibition, both open until April, introduced botanical art to Long Islanders by showcasing its importance and historical progress.
“In this fast-paced, high-tech world we live in, botanical art allows both the creator and the observer to slow down and appreciate the beautiful and often overlooked details in our natural world,” Patricia Luppino, a Long Island-based botanical artist, said. “It’s a meditation of sorts.”
Botanical art is focused on the accurate biological description of plants and flowers. It emerged in its original form in around 50-70 CE in a dual quest for both scientific representation and artistic purposes.
There are various different forms of botanical artwork: illustration, painting, photography, floral arrangements, art exhibitions and installations, etc. These all contribute to the field in unique ways, as Marcia Eames-Sheavly, a horticulturist and senior lecturer emerita from Cornell University explains.
“When we think about botanical art, I do think we think about illustration, and that’s really important,” Eames-Sheavly said. “But one of the things in one of my classes that I really loved was stretching it to its biggest definition…I also love when we’re using plants as art.”
The New York Botanical Gardens’ annual Orchid Show for the spring season, which opened in February and closed on April 23, gathered visitors from Long Island and the five boroughs with an array of orchids.
“The Orchid Show provides The New York Botanical Garden with an opportunity to exhibit one of our most celebrated living plant collections, and to educate the public about our plant research and conservation work,” Nicholas Leshi, a spokesperson for the New York Botanical Gardens, said.
This year’s exhibit has been curated by Lily Kwong, a landscape artist and urban edenist, meaning she believes in reconnecting people with nature. Kwong is known for launching the Freedom Garden initiative in 2020, which aims to support communities by providing food and cultivating positive physical and mental health.
Further east on Long Island, The Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington held its fourth annual Art in Bloom exhibition the weekend of April 15.
“In 2023, Art in Bloom will feature 12 floral arrangements that draw inspiration from artworks on view in two exhibitions, ‘Raise the Roof: The Home in Art’ and ‘Viewfinders: Photographers Frame Nature,’” Jill Rowen, a spokesperson for the Heckscher Museum of Art, said.
“These exciting exhibitions, which feature diverse artistic mediums including sculpture and photography, will provide a wide array of artworks to inspire designers from the Museum’s four garden club partners: Asharoken Garden Club, Dix Hills Garden Club, North Suffolk Garden Club, and South Side Garden Club,” Rowen said.
The garden club partners were excited to participate in the exhibit.
“It was a wonderful experience for our six designers [and] we were honored to have been invited,” Nancy Binger, the president of the Dix Hills Garden Club, said. “Participating in a program such as Art in Bloom enabled us to spread the word about the event and bring in a lot more foot traffic into the Heckscher Museum of Art, which is a gem in the heart of Huntington.”
The arrangements were scattered throughout the museum and placed near the artwork they were inspired by. Patrons enjoyed the floral arrangements as complements to the other exhibits.
“The concept is a long-standing and successful tradition at other art museums in the United States, but The Heckscher Museum is the only venue for Art in Bloom on Long Island and, in fact, in the New York metropolitan area,” Rowen said. “The goal is to connect visitors with fine art, nature, and design.”
Botanical art installations like the Orchid Show and Art in Bloom provide a unique opportunity for photographers to capture some of the most beautiful flora out there. Botanical photography holds as much importance as botanical illustration. Many photographers are inspired by nature and find it to be a great subject for their art form.
“Beauty alone would be enough to keep me invested in the glimmer of nature, but it’s deeper than surface level,” Matthew Novak, a freelance photographer, said. “Nature is raw and real; it has a story to tell.”
The American Society of Botanical Artists, or ASBA, strives “to provide a thriving, interactive community dedicated to perpetuating the tradition and contemporary practice of botanical art,” Jody Williams, its executive director, said.
The ASBA’s definition of botanical art emphasizes the artful qualities of depicting plants and flowers.
“Accomplished works of botanical art demonstrate botanical accuracy of the subject, technical mastery of the media, and aesthetic quality of the whole,” Williams explained. “Each artist sees unique aspects of the plant on which to focus, sees the plant from their own perspective, depicts the plant in a single season or throughout the year and creates a composition that is artistically compelling and all their own.”
While botanical art is appealing to the eye, it also serves a scientific purpose. Illustrating botany began in ancient Greece as a way to identify plants and flowers. The artistic practice emerged in other cultures and evolved over centuries, becoming more precise.
“Humans had to study plants, because they would feed us [and were] used for building materials and everything else, so humans have been engaged with plants and learning about plants as long as we’ve been humans,” Yaffa Grossman, a physiological plant ecologist and professor at Beloit College, said. “In terms of the academic study of plants…the written record of the study of plants goes back almost as long as any written records exist.”
Contemporary botanical art includes intricate details of plants to make them more identifiable and easier for scientists to understand.
“There are pieces that are done specifically for scientific illustration, so in other words, a botanist [writes] an article about some new plant he discovered and usually when that happens, there’s illustration that’s made by a botanical illustrator, and that’s primarily meant to be scientific and clear,” Robin Jess, the botanical art and illustration coordinator for the New York Botanical Gardens continuing education department, said.
“If it’s attractive, that’s just an addition. But the main thing is that it has to be accurate,” Jess said.
Botanical artists who run workshops have seen firsthand how people’s perceptions of nature change as they create art.
“[Something] that attracts me to this kind of work is that you educate people…to make them aware of what’s around them,” Monica Ray, a Long Island-based contemporary botanical artist and educator, said. “People sort of walk by plants and sort of take them for granted in a sense. And I find when I teach something and they have to illustrate it, people will look much closer.”