The collecting of plants for scientific purposes was propelled by the intellectual revolution fermenting in Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries – a time when there was an incredible thirst for knowledge about all aspects of the natural world. Countries, in a burst of nationalistic fervor, became obsessed with documenting their fauna and flora, driving the need to figure out a way to systematically categorize what people were finding. The exploration of the New World fueled an even greater frenzy to collect and catalog. Grand expeditions to far away lands were financed by royalty, many with the primary goal to find plants and natural resources that might bring wealth and power. Amassing collections of exotic fauna and flora evolved into an international competition and knowledge of the heretofore unknown world became a valuable currency symbolic of a country’s perceived greatness. Nations invested enormous resources on these dangerous ventures where much was at risk and success never guaranteed.
Because many of the collected specimens rarely made it back to the homeland intact (the seeds, of course, were often the real prize), there was a need to record the finds as they were discovered. The inclusion of artists on these long voyages, then, was critical, as the rendering of specimens became the only way to describe the breadth of the discoveries, tell the story of the voyage, and bring longer lasting notoriety to those countries courageous enough to attempt these efforts. Over time, the desire for precise representation and more creative ways of describing what they saw lead artists to new heights of image refinement and aesthetic composition. Despite creating incredible works of art in their own right, many of these artists remain anonymous or have been destined for artistic obscurity.
These historic plant images, many of which were recorded during these voyages, are here reimagined to tell a broader story. Other reference images came from famous botanical books such as Hortus Eystettensis – a celebration of art and nature inspired by the famous Garden at Eichstatt in Germany – chronicling the first true botanical garden developed outside of Italy in the late 1500s. Or from the Silva of North America, the first comprehensive inventory of trees in this country written in the late 1800s. I found not only a lyrical beauty in what these artists were able to capture but an approach to composition by blending art and science that has become, for me, a wonderful world of endless personal exploration.
While inspired by history and the talent of these mostly unheralded artists, I am equally fascinated with the structure and architecture of botanical forms. By using only black, white and shades of gray, and avoiding the temptation to explore color, I am able to focus solely on the three-dimensionality of the form. The myriad shapes found even within a single plant allow me to explore a miniature landscape and the relationship of botanical forms to one another in physical space. Using the box as a container became a way for me to create unique compositions and play with light and shadow to invoke imaginary volumes filled with magical forms.
And finally, the box also becomes a metaphor for man’s desire to collect – the conscious act of removing things from their natural setting for his own pleasure, objectification, study or utility. Humans have distinguished themselves from others in the animal kingdom with this unique propensity to collect. We don’t just collect for sustenance as was once the case. We collect, almost obsessively, for reasons that seem innate but are difficult to define. So the work, on a slightly darker note, is also about our disconnect with the natural world that continues to our present time – it reminds us that in order to celebrate beauty and wonder, we often must remove and even extinguish. Art and artists are not immune or innocent in this arena – and we must all do what we can to reverse the trend and rebuild and nurture that critical connection.