“Following in the Bartrams’ Footsteps,” an exhibit of 44 original contemporary illustrations of plants discovered by father and son John and William Bartram, is at the N.C. Botanical Garden through Nov. 2.
When this exhibit made its spring 2013 debut at Bartram’s Garden, John Bartram’s 18th century Philadelphia homeplace, Chapel Hillian Maryann Roper was there.
“Some pieces were hung at eye level. Other pieces were hung above them,” Roper said. “I found myself climbing on benches and chairs to look at the techniques.”
Roper, who graduated 10 years ago from the NCBG’s Botanical Art & Illustration program and then went on to teach in it, said seeing the show made her realize that she has a long way to go.
“I look at the Franklinia piece by Karen Kluglein in the show, which is a watercolor on vellum, and my jaw drops. I just wish I could do something like that,” Roper said. “These pieces give you a new appreciation of nature.”
Viewers will find their jaws dropping when they see “Beautyberry,” a work in graphite that Roper submitted to the 2012 call-to-artists from the American Society of Botanical Artists and Bartram’s Garden. It was chosen from among the 191 pieces entered from around the world, all of which had to depict something found on the Bartram’s Garden Core Collection Plant list – a catalog of all the plants, trees, and shrubs that the Bartrams discovered and documented.
Who were the Bartrams?
Carol Woodin, the society’s director of exhibitions, said, “They are American founders who are rarely acknowledged, but they set a path for our country’s understanding of and philosophy toward the natural world. They were sort of the first ‘native plants’ catalysts too, a big movement in gardening today that saw its beginning in this early family.”
John Bartram was born in 1699 into a Pennsylvania Quaker family, and 29 years later, with a heart and body that loved nature and exploration and a mind that strove to understand the natural world, he bought 102 acres, which eventually became a home base for all of the North American seeds and plants he gathered then cultivated. Founding a successful seed and plant business, Bartram became greatly admired by the English, who were crazy about American flora.
Bartram’s son, William, born in 1739, took up his father’s passions, journeying through the American South from 1773-1776. One of the delights in the exhibit is William’s highly esteemed book, “Travels,” first published in 1791. Both Bartrams were spectacular botanical illustrators.
There are 26 fantastic events tied to the exhibit, one of which is a lecture by Botanical Garden director Peter White. On Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Garden’s Reeves Auditorium, White will talk about Bartram as a Quaker Botanist. For details about this and the other events, go to ncbg.unc.edu/bartram, call 919-962-0522 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
White is rereading “Travels.” He said, “It influenced Thoreau and Darwin. Many things stand out about it. It is an adventure story. There is a part where he is in a boat that gets attacked by alligators in Florida. There are observations about Indians, and it is a nature book about plants and animals. There are descriptions of the landscape not just of the solid old growth but also of the fields that the Indians tended. It is really fun.”
White learned of the Bartrams and their incredible lives while he was at Dartmouth in graduate school.
“I think what fascinated me was seeing through their eyes a very different landscape,” he said. “They explored North Carolina and the Southeast at a time when European settlement was still confined to major ports and river valleys.”. He pointed out that in Charles Frazier’s bestselling “Cold Mountain,” the main character carries “Travels.” On October 19, Frazier will be at the garden to discuss this and how nature influences him as a writer. White said for all the events to “register early, and often.”
Cricket Taylor, exhibits manager, has been reveling in the Bartram mystique for the past two years, as she and her collaborators planned the exhibit and events. When the cartons arrived three weeks ago with the 44 works, Taylor said she felt she was unlocking treasure chests.
“These contemporary illustrations now grace the walls of the Garden’s DeBerry Gallery,” Taylor said. “Standing in the gallery, one can feel them humming. Inspiration is all around; pure joy.”
After William Alberti, who lives and gardens on 10 acres in Hillsborough, decided to submit a piece to be considered for the show, he chose to illustrate a Scarlet Hibiscus, aiming for a plant that was native to North Carolina. “Turns out that this particular plant does grow here well but is probably not a native,” Alberti said. “I think the Bartrams discovered it along Florida’s St. Johns River. “The Scarlet Hibiscuses that I grow are still blooming. They can get to 10 feet tall with stems as thick as your wrist, die back to the ground every year, and are faithful and sturdy.”
Alberti took a class from Roper in watercolor illustration and in a lovely nod to this teacher-student connection, in addition to the fact that two local artists were chosen for this esteemed show, their pieces hang together in a space set apart from the other 42 works.
One of the many things that Alberti has found fascinating in his journey to become a serious student of botanical illustration is that some artists create their work on calf-skin vellum. “You have to get it at a tannery,” Alberti said. “There are a few works in this show that are done on vellum, including Carol Woodin’s orchid.”
Visitors to the gallery will certainly be compelled to learn more about the Bartrams and will find wonderful information and artifacts to fuel this desire, including a replica of the boxes that John Bartram used to ship his wares to England
Woodin’s existing admiration for the Bartrams deepened as she worked on the show.
“What struck me most about both of them was their continuing sense of wonder about the natural world and William’s joyous descriptions of some of its natural phenomena as they existed at the time, when wild lands were much more extensive,” Woodin said. “William often said things like: ‘the mind for a moment seems suspended and impressed with awe.”
Deborah R. Meyer writes about the visual arts every month. You can reach her at email@example.com