the secret life of plants: botanical artist Wendy Hollenderby Ross Rice
Some things can be easily taken for granted. For instance, the camera is a fairly recent development—no pun intended. Yet there are libraries full of books on zoology and botany, with detailed images of flora and fauna that have been pored over by students for centuries. Somebody had to draw or paint those images, which—though created solely for the purpose of reference and information—often have an aesthetic beauty and resonance that transcend the humble subject.
Yet, in spite of the ever-improving technology of the camera, the field of botanical art is still viable and vibrant, as it becomes clear that the artist brings so much more to the image than a camera ever could. Hudson Valley-based botanical artist/teacher Wendy Hollender is at the top of the field, with works in numerous publications and galleries, including a touring Smithsonian exhibit of endangered plant species. And with her new teaching studio/organic farm just outside of Accord, she’s teaching others to see inside the secret lives of plants, and present them to the world.
It’s a rare person who in their youth decides: hey, I want to grow up to be a botanical artist. As a child growing up on Long Island, Wendy certainly wasn’t one of them, this whole lifepath blossomed out of….boredom. “My career actually began as a teenager. In high school I doodled on my notebook covers—I just liked to cover any available surface with design and pattern. And I actually used those notebooks to apply to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)….and got in! I had no training, I couldn’t do anything realistic. But I was really good with splashy color and patterns, and I had no problem covering the paper with stuff.” Her fellow freshman students kept asking her if she was majoring in textile design, which she’d never even heard of, but after about the 20th time it got mentioned she decided to look into it. Turns out it was the right direction for her, her repetitive cover-the-page doodling style was, er, tailor-made for textile design, so she went for it. She graduated, moved to Manhattan, and went pro, soon racking up a solid client base: Laura Ashley, Ralph Lauren, Wedgewood China, among others.
When she started out, splashy and contemporary were in vogue. But as the trend went towards traditional and floral patterns, Wendy found herself referring to older documents and drawings for inspiration. Then she decided to take it further. “I began looking for a place to study botanical illustration. I had gotten more and more fascinated with that old-time skill as it related to my textile design, because I used these old documents for reference. And I loved the way they looked, how realistic they were, and three-dimensional. I could copy old documents or I could work from photographs to do a kind of realistic floral textile design, but I couldn’t (yet) work from real flowers and plants.” Fortunately, she found the perfect place to study very close by: The New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, had one of the largest programs for botanical illustration in the world.
Learning the necessary techniques there—one-light source, perspective, accurate realistic mixing of colors, plant structure and botany—brought an realistic enhancement to her decorative textile work, as she began getting her images directly from real plants instead of drawings and photographs. After a few years of study she made her public debut, producing a show of twelve large botanically-themed oil paintings. The show caught the eye of a California calendar company, who purchased the twelve, and Wendy had her first official botanical drawing job.
Meanwhile, the textile business was getting stale for her, as manufacturing was being outsourced, and product starting to lose quality. Having already done extensive plant drawing at Riverside Park—which Wendy lived nearby, a single mom raising two children: Abby and Jesse—she approached the Park Commission with her folio, and soon she had another client. This led to offers to travel workshops in Nantucket, Hawaii, Trinidad, and the New York Botanical Garden teaching colored pencil technique. Teaching was particularly “empowering” for Wendy, who enjoys the demonstration aspect immensely. Student demand for her personal step-by-step examples led her to self-publishing a book. Using a top-bound notebook format—with plenty of blank sheets to practice on—she takes the reader one lesson at a time to the finished product. Its success led to publisher Random House requesting a full-length book, Botanical Drawing in Color, which came out July 2009.
Up until last February she was pretty happy operating from Manhattan, drawing, traveling, and teaching, as well as working as a coordinator at the Botanical Garden. “More and more I realized I didn’t want to just visit the plants, I wanted to live among them. I wanted to have my own place where I could do that and also teach it, because I was frustrated with always going to these places to teach. Often you’d go to a beautiful garden, and they’d have you stuck in a classroom teaching. Why?”
Wendy had been making some trips upstate, visiting fellow botanical artist and Accord resident Carol Woodin. A strawberry picking session at Kelder’s (on Rte. 209, with the enormous gnome) started a love affair with the area. “I started getting this vision that summer that I needed my own farm where I could work, I could teach, I could have an organic farm, there could be other things going on other than what I did.” Pretty soon she was talking it up with friends and family, and her two kids—now in their 20’s—were interested too. More trips to Kelder’s, and a Rondout Valley Farm Tour sealed it; that day she fell in love with the very road she lives on today.
But Wendy and her then-partner couldn’t agree on the concept—he wanted a backwoods getaway, she wanted nature but to be near town—and they split up over it. She went back to the real estate agent the couple had been using, telling her “don’t show me these weekend retreat places, that’s not what I’m looking for, I want to have a farm, be part of a community.” She found the farmhouse/horse barn/acreage she was looking for, and over the next year Hollengold Farms came to full fruition, complete with fledgling organic mini-farm, and the barn renovated into a multi-purpose building: gift shop, farmer’s market, well-appointed kitchen, meeting place/lesson area, lodgings, and Wendy’s spacious skylit upstairs studio, with an almost panoramic view of the grounds.
The studio: a pair of drying kohl-rabi still on her drawing table next to its rough sketch, straight from the late-season garden outside—which is still producing kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, various cabbages. Books of botanical photography, a large self-lit magnifying glass and microscope, a full spectrum of German colored pencils, stacks of durable Italian-made watercolor paper. Wendy shows me some recent works, and they’re fascinating to see close-up. Finely detailed line and charcoal drawing is seamlessly blended with the colored pencil, which Wendy is somehow able to manipulate in a manner similar to oil painting. And despite the need for precision and detail of reality involved, “there is definitely very much an artistic side to it. Composition is really important, which features you choose to show and highlight. I do love scientific details, whether it’s for scientific purposes or not…I just like the style.” Often with Wendy’s drawings, the plant is presented in various stages of development, with exquisitely small details of the flowers seeds and reproductive mechanisms. The finished product represents a meeting point of science and art, both in equal measure.
And botanical art is not above being capable of a little controversy. Wendy submitted two pieces for the Botanical Garden’s upcoming “Unusual Plants” exhibit: common burdock…and an opium poppy. “They really liked it, and they wanted to put it in the show, but because it’s an illegal plant, they were afraid they couldn’t show it.” It’s a beautiful drawing, with detailed close-ups of the honeycombed seeds—hard to believe this innocent-looking flower is responsible for so much destruction.
Wendy has managed to make her vision a reality, working and teaching drawing workshops, and living among the growing plants (absolutely no opium poppies) that feed her inspiration, and sometime also feed the stomach. “I let the plant tell me what to do, it’s in charge. I don’t think I can really improve on nature, so I don’t really try to.”
Some of Wendy Hollender’s works can be seen at Harney & Sons Teas, 1 Railroad Plaza, Millerton; and at www.whartdesign.com. More information about drawing workshops and the farmer’s market at Hollengold Farms (Accord) at www.hollengoldfarm.com.
by Matt Petricone