Nature Illustrations | You Can’t Beat the Beauty of the Natural World

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As much as I love art, it is rarely possible for an artist to improve upon the beauty of the natural world. The myriad forms of teeming, swarming, walking, winged and rooted life are just so impossibly intricate and overwhelming that just paying attention to what’s drifting and floating by in the air, in the water and on the ground is more edifying than any trip to a museum.

I must admit that I am a sucker for nature illustrations, whether Audubon’s birds or the fabulous flower of Maine’s own Kate Furbish. I think what I like about drawings and paintings of the flora and fauna of the world is that the artists put their talents at the disposal of Creation rather than trying to add anything to it. Then, too, you can often see a great deal more in a careful rendering or hi resolution photo than you can in reality.

Currently, there are a couple of exhibitions I would call to your attention in this regard – From the Mountains to the Sea: Plants, Trees and Shrubs of New England (through September 8) at The Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, MA, and Pollination: Evolving Miracles (through June 7) at the Atrium Art Gallery at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College in Lewiston, ME.

Spiranthes cernua

Spiranthes cernua

Kelly Leahy-Radding

The Art Complex Museum show features works on paper by some 18 members of the New England Society of Botanical Artists, images of seaweed, fungi, flowers, trees and shrubs native to New England. A side show features botanical illustrations by South Shore artists.

Splendid examples of the exacting attention to botanical detail include a clump of Spiranthes cernua (Nodding ladies’ tresses) by Kelly Leahy-Radding of Columbia CT and a vine of Vitis riparia (Riverbank grape) by Kay Kopper of Pembroke MA. The exhibition is slated to travel all over New England for the next 18 months with stops at Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, VT; the Bartlett Arboretum, in Stamford, CT;  the Audubon Education Center in Bristol, RI and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

Vitis riparia

Vitis riparia

Kay Kopper

The Atrium Art Gallery show, curated by Robyn Holman, herself a beekeeper, is not an exhibition of natural history illustrations but rather artistic responses to and interpretations of flowering plants and their pollinators. The process of art is thus undertaken in concert with the process by which bees make honey.

Pollinators: Evolving Miracles features prints, drawings, paintings, photographs, video, sculpture and poetry by more than two dozen artists, some of them farmers, beekeepers and scientists. A sequence drawing by celebrated scientist and nature writer Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, depicts how carrion beetles change their color to mimic bumble bees when they fly, an evolved protection against predation by birds.

Nicrophorus Tomentosus

Nicrophorus Tomentosus

Bernd Heinrich

“Drawing is a way for me to get reacquainted with my feelings for the subject,” Heinrich has said of the right brain appeal of rendering nature as well as analyzing it.

A hand-colored photography by British photographer Rob Kesseler of a single piece of pollen from a greater stitchwort plant reminds us of that life even at the micro level is a fantastic show of strange and wonderful beauty and ineffeable order.


Stellaria holostea

Stellaria holostea

Rob Kesseler

If you have never done so, even if you have no pretense to being an artist, it is endlessly fascinating to just sit down to draw a bug, a flower, a weed, a pinecone, or a seed from life. It’s fine and fun to turn a few dabs of color into the evocation of a blossom, but when you become mindful of the minute detail that has been lavished on even the most seemly insignificant stuff of life, the simple act of looking becomes life affirming.


The Art Complex Museum, 189 Alden St., Duxbury MA,  781-934-6634, artcomplex.org. Atrium Art Gallery, University of Southern Maine,  Lewiston-Auburn College, Westminster St., Lewiston ME, 207-753-6554.  usm.maine.edu/atriumgallery.

  • kathleen

    As one of the participating artists in the “Pollination” exhibit, I welcomed your fine insights into the beauty that surrounds us every minute of every day – if we just look. “The simple act of looking ( and for those of us who create -expressing) becomes life affirming” You said it all!


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