Friday, September 2, 2011


"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself."

William Blake, 1799, The Letters

An HERBARIUM, sometimes described as a museum of plants, is composed of plants collected, pressed, dried and organized for study and record keeping. My concept of an herbarium expands this idea to include drawings, books and objects that deal with botanical matters.
The cabinet for my Herbarium was built by Oscar Hoff. The wood is maple and the design echos the Sky cabinet.

The exterior of the cabinet is faced with drawings of fruit. Featured in this post are the eleven drawings on the top door.

FIGS: Despite the fact that fresh figs seem more available now than in the past, they retain a feeling of the exotic. Certainly the beautiful and complex interior is a surprise the first time one sees it revealed. They are among my favorite things too eat and to draw. They stand at the top of the cabinet, center stage, in a proud line.

PLUOT: Whereas the fig is notable for its antiquity, the pluot is a very modern fruit. It dates from 1989 and has an inventor, Floyd Zaiger. 70% plum and 30% apricot it is sweet and some varieties have an interesting dappled skin. My Dapple Dandy is sitting on a tile made by the Trent Tile Company of Trenton New Jersey before 1939.

LEMON: On a very hot day in Athens many years ago, after a thrilling wander around the Acropolis, I bought a glass of fresh unsweetened lemon juice from a well placed stand outside the Propylaea. I believe it was the most refreshing and delicious beverage I have ever tasted. The lemon is an amazingly useful fruit that can appear on any part of a menu.
The drawing references the importance of pollinators to the production of fruit. A bumble bee rests on the lemon and underneath is a Chinese plate with the pattern called 10,000 butterflies.

GRAPES: Our son, Arno, loves grapes most of all when they become raisins. His intake can be so impressive that when he was visiting cousin Gladyce in Santa Monica, California, she took to rationing him to one bowl a day, hiding the rest of her supply. When he returned from India for the first time he brought many varieties of raisins home for a "tasting" event. Some families celebrate with a nice bottle of wine. We get out the raisins.
The black grapes in the drawing are coupled with a beautiful maple leaf found on the day of purchase.

CHERRIES: Now that there are only short gaps in the availability of fruits and vegetables, cherries remain a brief luxury. Here in Michigan they arrive at the farmers' markets looking like baskets of jewels. Probably due to fragility, sour red cherries are rarely seen in the supermarkets. Or, perhaps, people are less willing than my husband to pit them with an eye to a beautiful pie.
Four of the rare cherries rest on a piece of Indian textile.

BLUEBERRIES: Warned against potential poisons, I was once reluctant to eat anything growing wild with the exception of blueberries. On Deer Isle in Maine I found enough of the tiny berries to make a pie using a recipe from the New York Times that included sour cream. The woman from whom we were renting a room asked me for the recipe. It may have been my greatest compliment as a cook.
As an artist I have used blueberries as dark, dusky blue punctuation marks in my drawings. Here on the cabinet they fill a ceramic cup which is covered with pop art comic book dots designed by Roy Lichtenstein and produced by the Durable Dish Company.

PEAR: The pear may be the most difficult fruit to get right. It seems to go from being hard to being over ripe in a matter of minutes. A perfect pear is rare and a true joy.
This pear is a Bartlett, a standard pear found in the supermarket. The wings that make it look capable of flight are those of a butterfly, Pieridae Pheobis philea. The moth in front is an Arctiidae.

POMEGRANATE: When I was still not a student in the art school at the University of Michigan I signed up for a design class. The first project required us to choose a fruit or vegetable and use it in as many ways as we could think of: line drawings, watercolors, abstractions using color patterns on the skin, cross sections that were printed, etc. I chose the pomegranate which seemed a very exotic fruit at the time. I loved the project so much it was one of the reasons that I switched my major from English to art.
This pomegranate sits on a mola from Panama that depicts a fly.

PLUM: Wrapping or containing things in a surprising way has always appealed to me. Here a black tulip acts as a cup which holds a black plum. The plum is hiding in plain sight.
There are so many wonderful ways to use plums but my favorite remains my grandmother's plum kuchen. When I bake the cake I can always feel her presence in my kitchen.

CRAB APPLE: Crab apples, often called "wild apples", are small, very sour and woody. As food for humans they are not very appealing except in their pickled form or turned into jelly. However, as ornamental trees they are dearly loved for their blossoms in spring and their fall crop of elegant looking fruit.
This specimen was harvested from a tree in our neighborhood. It sits on top of a stack of objects beginning at the bottom with leaves from a choke cherry tree, a tile sample and a small piece of rusted iron of unknown origin.

APPLE: Recent information no longer supports the idea that the modern apple had crab apple ancestors. There is evidence that it was a separate branch of the family which began in the Illi Valley in China and Kazakhstan, whose capital, Almaty, translates as "father of apples". I was delighted to learn that alma, my grandmother's name, is Hungarian for apple.
There are now thousands of species of apple. The one featured on the cabinet is a Gala which is backed by a design from the Grammar of Ornament and comes from the pages devoted to the Middle Ages.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


"It seems that we must be content to attribute the belated origin of herbaria, and their diffusion from a single centre, to the humiliating fact that amongst mankind the inventive spirit is rare, while the spirit of imitation is universal."

Agnes Arber

Finding a leaf or flower pressed in a book is like acquiring someone else's memory of the past - a souvenir of a place, an event, a discovery or the attraction to something beautiful. The earliest known specimen of a pressed plant is a set of leaves from an olive tree which were found in an Egyptian pyramid from the time of Ptolomy (305 BCE). They are now in the herbarium at Kew Gardens in London.

The organized collecting and storage of dried plants into an herbarium can be credited to Luca Ghini (1490-1556) who used them to instruct students of medicine at the University of Bologna where he was "Chair of Herbs".

When he was not supported in an attempt to start a garden for teaching and medicinal purposes, he left for Pisa where he joined with Cosimo I de' Medici who funded the design and building of the oldest botanical garden in the world. Later they also built the botanical Garden of Florence.

Ghini is considered the father of botany in Italy and counted among his students the greatest names that followed.

In his honor I have placed a chair on the top of my herbarium.
I gave William Frcka a few measurements and a raw little sketch and, promptly, he brought me a charming wooden chair. I sprayed it green and adorned it with dried ferns and rosebuds, made a cushion for the seat, and placed a plaque with pertinent information on the back. It sits on a rug that is embroidered and covered with dried plant material.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


"The Sun with all the planets revolving around it, and depending on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the universe to do."

Galileo Galilei

GALILEO GALILEI (1564 - 1642)

Like moons around the sky cabinet I have placed my tributes to astronomers. The most famous is Galileo. Brilliant and a notable egocentric, he was aided by the introduction of the telescope to greatly increase our knowledge of the universe. Unfortunately for him the publication of his "Dialogue," which promoted the Copernican concept of heliocentrism, ran him afoul of the Inquisition. After his trial in 1633 he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. The Catholic church did not lessen his condemnation until 1992 and then only partially.

However, there were posthumous changes to Galileo's position promoted on a secular level. In 1737 the naturalist/historian Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti had Galileo's remains moved from an out of the way part of Santa Croce to a mausoleum in the main part of the church. According to the director of the Galileo Museum, it was accomplished "symmetrical to beatification."

During the transition Tozzetti removed two fingers, a thumb, a vertebra and a molar in the same way that relics were removed from the bodies of saints. The middle finger has been on display in the Instituto e Museo de Storia della Scienza (recently renovated and renamed the Museo Galileo) since its founding by the University of Florence in 1927.

In October 2010 the index finger, thumb and molar, which had disappeared in 1910, came up for auction as "unidentified human remains." They were identified by an astute person based on the reliquary containing them. Everything is reunited in the museum with the exception of the vertebra which is at the University of Padua.

For my drawing I used as a model a finger loaned to me by Dr. Felix Rogers from a hospital teaching collection. It is a cleaner, more attractive example than the original but still reminiscent.

The finger points to the sun, alluding to the issues of heliocentrism and Galileo's discovery of the existence of sunspots. Church doctrine stated the heavens were incorruptible. Only the space between Earth and the moon was subject to change. To say that the sun could change in any way was another heresy.

* * * * *

"Many a man's nose was broken by his mouth."

Irish proverb

TYCHO BRAHE (1546 - 1601)

Earlier than Galileo and less well known is Tycho Brahe. Considered to be Danish, he was born in Scandia which is now part of Sweden. His observations are described as the most accurate and comprehensive before the invention of the telescope. He was recognized early for his talents. The king gave him the Island of Hven where Brahe built Uraniborg, a renowned research institute. He conducted his business there till the king died and he had disagreements with the successor. He moved on to Prague where he worked with his assistant Johannes Kepler. Kepler based his theories on Brahe's work.

If you are looking for weird tales and scandal, Tycho Brahe's is a bizarre and riveting story. Just knowing that he had a pet elk (or moose) who supposedly died of a fall while drunk, or that he employed a psychic dwarf who always sat under the banquet table could be enough, but there are modern theories of how he was murdered by mercury poisoning. There is even speculation that it might have been Kepler. Or, it might have been one of his own relatives hired by King Christian the IV who may have believed Brahe to have had an affair with his mother Queen Sophie. Perhaps Brahe was his father? There are theories that Shakespeare was inspired to write Hamlet by the stories.

The work I have done to represent him is based on the loss of most of his nose in a duel when in his early twenties. For the remainder of his life he wore a prosthetic nose made of either gold, silver or copper or a combination of gold and silver. I was lucky to have in my possession a plaster cast of our son Arno's nose, made by his twin brother, Barrett. Since both of our sons are excellent scientists it seemed appropriate for them to work on Brahe's behalf. I applied gold leaf to this nose and mounted it on a background created with the help of Robert Edwards. Robert has developed his own method of creating stunningly beautiful paintings using layer upon layer of printer's inks and varnish, with inclusions of beads, glitter, butterfly wings, flower petals and so forth. The better the light the more amazing the painting becomes. Robert walked me through the steps that helped me create a feeling of the night sky where I could float the nose.

* * * * *

"However long I live, life is short, so I work.
And, however important man becomes he is nothing compared to the stars."

Caroline Herschel


Robert Mirek, a friend and excellent artist, literally put the book Age of Wonder into my hands and told me to read it. Despite its weight I carried it on a long trip that included a lot of time on an airplane - time to read consistently for hours. It was an exciting experience as the book pulled together so much fascinating information about the scientists I have only known about in bits and pieces. It made the Age of Enlightenment more cohesive for me and introduced me to many new ideas and people. Caroline Herschel was one of those compelling figures.

Tiny (4'3") Caroline was kept as a house servant by her parents until she was called from Germany to England by her brother William in 1772. He earned his living as a musician and was also a self-taught astronomer who worked through the night. He engaged Caroline to teach voice lessons. She could have been a professional singer but chose instead to work with her brother building telescopes and spending nights recording William's observations of the night sky.

William Herschel's work was so profound that he was recognized by the government and was made astronomer to King George III, with an excellent stipend.

Caroline was also recognized for her importance to astronomy and was the first woman to receive a salary from the government, albeit very small by comparison. She was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1882. No woman received that honor again until 1996. An asteroid and a crater on the moon are among the things named for her.

I chose to represent Caroline, the great observer who identified nine comets, with the eye of Caroline Rogers, another remarkable soprano.