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.