Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Nature is by and large to be found out of doors, a location where, it cannot be argued, there are never enough comfortable chairs.

Fran Lebowitz

There are rare moments in life when a problem is solved with less effort than predicted.
Wandering around Haberman's Fabrics in Royal Oak, on a completely different mission, I found myself faced with the perfect fabric for the chairs in the cabinet room.  It was so amazing that I was actually reluctant to buy it and took home a small sample to ponder. It seemed too easy.  Luckily when I came to my senses and rushed back it was still there.  Of course only 15 minutes had elapsed since I left the store.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be engaged in lightly.
M.F.K. Fisher

We all have our own way of making sense of the world.
When I took history in school it was almost impossible for me to get a grip on it.  Numbers fly out of my head almost as soon as they enter, so learning dates was a really difficult task with only temporary success.  I have little or no interest in monarchy and the wars people have engaged in make me frantic with disbelief. History of Art was the first thing that held my attention and started to organize my view of time lines.   When on my own, I discovered the history of gardening and food and since then the world has been in better focus.

When I started thinking about my Herbarium I  felt that the practical aspects of plants were as important  to me as the scientific.  For those of us who are in charge of preparing meals, and enjoy the task, ingredients take on a special pleasure.  I decided to approach my favorite cooks in search of recipes that included specific fruits and vegetables.  So far we have done homage to the Plum, the Pear and the Peach. The cook books all have the same square format.  Each has a unifying visual theme and pertinent quote as opening text.  Endsheets are old woodcut images of the fruit in question from Gerard's Herbal.  Eight varieties of the fruit are pictured in original drawings,  complementing eight recipes.  Each edition has thirty-two copies.  Copy number one is destined for a shelf in the Herbarium.

The book of PLUMS was the first in this series and was inspired by our son Barrett's great praise of a plum dumpling that he enjoyed in Wurzburg, Germany.  That recipe coupled with the plum cake  made by my grandmother, Alma Borchert, was a great start for the project.

The book of PEARS was published the following year.  Eight varieties of the fruit are pictured with eight different kinds of insects.

The book of PEACHES is based on design elements typical of different countries or cultures as shown in the Grammar of Ornament which was originally published in 1856.

Monday, July 2, 2012


The Vine arises from her Mother's Juice:
When feeble Plants or tender Flow'rs decay,
They to their Seed their Images convey.

Matthew Prior

The drawer in the Herbarium contains a collection of seeds that originally were acquired for purposes of drawing.  The little glass containers with plastic lids they are stored in were rescued from the trash at the American Museum of Natural History by our son, Barrett.  The bottles retain the information that was taped to them by the ichthyology department and plant information has been added if known.  There are a few seedpods that wander around the drawer awaiting a bottle big enough to suit them but not so tall that the drawer won't close.

Along with loose seeds there are packets brought from Linnaeus's garden in Uppsala by Susan Smith and Michael Schuck, black morning glories in a Christmas card from Wanda Miller, bluebonnets from the Johnson Library in Austin, a collection from Nancy Korda's B&B garden in Silverton, Oregon, lettuce from Villandry brought home by Val Overholt, and exotic gourds brought from the festival in their honor in Lapeer, Michigan, by Liz Cheslock. Vintage products include a box for nasturtiums and a package of belladonna leaves.

It is obvious that very early people understood the purpose of seeds or there would never have been the development of agriculture.  The first great botanist who wrote something significant about seeds was Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603) a student of Luca Ghini.
In his great work, De plantis libri xvi, plants were not just listed alphabetically but were ordered by their reproductive systems -  their seeds and fruit.  This was, of course, too simple a system to be truly accurate but it did move the field of taxonomy forward.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Black was the forest: thick with beech it stood,
Horrid with fern, and intricate with thorn;
Few paths of human feet or tracks of beasts, were worn.

Virgil  Aeneid  Book IX (translation: John Dryden)


In the Herbarium there is a box that contains some of my fern and leaf fossils.  Most were purchased at the  annual Gem and Mineralogical Fair, a couple were gifts and a few very special ones were found on a hunt with Carl Mehling and Fiona Brady at one of the preeminent fossil sites -  Mazon Creek in Illinois.   


This vintage teaching aid was given to me by Ron Povlich.  The company that produced it has been in business for over 150 years selling scientific equipment to schools.  It is more amusing than beautiful but has a real charm in its old fashioned and sort of innocent presentation.


One of Detroit's treasures is Pewabic Pottery which was founded in 1903 by Mary Chase Perry Stratton.  It has survived through dedicated, hard work and despite the problems of its somewhat difficult location in Detroit.  It continues to produce tiles, pottery and artifacts for buildings with its Arts and Crafts ethic of production.  Now privately operated,  Pewabic Pottery offers classes, mounts shows in their gallery space and maintains a museum that exhibits examples of early work produced there.  The fern tile in my collection was purchased in their shop and given to me as a present by our son Barrett.


My cousin Carol's  husband Lee was a preparator for the Milwaukee Public Museum.  He was a man so very filled with talent, energy and interests that it was hard for him to be doing one thing while knowing he was missing something interesting happening elsewhere.  He designed holiday cards every year and produced them with the help of his wife.  This one was really labor intensive and certainly worth the effort.  Each card had a flattened, dried fern that fit the dimensions of the hand cut and folded paper with its perfectly cut parchment liner.  The ferns were spattered with a bit of "snow" and a hand written poem appeared on the back in white ink. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012


A case made of wood, or other matter, to hold anything.
It is distinguished from a chest, as the less from the greater.

Samuel Johnson, A dictionary of the English Language (1755)

When I was very young I went to summer day camp at a beautiful place behind the School for the Deaf and Blind in Flint, Michigan.  I have not seen the area since then but it lingers in my memory as having a valley with a meadow filled with butterflies.  I loved my adventures there and remember clearly gathering flowers and leaves and making reverse images by putting them on a sheet of paper and then spattering paint  over them using a toothbrush and a screen stretched over a wooden frame.  When the plant was lifted off the paper there was a lovely white silhouette where it had been.

Inspired by Megan Parry, who makes wonderful, complex compositions by applying a similar technique, (she uses cans of spray acrylic rather than a toothbrush and screen)  I made images of the ferns from my garden.  Using a flattened fern one can achieve quite a true idea of the structure of the plant.

I also made more mysterious versions of ferns by not flattening them and using a piece of translucent paper.  The result is not as accurate structurally because the paint gets under the object where it lifts off the paper.  It makes the fern seem much softer and more vulnerable.  In the box of ferns the two types of images are kept together.  In some cases there is hardly any difference in the look and in others they don't resemble one another at all.

A label giving the Latin and the common name is attached to the back of the more structured version.

The box that contains the images of the ferns is cardboard - something found in a store, sprayed with a product that  should deascidify it, then painted and decorated using the same method as the images in the box.  There are 19  sets of ferns using sprayed acrylic and 2 images that are cyanotypes.

Four examples of double fern images.

Friday, June 8, 2012


PTERIDOMANIA - the mania for ferns

In 1998 I decided to quit shopping for presents and started making books for my family and friends for the holidays.  Since then I have made an annual book using the same size (6"x6") and format but always looking for interesting variations.  In 2005 the subject was ferns.

The images for this book were created with cyanotypes, a process discovered at the very beginning of photography.  Objects are placed on photosensitive paper and exposed to sunlight for a couple of minutes.  The paper is then rinsed in water and where it was exposed it turns a rich blue while the protected area remains a very pale blue-white.  Each fern book in the edition of 100 contains one original cyanotype.  The rest of the images were photocopied in black and white from other original prints made at the same time.  The ferns came from our garden.

In the series, each book has an envelope which usually relates strongly to the cover of the book.
The border frame for Ferns was photocopied and the central image was done with a stencil.

End sheets have uniformly been translucent vellum.  
Here the ferns let you peek through to a poem written for the book by Alison Rogers.  Alison, whose work I admire greatly, lives in New York and has been included in other books published by my small press, Chicken in a Snowstorm.

A larger volume containing cyanotypes of ferns, now stored in the Herbarium, was inspired by the overage of prints that I made for the smaller, large edition Fern book.  This book is 9" x 7", contains 21 images and employs a coptic stitch binding.  The end sheets are tissue flecked with metallic bits and the text is simply a description of the cyanotype technique and a list of the plates.  There are 5 copies of this book.  Each one would be considered unique as each image is an original print.

Pictured are representative pages from the book:

Tatting Fern

Sensitive Fern

Ghost fern

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Like the very old and very wise of our own race, they [ferns] seem to have outgrown haste and impatience...

Hal Borland, Twelve Moons of the Year

In ancient days our neighborhood was probably a beach.  When they dug the ditch for an expressway half a mile north of us you could look deep into the hole as it approached the center of the earth and see only sand.  Despite this, ferns have been happy to live in our yard.  It is a very contrary gesture on their part and one that has given me great pleasure.

Well before there was any thought of assembling a Room of Curiosities we had a dining room where I removed the carpet and stenciled the floor using images of ferns from the garden: Maidenhair, Christmas, Royal and Japanese Painted ferns.  They always have seemed to me the most beautiful and graceful forms in the kingdom of plants.  We walk on them everyday as I long for the woods while we live in the city.  Now the floor also acts as the base for a room devoted to the wonders of nature.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Black Twig

In 1988 I went to Paw Paw, Michigan to spend the afternoon with my friend Judy Sarkozy while drawing an apple orchard in bloom. The owner of the orchard, Wanda Miller, packed us a perfect lunch to eat in the field. The weather and conversation were exceptional. That day inspired a project that continued for more than 20 years.

It is, perhaps, my own form of taxonomy that prompts me to seek out as many varieties of things as I can find - a sort of visual science. I searched for and drew all of the pansies that I could find in the space of one summer and all of the forms of poppies during another summer. The apples, however, were my longest and deepest search.

It started in a very haphazard way. When I saw a new apple I would buy it and draw it any way I pleased. There was no continuity in how I approached the subject matter or the paper I drew it on - its variety, size or weight. When I finished the drawing it just went to a heap of other apple drawings.

The apple season starts in Michigan in August and the farmers' markets continue to get different varieties into November. The supermarkets often continue to get exotic apples throughout the winter. I kept finding new ones for about 5 years and then got distracted. The pile of apples got put on a closet shelf in my studio. Two years ago I moved my base of operations and found all 73 where I had abandoned them. At that point I knew there was going to be an Herbarium and the collection might be interesting to add to that project. I cut the drawings to the same size and a uniform format for the look of the apple itself was established. Nice drawings that had unsuitable backgrounds or were drawn on smaller sheets were cut out and mounted onto the new, standard size backing.

It seemed right to increase the number of varieties to 100.

The final apple was found by Megan Parry near her home in the southern tier of New York state - a wonderful antique variety called a 20 ounce.  The ceramic snake, pictured on top of drawings, was also made by Megan.
It is tempting to continue drawing new apples but since I have expanded to plums and peaches and pears and potatoes there is plenty to do without looking for the 101st variety.

I am hoping to get started, however, on information about apples. This could take the form of a notebook or printed text and photos on the interleaving between my drawings. The pleasure of this cabinet project is that there will always be something new and interesting to do.

Black Arkansas