Artist Penelope Gottlieb works in vibrant colors and on large canvases, some as large as 16 feet wide. But as the name of her exhibition, Against Forgetting, at the Chicago Botanic Garden reveals, visitors need to take a close, reflective look. Her paintings address real challenges—extinction, invasive species, and vanishing plants—within the plant world.
“I am not a scientist, I am not a botanist, and I’m not attempting to be a naturalist. These are my fantasies of plants, an artist’s interpretation of nature,” said Gottlieb from her studio in Santa Barbara. “My goal is to paint plants that are disappearing and those that have been confirmed as extinct. I didn’t just want to paint pretty pictures. I wanted to find something that I felt was important.”
Her interpretation of Viola cryana will be there, a plant last seen in France 90 years ago. So will Thismia americana, which hasn’t been seen for more than a century since it was found in a wet prairie along South Torrence Avenue in Chicago.
Against Forgetting, a collection of about 30 works by Gottlieb, will be on display through August 12 in Joutras Gallery.
Gabriel Hutchison, the Garden’s exhibitions and programs production manager, recalled how Gottlieb’s art stood out from a stack of exhibition submissions. “Bold colors and very frantic movement within the paintings really kept my attention and I found myself looking at the paintings longer than I would most printed pieces,” he said. “If someone is doing atypical botanical illustrations, they’re either going to go kind of abstract or cartooning. But this isn’t the case with Penelope’s work. There’s a lot of combining colors to create this very expressive palette.”
Perhaps her passion was nurtured by her lush backyard garden in California or the work with her father in the family’s Hollywood Hills garden. “I have fond memories of our time together,” said Gottlieb, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art and pursued a career as an illustrator, then as a title designer for motion pictures before embracing painting and extinct plants in the ’90s.
Her work was “kind of a metaphor for some loss in my life,” she said. “When something’s gone forever, you kind of attempt to remember it…You might have trouble remembering the face of someone you love who has passed. I was thinking about loss and for some reason I started thinking about botanical loss.”
Her curiosity led her to find out which plants became extinct and why that happened. “The more I found out, the more I became engaged and decided I would create this body of work that really focused on plant extinction,” she said. “I would be eulogizing and tracking contemporary extinctions as they became confirmed. So each of my paintings represents a lost species.”
Gottlieb wanted to move beyond traditional botanic renderings. “Those were very lovely and calm. And I felt like everything was chaotic and frightening and that nature was under attack,” she added. “I needed to convey a kind of struggle.” The result was her first series, the bold, colorful Extinct Botanicals.
Thrift shop botanical art prints by John James Audubon served as inspiration for her next series, Invasive Species. Gottlieb used reproductions of Audubon bird prints and incorporated her view of nature through plants. She designed what she wanted to paint on tissue over the pieces before actually painting on the print. “I really do like a lot of narrative in these paintings. I have a reason for all the different objects I put in,” added Gottlieb.
The vulnerability of orchids, from loss of habitat to poachers, prompted the Vanishing Species series, and an artistic challenge: How would the orchid series differ from her other works? She used a technique that makes the paintings highly reflective, not unlike mirrors. “When you stand in front of them, you see your own reflection in the surface,” she said. “It kind of makes you feel like maybe the plant and you are in the same piece, the same picture, and it illustrates that we’re all in this together.”
For Hutchison, the connection to the natural world in Gottlieb works is crucial. “Her exhibition does present botanicals topically and with a somewhat urgent call to concern, but the rendering, colors, and size of her works make for a powerful experience,” he said.
The 30 works on display in Against Forgetting are vibrant reminders of our changing world. “I would really love it if the paintings left people with kind of a new thought or a question or something to think about when we contemplate what‘s happening to the world, to the state of nature,” she said.
This summer, the Chicago Botanic Garden is transforming—with tall coconut palm trees and other iconic plants of Brazil, inspired by the designs of renowned Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.
The making of Brazil in the Garden started with an unlikely source, a family’s brick townhouse in Philadelphia.
Two members of the Garden’s design team visited the townhouse last summer, not sure what to expect. What they found was a treasure trove of original work by Burle Marx (1909–94), including stacks of rare, numbered lithographs, rolled tapestries too large to hang, and framed paintings. Some of the pieces, which had never been on public display, are now part of an exclusive Burle Marx exhibition at the Garden.
The collection had been in private hands, owned by landscape architect Conrad Hamerman and kept on the third story of his townhouse. When Hamerman died in 2014, his family inherited the pieces. Hamerman was a close friend of Burle Marx, and represented his work in the United States; Burle Marx gave him the pieces as gifts and as payment for his services.
Through a contact, the Garden’s exhibition manager Gabriel Hutchison and senior designer Nancy Snyder met with Hamerman’s wife and daughter in Philadelphia to discuss Burle Marx’s artistic legacy and his friendship with Conrad Hamerman. The Garden’s Burle Marx exhibition reveals a rare glimpse of Burle Marx as an artist known for his bold colors, abstract shapes, and modernist style.
Hutchison and Snyder spent two days reviewing and evaluating the material for possible exhibition. “The collection was so much more diverse than I had imagined—sketches, oil paintings, landscape plans, and painted canvas wall hangings,” Snyder said. “This was really an honor to work on, and all along it felt like exhibiting the work was a suitable tribute to the rich friendship between the Hamermans and Roberto Burle Marx.”
Hamerman and Burle Marx met as young men in Brazil. Hamerman was a landscape designer who wanted to become an artist, and Burle Marx was an artist who wanted to become a landscape designer. Above all, they were both avid plant people. Their mutual love of plants, art, and design formed the basis of a lasting friendship that inspired them to travel on many expeditions to collect plants together.
“Conrad was a professional colleague of Roberto’s and collaborated with him a lot,” said Hutchison. “Over the years they became close friends, and although Conrad enjoyed doing his own work, I think he was most passionate about working with Roberto.”
The two even taught university courses together, which is where landscape architect Andrew Durham first encountered Burle Marx’s work. A former student and family friend of Hamerman’s, Durham arranged the loan of pieces from the family’s personal collection for the Garden’s exhibition.
“One thing that made Hamerman unique as a professor was his close friendship with Roberto Burle Marx,” said Durham. “Our class traveled for a month to Brazil, where Burle Marx personally showed us his gardens. That trip changed many of us forever, and I’ve embedded in my own work much of what I learned from Burle Marx’s use of texture and color.”
Though known for revolutionizing tropical landscape design, Burle Marx also worked in other artistic mediums. The paintings and textiles at the Garden exhibition showcase his style of vast swaths of bold hues, cubist influences, and contrasting fabrics.
See the Roberto Burle Marx exhibition, open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Regenstein Center, Joutras Gallery, through September 10, 2017.
Throughout the Garden, we’re paying tribute to the vibrant spirit of Brazil. Look for samba on the Esplanade, the Brazilian national cocktail in the Garden View Café, cool plants including striking Bismarck palms, and much more. See Brazil in the Garden—throughout the Garden—through October 15, 2017.
Each year’s Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden features something new and dynamic—and each year, the Lenhardt Library’s Orchid Show exhibition showcases something rare and dynamic.
Free Talk on Sunday, February 26, at 2 p.m.
This year’s exhibition, Orchidpalooza: Illustrated Orchid Varieties, features five unsigned, untitled, and unnumbered artist proofs that are attributed to English landscape artist Henry Moon (1857-1905). The proofs were most likely intended for a third series of a collection called Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described, commissioned by Frederick Sander (1847-1920). Moon was Sander’s son-in-law and was responsible for the 192 chromolithographs published in the monumental two-volume work. This work is considered Sander’s homage to Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach (1824-90), the “Orchid King” who succeeded John Lindley (1799-1865), the “Father of Orchidology,” as the leading orchid authority of the late 1800s.
See Orchidpalooza: Illustrated Orchid Varieties throughMarch 26, 2017
Never before exhibited in the Lenhardt Library, the five botanically accurate orchid chromolithographs include color bars from eight to twelve colors, registration marks, and scientific names penciled in the margins or on the verso.
Like many children, I was fascinated with Beatrix Potter, the creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. I remember wanting to visit Hill Top Farm, Potter’s home, after finding a photo of children reading by the fireplace in a National Geographic my parents had.
Those feelings returned after I sawBeatrix Potter: Beloved Children’s Author and Naturalist, on display through February 7 at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library. The exhibition gives wonderful insight into Potter’s early life and career, along with her love of nature and preservation. Here are ten things from the exhibition and beyond that you might not know about the beloved children’s author:
Beatrix’s full name is Helen Beatrix Potter. She shares her first name with her mother, Helen Leech Potter, who was also interested in drawing and painting—common pastimes for upper-middle-class Victorian women. Beatrix used a paint box inscribed with her mother’s name, and she signed some of her drawings H.B.P.
It was summer forays from the Potters’ London family home—first to Dalguise House in Perthshire, Scotland, and later England’s Lake District—that inspired Beatrix’s love of nature. Charles McIntosh, the postman Beatrix befriended in the Lake District, would collect mushroom specimens for her to draw. Some examples of her remarkable mycological illustrations are featured in the Lenhardt Library exhibition.
She kept a secret journal between the ages of 15 and 30, and it was written in code. Though the journal was discovered in 1952, the code was not broken until 1958 by collector Leslie Linder, who then began a massive project to decipher the entire journal. The journal was published in 1966 and gives insights into her thoughts and daily life.
Her most famous work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was first self-published with black-and-white illustrations on December 16, 1901. Peter Rabbit started as a letter to Noel, the ill son of her former governess/companion.
She purchased Hill Top Farm with proceeds from book sales of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published by Frederick Warne & Co. (Beatrix had been engaged for a short time to her publisher, Norman Warne, but he died of leukemia before they married.) She learned too late that she had overpaid for the property and was embarrassed about it. Beatrix vowed to be smarter if she purchased additional property and decided she would seek the assistance of a solicitor. As she began to acquire more property, she secured the services of William Heelis. They later married in 1913, when Beatrix was 47 years old.
She raised sheep. As Beatrix spent more time at Hill Top Farm, she focused her time and energy on raising local heritage livestock—primarily Herdwick sheep—with Kep, her favorite collie. Beatrix dressed in Herdwick tweed skirts and jackets, served as a sheep judge, and was the first female elected president of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association in 1943. Unfortunately, she died before she could serve.
The Fairy Caravan, a longer book for older children published in 1929, is autobiographical. Marta McDowell, author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, wrote of The Fairy Caravan: “A very personal book, she wove in the birds and blooms of memory, writing of old gardens and woodlands of her grandparents’ home in Camfield.” Once I read the exhibition label, I quickly went to my local library and am now reading The Fairy Caravan for the first time.
She was an ardent preservationist. Beatrix realized that times would change the Lake District she loved so dearly, and she eventually bought 14 farms comprising over 4,000 acres that she donated to the National Trust. Many of her illustrations are directly drawn from the Lake District countryside. If you visit the Lake District, consider ordering Walking With Beatrix Potter: Fifteen Walks in Beatrix Potter Country by Norman and June Buckley.
Peter Rabbit is extremely popular in Japan. The exhibition shows this through a Japanese catalog of all things Peter Rabbit for purchase. There is even a life-sized recreation of Hill Top Farm you can visit near Tokyo that was built in 2006.
Her Hill Top Farm still includes many small details of Beatrix’s life. Several years ago when I visited the farm, her clogs were still by the fireplace and, upstairs, the plaster ham Hunca Munca tried to carve in The Tale of Two Bad Mice was in the dollhouse. I almost expected Miss Potter/Mrs. Heelis to pop around the corner.
Stacy Stoldt is never not working on an exhibition.
Even when the Lenhardt Library’s public services manager is staffing the desk, answering reference questions, and locating articles for staff, the “million and one” details involved in putting together the library’s four annual rare book exhibitions are percolating in her brain.
Stoldt has streamlined the process since she first began working at the Chicago Botanic Garden in 2007, but it remains a lot of work to curate an exhibition. “There’s the research, the writing, the editing, the design, the approvals,” she said last month. “Here we are in January, and we’re in the design phase of our next exhibition, which opens in February, but back in November I was already meeting with someone about books for an exhibition that opens this May. There’s always a deadline looming.”
Stoldt loves her work, and one of her chief pleasures is deciding which literary treasures will be selected. It is a process involving research, more research, and finally, she says, just a bit more research. The excitement of finding the perfect volume has prompted Stoldt to burst into song (just ask cataloger Ann Anderson, a neighbor in the basement office who sometimes joins in).
The public services manager and her colleagues have many volumes from which to choose: in 2002, the Lenhardt Library acquired a magnificent collection of 2,000 rare books and 2,000 historic journals from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston.
An Exhibition Takes Shape
Before Stoldt begins hunting down books, there are meetings to decide Lenhardt Library exhibition topics for the year. That process begins with a brainstorming session including Stoldt, Lenhardt Library Director Leora Siegel, and Rare Books Curator Ed Valauskas. Sometimes the trio bases their topics on themes within the collection, such as the upcoming succulent show that features the work of A.P. de Candolle and botanical-rock-star-illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté.
Alternatively, they might collaborate with another botanical library on a theme, as happened when the Lenhardt Library team worked with the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library on the recent exhibition Healing Plants: Illustrated Herbals. Other times, they select topics that complement events held at the Garden, such as Butterflies in Print: Lepidoptera Defined, which ran in conjunction with last summer’s Butterflies & Blooms.
Newest Exhibition Focuses on Orchids
The newest Lenhardt Library exhibition complements the Orchid Show and is titled Exotic Orchids: Orchestrated in Print. Running through Sunday, May 11, it features such rare books as Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, published in 1862. Another item is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with a beautiful color illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid. “One doesn’t come alive without the other,” said Stoldt. “I’m always trying to put the connections together for people.”
For some exhibitions, Stoldt does it all—A to Z. For others, she receives the researched text, citations, and selected illustrations from Valauskas or Siegel and develops the material into an exhibition. Once the topics are established, research is completed, and explanatory text is written and edited, graphic designers enter the picture. Stoldt selects images from the featured books to use with the accompanying text, and then the designers work their magic. Along the way, Stoldt and Siegel review the progress. The result is an exhibition compelling not only for its content but for its elegant layout, which extends throughout the display cases that greet visitors as they enter the library.
Accompanying library talks are on Tuesday, February 18, and Sunday, March 9, at 2 p.m.
“For our new Exotic Orchids exhibition, we really wanted to show some bling!” said Stoldt. Within the Rare Book Collection, there was so much to choose from on orchids that she found the selection process daunting. Visitors to the exhibition will find the beauty and science of orchids well-represented, and discover items about orchid conservation and preservation as well.
Art Conservation Key to Documenting Plants
Stoldt noted that conserving the books and the artwork that document a plant’s existence is almost as important as preserving the actual plant. In cases two and three of Exotic Orchids, there are select illustrations from two orchid collections, Les Orchidées (1890)and Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre (1900–10), which the Lenhardt Library recently had conserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
How did the conservation process work? Professionally trained book and paper conservators removed the illustrations from their original acidic bindings; then the inks were tested, the surfaces were cleaned, and the illustrations were digitally photographed. Then the illustrations were placed in chemically stable folders and housed in custom-made boxes made from lignin-free archival boards. Conservation completed!
The Rare Book Collection
Stoldt recently brought out some rare volumes to demonstrate the variety within the Rare Book Collection. As noted on its web page, the collection reflects a relationship between people and the plant kingdom that has been documented since the earliest days of print, when botanists were not simply plant describers, but explorers.
Out came volume after volume, with Stoldt pointing out noteworthy details about each. Among them was the oldest book in the collection, Historia Plantarum, writtenby Theophrastus (d. 287 B.C.E.) and published in 1483 (it has some unusual marginalia). There was also an exquisite Japanese book on flower arranging, Nageire Kadensho: Saishokuzu Iri, published in 1684 and donated by longtime library volunteer Adele Klein. Stoldt continued her informal presentation with seemingly boundless enthusiasm, finishing with lush life-size images from The Orchid Album, published between 1882 and 1897.
More than once, Stoldt returned a book to the vault at the end of the show-and-tell only to call, “but wait! There’s more!” as she glimpsed another book she absolutely had to show. This librarian really, really loves her books. And she feels very protective of them.
Stoldt recalled the horror she felt once when she was installing an exhibition, with a rare book exposed nearby on a book “cradle”: “There was a sign that said ‘Exhibit installation in progress: please do not touch the rare books,’ but this person came in from the rain and loomed over it, dripping wet. I got her out of the way, but that was a close one.”
More often, visitors are sensitive to the delicate state of the Garden’s rare books. Some Garden members make a point of coming to each new exhibition and attending the free gallery talk. “One patron always calls from Wisconsin to find out about the next talk,” said Stoldt. “And once, a library regular who came to a talk told me how much she loved the book Brother Gardeners [about eighteenth-century gardeners who brought American plants to England]. I was able to show her some books by the book’s featured plantsmen, including Joseph Banks, John Bartram, and Phillip Miller, among others. It’s what I call an ‘on-demand rare-book viewing.’ She was thrilled. These are the kinds of things that lead to relationships with people.”
Devoted patrons feel that the library and its exhibitions enhance their lives; in turn, some are moved to enhance the Rare Book Collection. “We have our patrons, and then we have our patron saints,” said Stoldt. One patron who came to the 2009 exhibit on Kew Garden’s 250th anniversary enjoyed the accompanying talk by Ed Valauskas so much that she donated the 1777 edition of Cook’s Voyage, or A Voyage Towards the South Pole, by Captain James Cook, which had been in her family for family for decades. And longtime members John and Mary Helen Slater made it possible for the library to acquire 11 volumes of Warner’s Orchid Album.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Stoldt loves to see the excitement she feels about the Garden’s Rare Book Collection spreading to a new generation. She recalled a day when a grandfather brought his grandson to the library, and the child asked to see a rare book. “I asked him what he was interested in, and he said, ‘poisonous plants.’ First, I showed him Histoire des Plantes Vénéneuses et Suspectes de la France by Bulliard, a book on poisonous plants written in French from the eighteenth century, but what really spoke to him was a book with the ‘coolest illustrations!’ entitled Poisonous Plants, Deadly, Dangerous and Suspect, Engraved on Wood, 1927, by John Nash. This kid was just amazed. I love seeing young readers light up when they’ve found something intriguing for them in print. It’s heart-warming.”
Although that particular drop-in visit and viewing request occurred on a busy weekend day, another library staff member was available to manage the circulation desk while Stoldt showed the books. “I can’t stress enough the importance of making an appointment for a viewing,” she said. “Besides kids, grandparents, and garden clubs, people from all over the world come to Lenhardt Library to see primary resources they can’t find elsewhere. We’ve had writers and scholars from England and the Netherlands, and even a Thai princess, come to see the Rare Book Collection. Everyone is welcome.”
Don’t be surprised if you come to see one specific book in the collection and end up seeing many more. It will be a visit you won’t forget!
Rare book viewings are by appointment only during the hours of 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, subject to availability. For an appointment, call (847) 835-8201.