Veld & Flora Feature
THIS FEATURE IS FROM VELD & FLORA JUNE ISSUE 108(2), PAGES 16-23
A flowering of fynbos art
In a spectacular blossoming of creativity, botanical art is embracing established and new talent for a landmark publication and new gallery that will be a southern-hemisphere first
Aug 31, 2022 | WRITTEN BY ZOË CHAPMAN POULSEN. PHOTOGRAPHS: GARETH WILLIAMSON
of fynbos art
Above: Projects at Overstrand’s Grootbos Private Nature Reserve are putting SA botanical art on the world map with exciting firsts for the southern hemisphere.
EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY – but with a new flowering of botanical art at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in the Western Cape’s Overstrand, the pictures are flying in the face of centuries of botanical art tradition to tell both sides of the story. They embrace both plants and, unusually, their pollinators.
“As botanical artists in South Africa, we have often included insects, for instance, in our paintings but that is something that is traditionally frowned upon for international work,” says renowned South African botanical artist Vicki Thomas, artistic coordinator of the new botanical art project that will become a Grootbos trademark.
Above: Known as the spicy conebush for its lovely scent and subtle colouring, Leucadendron tinctum has been well captured by Johannesburg artist Isabelita van Zyl. Above are Isabelita’s vignettes of the bracts and a single flower from a female cone with a Cape honey bee (Apis mellifera capensis) with pollen loaded onto its hind legs and a cross-section of a single L. tinctum pollen grain as seen under great magnification.
Grootbos is celebrating a triumphant couple of firsts this spring. One is Africa’s first contemporary florilegium, pioneering the portrayal of fynbos plants with their pollinators and picking up on the most modern interpretation of a florilegium as a thematic collection of botanical art.
The other is the opening on 1 September of the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery at Grootbos, the first contemporary permanent gallery dedicated to botanical art in the southern hemisphere, as a home for the florilegium. Finally, a coffee-table book will add a layer of narrative to each plant story.
The florilegium and gallery project builds on the reserve’s legacy of a quarter-century of documenting and conserving the Cape floral kingdom, explains Grootbos Foundation director Sean Privett, a leading authority on fynbos.
With Grootbos co-founder Heiner Lutzeyer, Sean established the reserve’s herbarium, which has so far catalogued nearly 900 species in Grootbos and the broader Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy of which it is part. This process has also so far contributed seven previously unknown species to science and more than doubled the original estimate of indigenous plant species in the reserve.
Botanical art is an ideal complement to the herbarium, says Sean, because it accurately illustrates the plants’ scientific details. Many of the species portrayed in the florilegium illustrations are threatened, in turn raising awareness of how important they are in conservation terms.
Above: Paula Strauss (centre), Grootbos Foundation entomologist, leads the monitoring and research around the reserve’s insects.
TELLING FYNBOS STORIES
Vicki Thomas’s artistic vision has helped shaped the way that the Grootbos plants are portrayed. Recent florilegia such as the Transylvania florilegium supported by Prince Charles through his Prince’s Trust, usually focus only on the plant itself. But Vicki felt that these books “were a bit too Eurocentric and sterile, with a lot of white space. We wanted the Grootbos florilegium to reflect instead the artists and plants of our era.”
Discovering that Grootbos employs a team of entomologists as part of their biodiversity research programme, Vicki saw that portraying insects and other pollinators with the plants would place the stories of the plants and pollinators of Grootbos and their complex role in fynbos ecosystems at the heart of the florilegium project.
- Grootbos Private Nature Reserve lies the Cape floristic region between Stanford and Gansbaai.
- The original 123-hectare property, with stunning views over the spectacular Walker Bay and Kleinrivier mountains beyond, was bought by the Lutzeyer family in 1991.
- They used it as a holiday farm until 1996, when they began developing it as an eco-tourism reserve with five-star accommodation in Garden Lodge.
- They are founding members of the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy that today includes 49 landowners and covers more than 21 000 hectares of land.
Above: Chris Lochner, Grootbos Foundation botanical artist, paints a caterpillar of the bag worm moth (Coleoptera) with the endangered Erica riparia.
What is a florilegium?
A florilegium originated as a printed collection (literally ‘gathering’) of flower illustrations in 16th-century Europe. Wealthy individuals and botanic gardens were collecting many new plants from overseas. They commissioned artists to portray the plants’ beauty and then employed engravers and printers, using the latest techniques, to publish them in limited editions.
Today the term florilegium is sometimes used to refer to the collection of botanical art itself, rather than in printed form. Grootbos has chosen to follow this contemporary interpretation in its florilegium. Whether a botanical art collection or a reproduction of selected botanical art, the paintings of flowers are botanically accurate, highlighting the anatomical details of the plants including their flowers, leaves, fruit or seeds. The florilegium can portray a collection of plants within a particular botanical garden, such as the florilegium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, or plants found in a specific geographic area, such as the Grootbos florilegium.
“Traditionally botanical art has been about only a flower or a plant but we wanted to bring in the ecology broadly,” says Sean, “using the art to show the cycle of pollination, seed dispersal and resprouting after fire.”
The entomology team has worked closely with the artists as they have created their artworks for the florilegium. This strategy has also been a win-win decision.
As the florilegium has grown, so has knowledge about insect biodiversity of the region. Although insects are very diverse here, research had been quite sparse. After four years of monitoring, more than 30 000 insect species have been collected. Now entomologists are tackling the task of identifying these insect species.
GATHERING OF FLOWERS
Vicki was well placed to guide and energise the florilegium project. She is based in Betty’s Bay, about 80 kilometres from Grootbos, and has participated in florilegia projects around the world. She recruited 45 talented artists from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Reunion, from the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, and from the USA, Brazil, Japan and South Korea.
For successful botanical art, you must have a deep understanding of plants because the artists draw from live plants, either in the field or as specimens in the studio, explains Sean.
Botanical artists need to have very fine technical drawing skills to depict precisely the plants’ form, anatomy, structure and individual features. They also need the patience to spend months completing each artwork.
At the end of 2018, a pilot group of artists were invited to Grootbos to test out the feasibility of painting the reserve’s plant life as a way of exploring and recording for posterity its plants, biodiversity and ecology. One of this pilot group was Christiaan Lochner (33), now Grootbos artist-in-residence, who has been painting some of the more fleeting species on the reserve.
“Seeing beautiful paintings of plants changes the way that people view plants and nature,” he says. “Art helps you give people an emotional connection or experience that can communicate more directly than scientific or conservation reports.”
Each plant’s narrative is portrayed as a main illustration, with a second series of smaller sketches or paintings showing interesting detail such as the pollinator, plant anatomy, seeds, flower dissections and the broader ecological context. This approach plays a vital science communication role in a world where increasing numbers of species are threatened with extinction.
Gail de Smidt (60) spent most of her working life as a freelance graphic designer, coming to botanical art only four years ago. She enjoys creating stories through her artwork, depicting the plant’s whole lifecycle. “I love to show the seeds to the buds, to the flowers to the leaves decaying,” she says. “I think it adds interest and colour – the browns of things that are dying with the really soft new greens of the colours coming through on the buds.”
P lants give life: Sibonelo Chiliza
“When I was growing up, we were taught that plants give us life,” says Sibonelo Chiliza (42). Sibonelo grew up in Mthwalume near Port Shepstone on the KZN south coast. Now a full-time botanical artist working with pencil crayons, he produces large, charismatic artworks depicting plants life size. He also teaches botanical art to township youth.
After completing a national diploma in textile design and technology at the Durban University of Technology, Sibonelo worked as a scientific illustrator under renowned botanical artist Gillian Condy for SANBI. He has exhibited at three biennale exhibitions at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, winning three medals for his work.
Above: Science graduate turned botanical artist Christiaan Lochner, who depicted this yellow trailing pincushion (Leucospermum prostratum), finds the geometry of plants fascinating: “I like to take something quite small and magnify it to show that detail,” he says.
ART FOR CONSERVATION’S SAKE
Like the florilegium, the reserve’s new Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery developed organically from the overall conservation vision. Grootbos founder Michael Lutzeyer recalls how at one of the art hand-ins, art patron Hannarie Wenhold said, “I think this art needs a home.”
From that has grown an elegant gallery where the botanical art tells its story in a different way. “It is more than just a showcase of beautiful art,” says Sean. “We have structured it so that as you walk through the gallery, you follow the seasons at Grootbos and the story of the diversity, beauty, uses and uniqueness of the Cape flora.”
The florilegium and gallery play a key role in fundraising for conservation and biodiversity stewardship. A third of florilegium proceeds go to the artists, with the remaining two thirds going directly to the Grootbos Foundation, where they are divided between the foundation’s landscape conservation programme and its community development projects. These will include clearing alien vegetation, rehabilitating wetlands and species surveys.
The Grootbos florilegium is a pioneering project, bringing together botanical art and artists, across the world and across the generations, with SA’s fynbos landscapes and their biodiversity. Their legacy is to help support the area’s conservation into the future.
Above: Contributing artist Liberty Shuro, artistic coordinator Vicki Thomas and Grootbos founder Michael Lutzeyer toast the florilegium.
Realism rules: LibertyShuro
For botanical artist and wildlife illustrator Liberty Shuro, art is a lifelong passion. Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, his drawing talent was already evident by the time he was eight years old. Originally a wildlife illustrator, he was later also introduced to botanical art by then SANBI National Herbarium artist Gillian Condy.
One of Liberty’s highlights was exhibiting at the South African national exhibition at the Everard Reed gallery in Johannesburg for the 2018 Worldwide Day of Botanical Art, which included artworks depicting indigenous flora by over 700 artists from 25 different countries. Liberty likes to work in pencil, using realism techniques.
Above: Cape Town botanical artist Martine Robinson captured this candelabra flower (Brunsvigia orientalis), one of the delights of late summer in the veld.
This article was featured in Veld & Flora in the June 2022 edition.
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