by Lynne Raughley
In a room on the 6th floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library, groups of students clustered around tables laden with rare and special books, which were propped open on foam rests to protect their bindings. The books varied in size and age, and ranged in subject from botany to children’s literature, but all of them featured illustrations of plants.
This was the students’ second visit to the Special Collections Library, this time for a deeper dive into the great variety of styles and techniques artists and illustrators have used to represent flora over the centuries.
Their introductory session, focused on printing techniques, featured what is perhaps the Library’s greatest treasure, or at least a portion of it: two volumes of the double-elephant folio of John James Audubon’s The Birds of a America.
“That was so crazy!” said Kara Calvert, a junior in the Stamps School of Art & Design. “I had no idea I would ever be able to see that in real life.”
The gathering of books was in support of Cathy Barry’s Art & Design course, “Florilegium: Creating a Plant Compendium,” whose final project is to design and create a collection of drawings and paintings in book form from field observations, study, and studio work.
The visits to the Library followed on a trip to the Biological Station, where Calvert and her cohort spent a week in August identifying, drawing, and painting the plants they saw there, with guidance on the artwork from Barry, and on the identification from plant biologist Susan Fawcett. Other outings took students to the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library’s collection of artists’ books to contemplate a wide range of methods that artists have applied to the project of book-making, and to the U-M Herbarium and its 1,700,000 specimens.
Calvert describes the class as a chance to stretch beyond her typical specialty area. “I'm really interested in fibers and textiles, and drawing's not usually the main part of my work,” she explained. “Also, I haven’t done a lot of scientific illustration, so this class seemed like a great opportunity to hone my skills and knowledge.” Calvert, who’s a big reader, is also excited about the prospect of creating and binding her own book.
Barry developed the course in response to the Biological Station’s Third Century initiative, which sought proposals that included a field component at the station, and would “bridge the gap between environmental science” and other disciplines. Her interdisciplinary approach attracted students from a range of fields, including art, design, and botany, as well as some without a great deal of experience with either. In the end, fewer than half the students were “Stampers.”
For Calvert, the class has been an exploration of how scientific knowledge can inform the creative process. “It’s the difference between saying, ‘Here’s a plant, how about I draw it?’—which feels almost like stealing—and knowing things about it, like what kind of plant it is, what its key characteristics are, and what stage of growth it’s in.”
She also appreciates the rapport between those taking a mostly artistic approach and those more interested in the science. The word cross-pollination unavoidably comes to mind as she describes the interaction.
“Sometimes it’s, ‘Hey, can someone help me to identify this plant?’ And then someone else says, ‘I can't figure out how to mix this color.’”
Juli McLoone, the outreach librarian and curator who led the instructional sessions in Special Collections, sought to foster this kind of engagement as the students interacted with the books and with each other. She assigned them one-to-one and group sharing of their assessments of the books, and to teams that attempted to identify the printing technique—relief, intaglio, or chemical—used in a particular volume.
The range of inputs into the course, from fieldwork to to direct engagement with library collections to instruction in both science and artistic methods and techniques—is both extraordinary and representative of the network of learning and teaching resources the University presents.
And Kara Calvert, who’s still creating her final book project, is already thinking about the course’s potential implications for her other work. “Rightly now I’m doing the costume design for a show that requires a lot of calico cotton prints,” she says. With her newly-acquired knowledge and skills, she’s planning to create fabric patterns from her own renderings of the plants she’s seen and drawn.
Cathy Barry’s inspiration for the course began with Captain Cook’s Florilegium, a compilation in book form of the engravings of plants collected by Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Captain Cook’s 18th century voyage around the world. So she was delighted to see it included among the volumes that Juli McLoone proposed for sharing with her class.
“I particularly love the concept of a florilegium as a collection of images that come together to make a portrait of a place,” Barry said. She cites as a non-botanical example a book of pictures of outer space. “Taken together, they convey a lot of information. You get a real sense of what it’s like.”
By setting students to the task of creating a portrait of Southeast Michigan via its plants, Barry anticipates a number of outcomes—enhanced skills in observation and various rendering methods, an improved understanding of the role of plants in history and culture, a greater awareness of the local environment—but not least among them is a corrective to “plant blindness,” the human tendency to pay much more attention to animals rather than plants.
This preference, which may be both innate and cultural, shows up in the application of resources to protect the environment; for example, plants comprise 57 percent of endangered species in the United States, yet receive less than 4 percent of endangered species funding.
“But once you’ve spent time closely observing and identifying plants, and thinking about their unique and common characteristics,” Barry explained, “you’re more likely to notice them, and think of them as living things that have familial relationships to one another, and that play important roles in the ecosystem.”