Botanical Illustrations on Alcatraz

Awhile back I posted about an upcoming (at the time) reception for the Alcatraz Florilegium. Sadly, the temporary closure of the government and the National Parks put a damper on that scheduled event. Regardless of the hiccup, the Florilegium installation moved forward as planned, just minus the reception.

Alcatraz Florilegium? What the heck is that? Literally speaking, a florilegium is a selection of extracts from a larger body of work – Latin for “a gathering of flowers.” Though it originally referred to literary work, nowadays it’s used to describe a record of plant collections from a particular garden. The Gardens of Alcatraz are the focus of this florilegium.

On the morning staff boat, heading out to the island.

On the morning staff boat, heading out to the island.

The artists are all members of the Northern California Society of Botanical Artists. Check out that link! It has a gallery of scans of each of the 45 pieces on display, and links to some of the artists’ individual galleries. My photos of the prints really don’t do it justice, because of the glare and lighting. Hopefully the images on their site will help inspire you to go see these in person!

Fortunately, they found a new time to schedule the reception for the artists, and I was able to attend the event on the island this past weekend with my friend Charmain. We’d been talking about volunteering on Alcatraz together for years (it was her class that first inspired me to volunteer in the gardens there), and we finally took this opportunity to head out. It was perfect weather, unusually so for mid-November. Warm, sunny, clear… We couldn’t have asked for a better day. We caught the early staff boat out to the island with the day’s garden volunteers, along with the painters and their guests. The artists had all spent time on the island earlier in the year, observing and collecting plant materials in order to paint watercolors. The works on display are giclée prints of their original watercolors, interspersed with mounted poems and quotes about Alcatraz and gardens.

Arriving at the dock on the Rock.

Arriving at the dock on the Rock.

Perfect weather!

Perfect weather!

Charmain is a botanical illustrator herself, so it was especially interesting to learn details of the process of watercolor of this caliber. She’d even been part of an earlier botanical illustration excursion on the island herself, several years ago. Besides just appreciating the fact of the collection itself, she taught me a great deal about observing and critiquing (from a constructive angle) the works, and recognizing how various techniques were employed. Within a short period I was easily able to tune in to which paintings had used greens “from the tube” vs custom-blended for increased realism, and appreciate the difference between “floating” prints where the image is small and completely centered vs “matte cropped” images where the illustration is larger and more detailed and disappears behind the matting of the frame to hint at the largeness of the plant itself. I learned that an advanced technique in watercolor is to apply layer upon layer of paint to get the depth of color you want, and that the practiced artist will stack literally dozens of layers of colors to achieve the look they want. I could then walk around the exhibit and zero-in on paintings with more layers than others. It was totally fascinating! My personal favorites included a technique I learned about in my art history class – Veritas – where the artist represents all stages of a plant’s life as seen in real life; leaves and leaf buds, flowers and flower buds, fading leaves and flowers, and some that have completely dried. There is some amazing stuff to see in this show!

(Since the artists’ pieces and names are all on their own site, I’ll forego captioning each individual photo in this gallery. The glares were a challenge, anyway…)

The illustrations are on display through the end of January, 2014, or possibly longer. The exciting commonality of these pieces is they are all of plants growing in the Gardens of Alcatraz, and include a wide variety of flowering plants and shrubs, trees, ferns, bulbs, and succulents. Even some of the common “weeds” are having their day in the sun thanks to the artists. To see it, just get out there any time the island is open. It’s a self-guided exhibit with no special tour needed, so be sure to get up top to the prison building and check it out downstairs in the Band Practice Room. It’s right next to the gift shop, too, where you can support the gardens by buying Gardens of Alcatraz t-shirts, seeds, and photo books. Go check it out!

The 125 year old Australian tea tree along the Main Road.

The 125 year old Australian tea tree along the Main Road.

2 responses to “Botanical Illustrations on Alcatraz

  1. And then some other blogger from Amsterdam thought and wrote;This show could not have been possible without that gorgeous 125 year old Australian tea tree along the Main Road!
    Great stuff here!

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