Rare Botanical Folk Art Revealed

A future exhibition at The Huntington will feature extraordinary botanical art safeguarded for decades in Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s herbarium and library collections.

Rare botanical artwork squirreled away among the pressed plant specimens in the herbarium and the library’s special collections at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) is scheduled for debut as part of a temporary art instillation at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in 2013. The exhibition, under a propitious motif titled “When They Were Wild: Capturing California’s Wildflower Heritage,” is a result of a collaborative effort between RSABG, The Huntington and the Theodore Payne Foundation.

The RSABG contribution to the exhibition will include illustrations and paintings by Milford Zornes and Clara Mason Fox as well as other artists.

James Milford Zornes (1908-2008), who exhibited his watercolors in the Smithsonian, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House, also produced extensively detailed black and white botanical illustrations—subject matter he otherwise left uncharted. As a student at Pomona College in the early 1930s, Zornes helped illustrate “A Manual of Southern California Botany” (1935). He created a total of 70 botanical drawings for the manual by Philip A. Munz, a botanist and taxonomist at RSABG and Pomona professor of botany. About half of Zornes’ 4.5 by 7 inch illustrations on card stock found a home in RSABG’s library special collections.

Comparatively obscure, Fox created work that holds its own charm. Born in Ohio in 1873 and an Orange County resident until her death in 1959, she found artistic inspiration in Silverado Canyon, Santiago Canyon and the Santa Ana Mountains. Many of her 143 impressive paintings of California flora have meticulous, technical descriptions of foliage density, heights of shrubs and textures of fruits. Those careful notations earned her works’ accession into RSABG’s herbarium. Often her paintings on loose-leaf bond paper, measuring 8.5 by 11 inches, were considered plant specimens by various botanists; some even attached annotation labels, verifying plants’ genus and species names. Fox’s detailed botanical artwork represents the skill women could attain at a time when botanical exploration was generally considered men’s work. Over a century has passed since she painted her earliest botanical paintings, but each have maintained full, spectacular color and suffered minimal damage due to the herbarium’s high quality storage conditions.

Jessica Dewberry is the 2010 Getty Foundation intern working with Bart O’Brien, RSABG director of special projects, to help curate the botanical folk art housed at RSABG. Documenting the artwork of Zornes, Fox and other artists, was an early and critical phase. Since June 1, Dewberry has scanned the bulk of the 239 images produced by 12 different artists on inverted herbarium scanners designed specifically to create electronic copies of plant specimens.

“The idea is to have a growing record of artwork and information about the artists in a searchable database accessible to the public and students studying botany and participating in the specialized educational tracts that RSABG offers,” she says.

Dewberry is pursuing a combined major of English and world literature major with an emphasis on creative writing and Africana studies at Pitzer College.

Biographical information was unquestionably easier to locate for some of the artists than others. Puzzling together Fox’s life, for example, was a challenge. Dewberry teased out a sketch of the artist’s life by scouring Orange County public records and various archives. A trip to the library turned up “In Pleasant Places,” a book of poetry Fox published in 1924. And a mimeographed copy of Fox’s “A History of El Toro” (1939) provided a glimpse into her life and intrinsic connection to nature.

In addition to searching archives and library shelves, she also conducted several interviews with faculty and staff members at the Garden including curator emeritus of the herbarium Steve Boyd.

“I asked Bob Thorne [RSABG taxonomist emeritus] about the paintings,” Boyd recalls. “He didn’t seem to know much about their provenance, but he mentioned he and Earl Lathrop used them as part of their documentation of the flora of the Santa Ana Mountains. Over the years, I would pull the paintings from the active collection anytime I ran into them and stash them in the first case of type specimens. Bob groused a few times because ‘they were vouchers for his Santa Ana Mountains flora’.”

The Huntington exhibition will offer the public the opportunity to view these illustrations, paintings and other unique botanical artwork of California flora produced by a range of diverse artists in many styles and mediums that span more than a century.