Plant Portraiture

Wendy Hollender draws her erythrina livingstoniana piece.

Florilegium-style drawings are in bloom at National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Thirteen years ago, New York-based botanical illustrator and artist Wendy Hollender visited Kaua‘i’s National Tropical Botanical Garden to draw endangered Hawaiian plants, marking the start of a decades-long collaboration between the artist and the gardens.

“Most people may tour a garden, but few spend time studying the plants as closely as we do and document them for the rest of the world to see,” says Hollender.

Botanical illustration fits in with NTBG’s mission, as it allows for a multi-faceted experience for all who participate. According to NTBG’s website, botanical illustration also plays an important role in the work of its scientists.

Joan Luzney’s natal plum piece is almost completed.

NTBG describes one kind of illustration: the “florilegium style, usually done in watercolor or color pencil that brings vibrant, lifelike color to the plant being illustrated and varies with each artist’s personal style.”

This brilliant type of art is Hollender’s strength.

In high school, Hollender attended what she describes as “an experimental free school my town had started. For 11th and 12th grade, I could choose to study what I wanted, no requirements and no curriculum. There was an art room and art teacher.”

From there began a lifelong passion. After attending art college, Hollender started work as a textile designer.

“(I was) not able to draw realistically, but was good with splashy color and pattern,” she says.

Students Catherine Watters, Veronica Fannin, Esther Garcia, Jane Goldsmith, Wendy Hollender, Joan Luzney, Daisy Chung, Trudy Rehbock and Esther Carpi take a break from their florilegium class to take a picture.

“I studied old botanical prints for inspiration and wanted to learn to do what those botanical artists had done for centuries — draw realistically, create 3D colorful plant portraits with lots of detail.”

Eventually, Hollender’s passion for botanical art brought her to Kaua‘i and NTBG.

While working with NTBG’s science staff during her first visit, Hollender was asked if she would be interested in running art workshops for residents and visitors.

Every year since, Hollender has returned — and her workshops have grown more and more popular each year.

“I now bring two other instructors along because we get such a large group,” she says.

Lāwa‘i resident Jane Goldsmith has been volunteering at NTBG since 1997 and was one of Hollender’s first students, eagerly taking classes annually. She also has had a piece featured in each of NTBG’s last four botanical art shows.

Wendy Hollender’s Cannonball Tree was drawn using samples from National Tropical Botanical Garden. PHOTO COURTESY WENDY HOLLENDER

“I am not a professional, but I do enjoy being a part of this group,” Goldsmith says.

“When I became a volunteer at the NTBG and learned about botanical art, I was inspired. Wendy came to teach the class, I started drawing and I have been hooked ever since.”

According to Goldsmith, Hollender enabled the garden to bring well-known artists to document the plants in the garden — and so, five years ago, the Florilegium Society was born.

“For selfish reasons, I wanted to be able to sit in the lovely classroom with plants in the garden calling to me — with other established botanical artists, so we could all enjoy the garden and learn from each other,” Hollender muses.

“Most botanical artists work on their own, and that can be lonely, so I thought this (Florilegium Society) would be a great way to build a community together.

“Along with the staff at NTBG, the rare book room and, of course, the garden full of tropical plants, it became an instant success.”

One fellow Kaua‘i botanical artist is Wailua resident Joan Luzney.

While Luzney had always enjoyed arts and crafts, ranging from quilting to fabric dyeing, she had never tried her hand at botanical art. Then, she took one of Hollender’s classes and, as she says, “loved the experience and was hooked!”

Jane Goldsmith and Joan Luzney work on their florilegium pieces during a class at National Tropical Botanical Garden.

As a member of the NTBG Florilegium Society, Luzney recently completed one large piece and a variety of “pods” that she worked on as part of NTBG’s collection of botanical art for 2020.

“I love the art, the process of making the art, amazing tropical Kaua‘i, and assisting in the efforts of NTBG to foster appreciation of nature and our role in valuing plants. The plants themselves are inspirational in their diversity and fight for life … truly fascinating,” she says.

“With climate change and the destruction of the planet by humans, it is especially important to save plants and document their unique qualities, as many are declining and their habitat is changing,” Luzney adds.

“Botanical art has a role in preservation and the support of efforts in collecting specimens, saving seeds to assure biodiversity and to spread the message of conservation.”

Hollender also mentions the scientific impact of their art, saying, “Often in our work, we highlight plants that are important for various reasons, whether it is a focus on endangered plants, newly discovered plants, medicinal or culinary plants, or those beneficially to other parts of nature.

“We can’t survive without plants, and our world will be a healthier, better place if more people would appreciate them more. I hope in some small way we can help with that.”

Visit ntbg.org to learn more.