A Lifelike Version of Nature, but Not to Scale

A Lifelike Version of Nature, but Not to Scale
08 May

The acknowledged masters of botanical sculpture were a father-and-son team, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, 19th- and early-20th-century German artisans who created more than 4,000 plants out of glass. (A small part of the collection can be viewed at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which originally commissioned the work.)

A tiny number of botanical sculptors continue to abide by this same spirit. (Their work is miniature to the extent that the anther cap of a pink lady slipper orchid may be the size of a Tic Tac.)

The Thai artist Supawadee “Pa” Ngamhuy, for example, formed 128 plants out of polymer clay for the Wild Center, in the Adirondack Mountains. But good luck trying to find them.

With few exceptions, Ms. Ngamhuy’s reproductions appear indistinguishable from living specimens. A handful depict colorful woodland mushrooms, such as the rosy russula. She has smuggled dozens of native wildflowers and orchids into a 20-foot-long display of a sphagnum moss bog.

Stephanie Ratcliffe, 59, the executive director of the museum, said that sculptures like these, in a glass cabinet, could help visitors recognize the plants on a hike in the field. “There’s only so much you can learn in two dimensions — cameras and phones and flat screens,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

The botanical sculptor Trailer McQuilkin, 71, shares that belief. The only way to render a wildflower with his extreme level of accuracy is to work from a living model. “I take these plants apart and dissect them, and count each stamen,” he said.


Supawadee “Pa” Ngamhuy, a Thai artist, created this pink lady’s slipper orchid from polymer clay. Credit Rick Godin/The Wild Center

After collecting a rare glacier lily from 11,000 feet up in the North Pole Basin of the Colorado Rockies and stashing it in a cooler, Mr. McQuilkin will rush home to his studio on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Then he’ll fabricate the sundry plant forms — the buds, the flower, the calyx — for days on end. If the plant dies first, he needs to return to the alpine meadow to dig up another one. If it’s not in bloom? See you next year.

One business advantage of Mr. McQuilkin’s method is that almost no one else would have the patience to try it. In part that comes from his supremely unforgiving material: sheet copper, copper wire and oil paints. For almost 50 years, he’s been employing a tool set that includes shears, surgical scissors, pliers, a rubber mallet, an anvil and a butane torch. (At this autumnal stage in his own life cycle, Mr. McQuilkin also relies on jeweler’s glasses.)

He works at life scale, but the plant parts can be minute. To paint the fine veins on a leaf, Mr. McQuilkin said, “I’ll take a sable-hair brush and cut it down to two or three hairs.”

Many of the finished pieces go to botanical gardens. Mr. McQuilkin’s work will be shown Thursday and Friday at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. “Artists have art critics,” he said. “My critics are botanists.” An even better endorsement comes when a bee or hummingbird dive bombs his copper flowers in search of pollen.

How much verisimilitude is too much? Imagine being enticed to bite into the replica salad in a deli display case. Now think how the bee must feel.

A Miniature Turns ‘Bigature’

One of the great virtues of botanical art, Ms. Woodin said, is “you’re never going to run out of subject matter.” But then no law of the jungle says the artist must stick to existing plants.


Trailer McQuilkin creates stunningly accurate reproductions of American wildflowers out of copper, working from living models. Credit William Widmer for The New York Times

In recent years, Matthew Albanese, 35, has recreated oaks and willows from his memories and imagination. This Eden turns out to be the northwest corner of New Jersey, where he lives. But for the past few months, Mr. Albanese has been studying paleobotany for a diorama called “The Hottest Day on Earth.” The garden includes vanished genera such as Tempskya (a trunkless tree fern of the Cretaceous period) and Sigillaria (a spore-bearing tree of the Late Carboniferous period).

“You may think it’s a normal jungle, but it’s actually quite alien,” Mr. Albanese said. “If you look closely, you’ll say, ‘I’ve never seen a tree like that.’”

The plan for the finished model involves hundreds of specimens staged on a plywood platform the size of a Ping-Pong table. “It’s more a bigature than a miniature,” Mr. Albanese said.

In preparation, Mr. Albanese has been stocking a fake tree nursery on a wire shelving unit in his parlor workshop. He’s been getting good results so far with artificial snakeskin for the trunk of an extinct cycad relative called Williamsonia. Through his previous botanical miniatures, Mr. Albanese has concluded that you can make a convincing replica of just about any environment on Earth if you have $200 to spend at Hobby Lobby.

Willing to travel a little further afield? Mr. Albanese has discovered through trial and error that the dust surface of the planet Mars looks like a mixture of cinnamon, chili pepper and paprika. Science-fiction movies were his first love, and his finished art takes the form of highly staged cinematic photographs. Mr. Albanese constructs his landscapes as they appear through the lens of his Canon 5D. From this angle, Mr. Albanese isn’t just goofing around with dyed feathers and fake fur; he’s building a movie set.

Mr. Albanese doesn’t sweeten the shot in postproduction (or Photoshop, as it were). He prints what he shoots. The artistry comes from a mastery of lighting and forced perspective (plus a little dry ice). “Without the photographic aspect,” he said, “the illusion would never be able to exist. The miniatures themselves would not hold up.”

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