Art of the Plant

  • Post published:02/09/2009

Beverly Duncan in her studio
Beverly Duncan in her studio

Beverly Duncan is known to her Ashfield neighbors, and colleagues at Mohawk Trail Regional High School as a friend, as a helpful worker, as a gardener, and as an artist who sells cards and sketches of flowers and other plants at Elmer’s Store. Some know her as a freelance artist and illustrator for books and magazines, but many are not aware of her reputation as a fine botanical artist whose work has been exhibited at the Denver Botanic Garden, the Delaware Center for Horticulture, the Buffalo Museum of Science and at the Hunt Institute’s Ninth International Exhibit.  Her work has won awards including Best of Show in 1999 at the Horticultural Society of New York.  Her work has also been collected in the beautiful art book, Today’s Botanical Artists by Cora B. Marcus and Libby Kyer.

Although she grew up among the colorful landscapes of Hawaii, and studied at the University of California at Berkeley, when Duncan moved to Ashfield in 1971 she was not quite sure where her art would take her.

She became a mother of a daughter and son, and took on freelance jobs illustrating children’s natural history books, about water snakes and red efts, as well as Christmas in the Stable, a lovely book of Christmas poems by various poets, whose pages are ornamented with delicate branches and flowers. She did detailed illustrations of plants for magazines like Victoria and Horticulture. She also did the illustrations for The Gardener, a book, published by White Flower Farm that included no photographs.

Then, about a dozen years ago she joined the American Society of Botanical Artists and the ground shifted beneath her feet.

One autumn day, not long after she had admired a British painting of a tattered leaf, Duncan was walking down the street to meet her son at the school bus stop. “Suddenly I began to see the leaves differently,” she said.  “I can’t explain why, but I saw what was there. It was an awakening, and I started to collect leaves that intrigued me.  I pressed them lightly, put them away until winter when I could think, and promised myself three weeks to paint them.”

            Paint them she did. Ultimately two of the paintings were exhibited in Buffalo. Someone from the prestigious Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation, a division of Carnegie Mellon University, saw them “and invited me to exhibit at their Ninth International exhibit.  That was a big deal for me.”

            Duncan explains that doing that series of leaf paintings, where the life of each leaf was depicted, was not only personally pleasurable and satisfying, the paintings brought her recognition.  “I was so happy to find my place in the art world,” she said.

Black beans and apple
Black beans and apple

            Duncan continues to work as a book illustrator, often for Storey Publishing. Her latest book for Storey was Bulbs in the Basement, Geraniums on the Windowsill  by Brian and Alice McGowan, of the late and lamented Blue Meadow Nursery in Montague.  For this kind of work she explains that she sometimes has to work from reference books.

            Botanical art, she said, has a different purpose and different requirements. The purpose is scientific and requires precise depiction of the whole plant, shoot, root, flower and seed. She reminded me of the early world explorers who often included an artist among the expeditionary crew to record and document the new plants they found.

“For me, if I paint the leaf or flower in front of me, that is art,” she said.


Eggplant, Japanese anemone and nastursium
Eggplant, Japanese anemone and nastursium

Duncan’s work would not be so fine if she didn’t love plants. And the little creatures, bugs, that live among the plants. She has even been known to collect dead bugs and freeze them until they are used as models for her paintings.

She counts herself a serious gardener, but admits her garden is arranged and planted less from a sense of design, than a list of plants she wants to paint. She is particularly drawn to vegetables. And fruits.  And ferns. And seeds. Actually, I’m not sure where she would have stopped listing favorites if I hadn’t stopped her.

Her latest garden project is the planting of shrubs: highbush cranberry, currant, gooseberry and hazelnut, as a kind of hedgerow between her yard and her neighbor’s. In addition to providing subjects for her paintings, the hedgerow will provide shelter and food for the birds.

 For the past few years she has been working on an Ashfield Series, painting the plants right in her own neighborhood. Some of these will be exhibited at Elmer’s in May.

Because of her passion for plants and for painting she is eager to teach, sharing her skill and artistry.  She has taught workshops at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, and each semester teaches a 10 week series of classes at the Hill Institute in Florence.  She has taught workshops for teachers through the Franklin County Summer Academy and knows that her classes are useful across the curriculum, science, botany, and even history as well as art.  Since looking is not necessarily seeing, careful observation is where she begins her classes.

This February Duncan will teach small one day workshops for all levels in her Ashfield studio.

We gardeners suffer during the long winter, but through the vision and talent of an artist like Duncan, we can not only enjoy images of seasons past, we can learn to see anew ourselves.

Ferns, tulip and snowdrop
Ferns, tulip and snowdrop


Those who are interested can find more of Duncan’s work on her dealer’s website  ###

Between the Rows January 31, 2009