“Ever since I officially retired from Mohawk Regional High School, I’ve just exploded with new ideas,” Beverly Duncan said as she gave me a tour of her studio in Ashfield. One wall is covered with framed botanical paintings that she had done in the past. Other paintings-in-progress were pinned to a bulletin board; other smaller paintings of flower blossoms were pinned to a different bulletin board. Surrounded by these works, finished and unfinished, she told me about recent events, and unfinished plans.
Since her arrival in western Massachusetts many years ago, she has focused on drawing plants. First intrigued by wild edibles she soon enlarged her focus to drawing and painting the flowers around her. She hardly had to go beyond her own gardens and the nearby woodlands. The attention she pays to what is sprouting, blooming, ripening, and going into dormancy, as well as the insects that arrive over the seasons, is transformed into delicate paintings. “As I observe, sketch and paint, I am always learning more about the interconnectedness of the natural world,” she said.
Her love of flowers and greenery are put to a different use during the summers. For some years she has worked with Gloria Pacosa, a dear friend and neighbor, who operates Gloriosa & Co, an event venue. Pacosa has large gardens to supply the flowers and plants for the weddings, bat and bar mitzvahs and all the other celebratory events that mark our lives. That means working in the gardens and gathering an abundance of flowers and greens to make unique bouquets for each occasion. She has the pleasure of adding to the joy of the celebratory occasions of our lives.
Early last spring Duncan and Pacosa decided to treat themselves to a trip to Belgium. They attended a workshop run by a commune-owned chateau. “Every day for a week we made bouquets with flowers that showed off the new trends in design, and in flower color, which were in the dark range. Some of arrangements were very stylized, not looking like bridal bouquets or lush arrangements at all. We also got to work with silk ribbons that were dyed, and sometimes shredded. Everything was photographed at the end of the day.
“We also had time to travel around and explore, including a wonderful walk through the forest among the bluebells. It was inspiring. Luxurious learning.”
Refreshed and inspired Duncan returned home to continue her projects with new energy.
“I love working in small places,” Duncan told me. She brought out two tiny boxes of her paint-a-flower-every-day project. Each box was filled with 2×2 inch flower or foliage paintings, labeled on the reverse side. Another box held tiny accordion books, each devoted to a single flower.
Then Duncan showed me the SEEDS project. These 5×5 inch books are each devoted to a single tree or shrub. She created a standard progression of the development of a plant and seed on the vertical pages. “I tell the story of my relationship with the tree. Then I paint the details of the tree from early spring budding. Everything is dated so the time of the progression is clear. Another page will show the summer leaf. That is the way most of us identify a tree, by its leaf. On other pages I show the fruit development, and change in color of the leaf. The winter page painting shows identifying characteristics of the branch and bud.”
We looked through the SEEDS book about Staghorn Sumac. Duncan paints the parts of the plant in clear detail. She also names the part of the sumac. I might call the slightly fuzzy red things on the end of an autumnal sumac branch a ‘flower,’ Duncan properly calls them the mature seeds, or fruits, of the sumac, which are called “bobs.” She goes further to explain that ‘bobs’ are actually clusters of drupes. Then she explains, with another little image on the page, that a drupe is a closed fruit with exocarp and mesocarp and endocarp layers that enclose the ovary.
I had a little trouble understanding the anatomy of a sumac drupe. However, her drawing made me look up some additional information. I learned that apricots, cherries, and other stone fruits are drupes because they have a fleshy covering around the pit that can be opened to reveal the actual seed. Some nuts like almonds, walnuts and pistachios are drupes, while other nuts like acorns and chestnuts are in the family of ‘true’ nuts.
The goal is to reproduce these books, and have boxed sets holding five or six little books that can be sold. I am looking forward to that day.
The SEEDS project is very different from her earlier works, in the size of the paintings. These little books also allow her to express her reactions and feelings about plants. Her intent is very different from her approach to larger botanical works like the New England Winter Branches paintings which won an award 2014 Royal Horticultural Exhibit in London, or the Impressions of Woody Plants Exhibit at the Arnold Arboretum last summer.
Duncan has an agent in New York City who sells her paintings there, but she does occasionally hold Open Studio Days when her paintings are available for public view and sale. She also teaches botanical painting as the Hill Institute in Florence, Massachusetts.
Between the Rows March 2, 2019