Visitors to the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA) 26th International Exhibition in The Studio should be sure to venture to the upper level of the gallery, where Northern California botanical artists are presenting works from their recent Sketchbook Exchange Project.
The Northern California Society of Botanical Artists (NCalSBA) is a large and active ASBA chapter with over 200 members from around the Bay Area and beyond. They have previously shown their Alcatraz and Mt Tam Florilegia at Marin Art and Garden Center, and we are delighted to host this latest show with a real story to tell.
Artist Lynne Lyle says, “I felt a kinship with my sketchbook group sharing with each artist and discovering something about their ‘plant world’ and their individual ways to illustrate it.”
The project was inspired by a talk given by Marilyn Lindberg, a member of the Oregon Botanical Artists chapter, who shared their group’s project. Kelly Darpinian immediately stepped up to coordinate an exchange within the NCalSBA; so many members wanted to participate that the exchange was organized into smaller groups of ten, to keep the project manageable.
The exchange began in June 2022, with each participant selecting (or making!) an accordion-fold sketchbook. They then had the rest of the summer to work on the “title page,” personalizing the sketchbook. Once that was complete, they mailed the sketchbook to another member of their group, who in turn had a month to work on a page in the book before mailing it on to the next member. It took about ten months for the books to make their way back to the original artists.
The Sketchbook Exchange Project was not only intended as a creative outlet for participants, it was also a way to build community within the chapter.
The guidelines for the exchange encouraged participating artists to experiment with new techniques, tools and styles during the project, while staying within the realm of traditional botanical subjects, which do include some animals (particularly insects) as well as the entire plant kingdom.
Kelly explains that “while the resulting sketchbook images do not look like experimental forays into unknown territory because they are so well executed, many of them actually are experiments for the participating artists.” She goes on to give an example: “artists who specialize in watercolor may have tried colored pencil, graphite or pen and ink or some combination of those for a change from their usual watercolor illustrations. While that may seem like a small difference to those outside the community of Botanical Artists, those doing this specialized work will realize that is a huge change.”
There are 35 individual sketchbooks on view in The Studio. Some have works on both the front and the back of the pages, and are displayed on tables so visitors can enjoy all aspects. Also on a display table is one unique collection of pages, which owes its existence to a postal mishap.
According to artist Mary Ellen King, she made an unfortunate discovery near the end of the project, “like a great detective novel, after a slew of emails and calls, it became clear that some time quite early in our process my sketchbook was lost. No trace to be found.” She continues, “of course I was very disappointed. The project had been lots of fun and I was looking forward to my own collection of sketches by fellow artists.” This was not the end of the story, though; “our project leader, Kelly then kindly created a special folder for me and then asked those sketchbook artists who could, to create one more drawing and send it along to me.”
Kelly hated to think of her fellow artist missing out on the enjoyment of a completed sketchbook, so, she says, “I invited everyone in the project to contribute a sketch if they wished because the entire group felt the loss of the book deeply and I hoped that this would help heal the sense of loss that permeated the group at what was otherwise a very joyful time of reuniting artists with their books in the final days of the project.”
You can see the individual sketches as well as the lovely fabric folio Kelly put together to house them—as Mary Ellen puts it, a “really special sketchbook of kindness.”
Many of the NCalSBA members have volunteered to take turns staffing the upper gallery while the exhibition is open, to answer visitors’ questions about the project, the chapter, and botanical art more generally. The sketchbooks themselves give us a fascinating window into the process that goes into the creation of a work of botanical art; artist Susan Mark-Raymond explains, “I think of it as showing visitors how finished pieces often start out with sketches and vignettes in our sketchbooks. In fact, several of us included preliminary sketches of works we have now finished.”
You’re bound to feel inspired by your visit to the exhibition, and so why not try your hand at a little sketching of your own right here at Marin Art and Garden Center?
Thanks to Kelly Darpinian, Mary Ellen King, Lynne Lyle, Susan Mark-Raymond, and Sally Petru for their contributions to this post!