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Botanic Garden shows colors of the wild through art

In order to look toward the future, Claremont’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) is digging through its past.

After several years of work delving into the garden’s archives, staff at the botanic garden present their findings through their latest exhibition “Where They Grow Wild,” a collection of artwork reflecting the history of southern California’s wildflowers.

The RSABG exhibit is one of 3 displays under the greater theme of “When They Were Wild,” a collaboration with the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants and the Huntington Library. The Payne Foundation has an accompanying exhibit complementing the main exhibit at the Huntington Library. These original works, some hidden in the dust for more than 100 years, are on display for the first time through June 10.

“It really is a look back,” said Lucinda McDade, RSABG’s interim executive director. “A look back at the years when the flora of California was first being seriously discovered.”

Over 300 original pieces—illustrations, slides and watercolors—depict the discovery of early California botanic art, spanning “everything from plants of the sea shore and plants of the mountains to the whole flora of southern California,” according to Ms. McDade. Illustrations include Milford Zornes’ local depictions of the flowers of Silverado, and Santiago Canyon as doodled on the field notes of artist and author Clara Mason Fox, never before seen by the public. Though the local garden might not be known for its artistic displays, the staff is looking to change that, showing how the core of RSABG’s mission can be found within these artistic gems.

“It’s a very real world application of seeing how our garden is a bridge between research and the public. You see all these illustrations that for a very long time were only seen by scientists and botanists and now they are on display for the public,” said garden spokesperson Pauline Nash. “I think that’s really important for conservation efforts.”

Digging through the archives to piece together the art exhibit proved to be a significant challenge. For one thing, there is no one file for botanic art within any one of the botanic gardens. Some of the pieces, like Ms. Mason Fox’s illustrations, are filed along with other field notes in the herbarium. Others are unaccounted for.

“This has been years in the making,” said Bart O’Brien, co-curator and RSABG’s director of special projects. “We are just giving them their due, albeit 100 years too late in many cases.”

The idea for the exhibition sprang from a meeting in 2006 between Mr. O’Brien and John Wickham, president of the board for the Theodore Payne Foundation, cultural landscaper Carolyn Bennett and eventually with Jim Folsom, director at the Huntington.

“We all knew about these various collections that were just kind of sitting around that nobody paid any attention to and really weren’t getting much of the respect they deserved,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We really wanted to bring attention to them in the hopes of locating more.”

While it took years to get off the ground, the efforts are now paying off. Since work began on the exhibition for the Huntington, Mr. O’Brien says they were contacted by a variety of different groups—the Los Angeles Museum of Natural Art and the Thacher School in Ojai—with botanic art collections to be donated to the cause, resulting in an even greater venture than they had initially hoped for. With an abundance of art, they decided not to limit the display to the Huntington, with the Theodore Payne and RSABG hosting displays to compliment the main exhibit.

“You can sort of look at this as a miniature of ‘Pacific Standard Time,’” explained Mr. O’Brien, referring to a collaborative series of art displays organized by the Getty last year.

RSABG’s exhibit is an expansion of the Huntington’s display with a focus on the history of the local botanic garden, according to Ms. McDade. RSABG moved to Claremont from Orange County in the early 1950s to affiliate itself with the Claremont Consortium and, in particular Pomona College, which was introducing a master’s degree in botany. Much of the RSABG exhibit displays work commissioned and published by Phil Munz, former dean of Pomona College’s botany department and former executive director at the Garden. His publications feature works of a variety of artists, many of whom were his students, filed within the garden’s archives and herbarium. Clara Mason Fox’s works, several of which are on display at RSABG, are a particularly exciting find for the botanic staff as many of them were buried within the herbarium.

“It’s like finding a misshelved book in a very, very large library except that it’s actually much harder,” Ms. McDade explained. “Books advertise where they ought to be on their spine. Herbarium specimens are not filed like that. So it’s pure chance, really, when we find something.”

Another highlight for Ms. McDade is located upstairs from the main exhibit. RSABG’s display begins in the Garden’s gallery and continues upstairs in the library with “Wild in Print,” featuring yet more botanic art, such as North American Wild Flowers by Mary Vaux Walcott. While a few prints are on display outside the library, a copy of the book is within, with a special note written by the author in 1926: “With best wishes for the success of the wild garden.”

Another notable feature of the library’s display is an assortment of original glass lantern slides by Lustin Martindale from the 1930s. Mr. Martindale would capture images of wildflowers and other plants in black-and-white and hand paint each slide. At that time, the 7-by-11 slides sold for $2, the 11-by-14 for $3.50.

“When They Were Wild” and its accompanying displays may only be shown through the beginning of June, but garden archivists are working hard to ensure the collections do not sit in the dust for another 50 years. All of the prints, and more, can be viewed in a virtual exhibit found on the RSABG website at www.rsabg.org.

“Local plants are always given short shrift as people go for exotic plants instead of looking at the options within their own backyard,” Mr. O’Brien said. “It’s important for us to bring about people’s awareness that California has this amazingly beautiful flora that most of us just take for granted or never go out to see. This [exhibit] is about promoting an awareness and appreciation.”

“When They Were Wild” displays can be found at RSABG (1500 N. College Ave., Claremont), the Huntington Library (1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino) and the Theodore Payne Foundation (10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley) now through June 10. RSABG’s gallery exhibit is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and in the garden library, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Viewing is free with garden admission, priced at $8 for adults, $6 for those 65 and older as well as students, $4 for children 3-12 and free for members and children under 3.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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