A Botanical Artist gives a Behind the Scenes Look at the Making of Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook
From the moment I discovered Botanical Art back in 1998, I have been following the plants.
Plants have guided me in my career and personal life, helping me make decisions and visit new locations. Five years ago, they led me to move to the Hudson Valley, after living in Manhattan for 35 years.
The discovery of Botanical Art came at a transformational time in my 20-year career as a textile designer. My desire to work from real, 3-dimensional plants was overwhelming, though incredibly frustrating at the time. I could work from a photograph or a botanical print, but not from the real world. Then I discovered the Certificate Program in Botanical Art and Illustration at the New York Botanical Garden.
By 2009, I was a full time botanical artist, instructor and had just self-published my first book on botanical art. I loved having a book of my own creation to hold in my hands. I also had a contract with Random House to create a full-length book on botanical drawing. I had come a long way in those 11 years, but rather than sit back and relax where I was, I felt the plants guiding me to leave behind the comforts of city life and set out for greener pastures.
I found 4 acres to call my own and started putting plants in the ground immediately. At first, I was focused on annual vegetables because that was all I knew. I had heard from friends about a local herbalist named Dina Falconi and we soon met at a party and began to barter for each other’s goods. Dina had a line of natural beauty products that I started to use and she counseled me on healthy eating in exchange for some botanical prints that she could hang in her barn office.
Dina gave me a tour of her magical gardens steeped in the principles of permaculture, where abundant food and medicinal herbs grew. Within a few months, she asked me about collaborating on a project that was her life dream: to create a field guide and wild food cookbook using common, abundant weeds that grew everywhere. I didn’t hesitate for a moment when I said yes. For me it would be an opportunity to learn about plants from an expert. We embarked on a project that required working closely for three years. Now, four years after our book has been published, we have sold 12,000 copies of our book. We established a small publishing company, called Botanical Arts Press, that produces, markets, and sells the book and other related products.
Let me describe what it was like to draw the plants for this project. We chose 50 plants, which doesn’t sound like much. If you think about it, drawing 50 plants over the course of 3 years works out to be 16.6 plants a year or 1.38 plants a month. However, I had to draw each plant in various stages: in early growth, in flower, with an enlarged flower, when fruiting or in seed, as well as the habit and roots. All in all, it came out to be more like 250 drawings. And consider doing all of that when every plant decides to flower at the same time! Other challenges arose, such as how to keep the plants from wilting, once cut, and how to distinguish similar looking plants from one another in all of their stages, when they look very much alike. And did I mention that many of the plants have tiny flowers, some microscopic? The first year, I felt like a runner out of breath, trying to keep going towards a distant finish line. Each time I would show Dina what I thought was a finished drawing, she would tell me that I needed to include this or that and that I was nowhere near done!. I like to see results quickly. I have a hard time keeping any secret, let alone work on a book for three years and not tell or show anyone!
By the second year, I got a system down that helped me capture the necessary details. Before I would attempt a drawing, Dina would write a spec sheet for each plant we were collecting. That way I knew everything I needed to show and could go down the list and check off each characteristic: hairy stem, square stem, basal rosette stage, bluish on berries, thorns, leaf arrangement, and so on. I found that tiny flowers, which look minuscule on a stem full of leaves, look really nice when enlarged under the microscope.
That year, I started eating the plants. Dina was working on her recipes, involved in her own race to harvest and perfect them for the book. She knew that if I was eating and enjoying the food, it would keep me from getting cranky when she would dig up five plants at a time for me to draw. I have to admit it worked. Eating raspberry mouse pie on a hot summer day, sampling rose ice cream, and digging into a refreshing wild salad and hearty cottage pie in the depth of winter certainly did help.
Year 3 was exciting and fun. I felt confident with our systematic approach to work and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I made myself a deadline and starting cracking the whip on both Dina and myself. We both like to walk for exercise so we made a point of taking a walk before or after work. This became our time to brainstorm and create some of our best ideas. Dina convinced me that we should self-publish and do a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to print our book. We designed our 5-minute video, planned the book design and figured out our PR, all during our walks. Next, we set up a website and a Facebook page. When it was time to layout the book, I learned InDesign and assisted in the process as Dina orchestrated and directed it. In the end Dina supervised 4 talented graphic designers, each with an expertise in a different aspect of book layout. Dina has an attention for detail and keen visual sense. Perhaps one day she will try botanical illustration, which relies on these skills too! We launched our Kickstarter campaign during the six months we worked on the book design, and in just six weeks, we had raised over $100,000. We were the number one cookbook on Kickstarter.
The best part for me has been getting to use my skills in botanical art to help create a book that changes the way people eat and helps reduce the amount of waste and destruction in our environment. But I have to thank the plants for leading me along the way. Without them, I might still be holed up in some tiny apartment without any knowledge about the delicious and beautiful wild plants growing all around us. Now forgive me, I have to go back to my burdock tea.