But is it Art?, Unusually Clever People

A gardener’s art project


Browsing the LATimes yesterday, I found Deborah Netburn’s article on Botanical Serigraphs: The Gene Bauer Collection. Gene Bauer is a California gardener and naturalist who planted almost a million daffodil bulbs behind her property and was the native flora chairwoman of California Garden Clubs, Inc. during the 70s. As chair, her job was to educate the members of the clubs about native flora, so she traveled throughout the state, studying wildflowers. During 1972-78, she created over 50 small booklets containing screenprints of her own drawings of native plants, each accompanied by an essay.


Each booklet focused on just one plant, like the desert mariposa (Calochortus kennedyi) or the buckhorn cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa). The drawings are clean, accurate yet simplified, and vividly colored. (Actually, though I’ll be happy to have the book, I’d love to get my hands on an original print.)

These are the type of projects we so rarely see now. These books are much like the broadsides of the literary world—also popular in the 60s and 70s—where poets would do a small print run of a poem and perhaps an artwork in a small booklet or folded poster. I have a few of these, and once curated an exhibition of them. It’s really a labor of love because there’s no money to be made from this type of project. Indeed, Gene Bauer sent her books (there was usually a print run of 50) free to her fellow flower enthusiasts; she bore all the printing costs herself.

Bauer did her initial drawings with colored pencils and then hand-screened them on papers of various weights. This is not traditional botanical drawing; the shapes are simple and bold, with a strong graphic sensibility, many of the colors brighter than you’d expect. There is a strong Modernist influence, though no abstraction, of course. The essays are well-researched appreciations; she does not pretend to add new botanical knowledge.

The only reason this book is even possible is that the people who received the booklets saved them. Bauer’s house and collection was destroyed in a fire in 1997; friends returned their copies to replace the lost booklets and then this collection of all of them was created, by map publishers (who now specialize in geographic software) ESRI.

I would love to have a book like this with drawings of New York State wildflowers. As Amy’s Wicked Plants demonstrates so well, drawings of plants bring out subtleties of shape and form as no other medium can.

Posted by on February 23, 2010 at 4:59 am, in the category But is it Art?, Unusually Clever People.
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10 responses to “A gardener’s art project”

  1. Norah says:

    How wonderful the collection has been saved! Not only because they are beautiful works of art, but also because some of those plants may now be rare!

  2. vicki says:

    Bauer’s work/example is such a marvelous argument in favor of self-publishing. The stigma that still exists puzzles me…
    And, of course, the Internet is making it possible for poets, artists, and writers of all sorts of subjects to self publish without spending a fortune.

    I would love to see Bauer’s works in person. What I love about her work is that even though they are not traditional botanical illustrations, they still contain the details one needs for identification, while being exquisitely beautiful and original works of art.

  3. Liza says:

    What a great person and great story. A terrible loss in a housefire is made less so by thoughtful people. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Laura Bell says:

    Wow – I just ordered this book a few days ago from ESRI ( I use their software for work ). Can’t wait for it to arrive ! There really is nothing like a botanical drawing to bring out the subtleties of a species.

  5. Susan says:

    I love this!

  6. Here’s my take on her work:

    The thing that strikes me most is she used her art and research to make something people wanted and used.

  7. Norah some of the plants are rare! Self publishing is one of the greater accomplishments here.



  8. John says:

    As an illustrator I enjoy seeing success in botanical publishing that does not involve photos. Getting any book published with drawings is next to impossible these days.

    I am fortunate that a casual encounter with a fellow dog walker at the park got me a gift of a large collection of very similar prints. He perked up when I explained that I illustrate horticultural books…the next day he presented me with two boxes of Hisao Yokota prints (signed and numbered). I live on the east coast and the wildflowers are from the west coast but I don’t care – they are lovely as are Gene Bauer’s.

  9. Gardenology says:

    Ironic that one of the pioneer native plants advocates planted an astonishing million daffodil plants in her garden 🙂

  10. Rosella says:

    They are beautiful, and I was struck by how Japanese they are in style and feeling — the simplification of shapes is particularly lovely. Thanks for telling us about them.