In Memory: Plant Love + Fine Art + Science = Botanical Illustration

In 2009, I had the pleasure of interviewing botanical artist Susan Bazell on her passion and her work. Susan died of cancer on December 1, 2012. I am re-airing this interview in her honor and memory. Photo: A slow dripping bird bath along a path in Susan’s woodland garden. A young but already nicely-sculptural manzanita takes shape nearby.

Her flash of a bright smile and her inquisitive, generous personality will be remembered as will her dedication to the Chico State Herbarium, serving on its board and volunteering her Fridays to work in the collection, as well as to the Mt. Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. She took great joy in the natural world around her – in her garden, her work, and in her enthusiastic venturing out into the world on regular hikes all around the region with the organizations to which she dedicated so much time and energy. Photo: Susan Bazell in her Paradise home studio.

In the few years since my original interview with her, Susan grew from just beginning to dabble in the world of gardening with the native plants she so loved to being an avid gardener. Working with plantsman and garden designer John Whittlesey from 2009 until late-summer of 2012, she continually expanded, tended, observed and delighted in the woodland garden the two were just starting in 2009. “She had a natural green-thumb,” John told me in admiration. Perhaps because she spent so much time getting to know the intricacies of the plants she wanted in her garden or to draw, “she could transplant native plants that no-one else could or would have.” Photo: Spring-bloom of lupine and California poppies in Susan’s native garden. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey.

When I heard the news of Susan’s death, I naturally spent time remembering the field trips and classes I had had the fun of being on with Susan: She introduced me to the fawn lilies, ferns and fritillarias of Magalia’s serpentine, she sent me a recipe for a beet-based soup she called “Beautiful Soup,” which she was making for her close friend Gerry Ingco when he had a cold, she gave me my first copy of the “Jepson Manual”. But what came to mind most vividly was her ‘spring fever’ when her new native garden bloomed in its first real spring. She wrote me then to share these gardening thoughts:

“In my non-board moments I’m having loads of fun playing in my new garden. More and more plants. My favorite of the moment is Oemleria. New from last fall. Has chains of flowers developing. I can hardly wait. But best of all, in a way, I’m finding more and more things coming up that must have been here all along but hiding out .. Bulbs, especially. They couldn’t all be new because they are too big. Most of them have not flowered yet, so I’m waiting to see what they are. Probably mostly Blue Dicks. Another happy outcome– I finally planted the bulbs from the last wildflower show 2 yrs. ago and they all seem to be coming up! I hope I planted them in spots where they will be happy. Sometimes I’m so eager to get things going I don’t think it through carefully enough, and I’m really a novice gardener. Feeling plant-greedy as usual, … that plant-greedy thing is amazing isn’t it? I’m in spring fever mode already. Could go on and on but I think I’ll go outside and look at my plants and let you stop reading.

Happy spring. Susan”

Enjoy revisiting this 2009 interview. I did.

Photos above: Scenes from the sunniest areas of Susan’s woodland garden. Designed and built with John Whittlesey over the course of several years, Susan’s garden featured many hand-collected by Susan native plants. Here, a shapely Carex and interesting colored Eriogonum, among others, accent the natural stone and gravel stairway.

Like gardening itself, the field of Botanical Illustration dates back to ancient times and is a combination of both art and science. Surviving examples of ancient botanical drawings include detailed sketches of plants dating to 1500 BCE found on Egyptian temple walls. Until the advent of the camera, microscope and other instruments used for copying and storing information, botanical drawings served all manner of purpose for the fields of Botany, Medicine, Pathology and Geography among others. Early botanical drawings served as teaching tools for students of these fields and drawings were often compiled into “herbals” or collections cataloging the medicinal uses of plants. Today, Botanical Illustration continues as marriage between art and science and is becoming increasingly interesting to gardeners. Classes in Botanical Illustration specifically for gardeners are offered at display and botanic gardens, nurseries, and herbaria around the region. Photo: A small wildflower Susan noticed on a mushroom foray in spring 2012. She held it still for me to photograph for her so she could look at it more closely at home.

Susan Bazell is a Botanical Illustrator who lives and works in Paradise. While she says she is not a “professional botanical artist,” she is highly accomplished and well published. Susan’s work can be seen in several books, including the newly released Cacti, Agaves and Yuccas of California and Nevada (Stephen Ingram, Cachuma Press, 2008), Conifers of California (Ronald M. Lanner, Cachuma Press, 2002), and The Life of an Oak (Glenn Keator, Heyday Books, 1998), among others. Photo: Books in which the work of Susan Bazell appears.

While Susan is not an intense gardener per se (she is working with friend John Whittlesey on the design and installation of a new native plant garden as I write), her studio leaves no question about her intense appreciation of plants. When we first met, she struck me as either a naturalist with an artist’s eye or an artist with a naturalist’s heart – I now know she is both. Besides being an artist, Susan is an active member and volunteer for the California Native Plant Society, the Chico State Herbarium and Friends of Bidwell Park in Chico. Photo: Plant specimen on display in Susan’s studio.

“I became interested in botanical illustration because I love plants!” Susan told me when we met. Susan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. After, while still working full-time as an applied social science researcher, she began taking extension classes in botanical illustration at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland from “a wonderful teacher and communicator, Andrea Moyer. She was very good at demonstrating what made a good botanical drawing.”

Plant observation and drawing were a cathartic escape from her “crazy work hours” and work-related pressure. At the time, Susan and her late husband, Haskell, were living in the Bay area. He was also a native plant enthusiast and photographer of the plants they would see on hikes throughout Northern California. “As luck would have it, I met and became friends with a well-known California botanist – Glenn Keator – and he asked me if I would provide the artwork for a book he was working on.” Plants of the East Bay Parks (Glenn Keator, Roberts Rinehart Publishing, 1994), was the first of several books on which the two have worked together. Photo: A finished and published water-color botanical of an oak gall by Susan in Life of an Oak.

“Drawing the plants I love definitely adds to my enjoyment of them. I hike with a hand lens so that if there is a plant whose details I want to see more closely I can get down and look at it up close. When I am working on a drawing, I often work from a combination of photos, of having seen the plant in its native habitat myself, and then from magnifications. I make several preliminary, rough pencil sketches and eventually end up with a finished drawing or watercolor.” Susan has a large magnifying device, an old microfiche viewer, in her studio for just this purpose. With it, she can look very closely at details in photo slides, including the veining of a leaf, the markings on the face of a tiny flower, or the ridges on seeds or seed pods.

You can see this level of detail in Susan’s drawings and designs. Last year she created a sketch of a Spice Bush (Calycanthus occidentalis) seed pod to be printed on to silk scarves for the Northern California Botanist Association: The lines of this remarkably architectural pod are incredibly life-like. The close observation of plants required to create an accurate drawing of them provide quite an education in plant structure and botany: how blossoms are formed, how many petals, sepals, stamens? How are leaves arranged along the stem? All of this information is crucial to painting a plant as well as to identifying and understanding how it grows. Photos: Photo of a Spice Bush seed pod and Susan Bazell’s botanical drawing of it for a scarf design.

And it is, I think, this close relationship with the plants we love which is heightened and expanded by both botanical illustration and gardening. If we are too busy engaged in gardening itself to take up intense drawing; or, conversely, too busy looking at and drawing plants as artists to take up intense gardening, we at very least can experience that deep respect one has for kindred spirits, and we can be happy knowing that there is a whole other group of people out there that is equally moved by the face of a flower, the shape of a seed, the striations on a leaf. Photo: Susan’s microfiche machine for close-up viewing of slide details.

Interested in pursuing some Botanical Illustration classes? Keep your eyes open for upcoming events or classes from the resources linked below:

Northern California Society of Botanical Artists: www.ncalsba.org/events/?cat=8

Chico State Herbarium, CSU Chico: GENERAL INTEREST
Botanical Illustration. April 27, 2013, Saturday, 10am to 4pm. For more info: www.csuchico.edu/biol/Herb/Events.html

The McConnell Arboretum and Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park: Regularly hosts botanical illustration classes in the gardens. More Info: www.turtlebay.org

UC Davis Arboretum: Regularly hosts botanical illustration classes in the gardens. More Info: http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/.

Finally, many good books are available on the subject of Botanical Illustration and its history. One newer release of interest is:

Botanical Illustration Course, with the Eden Project (Rosie Martin, Meriel Thurstan; Sterling Publishing Co., 2006). Photo: A botanical drawing of a cactus drawn by Susan for her most recent publication: The Cacti, Agaves, and Yuccas of California and Nevada.

Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook. I also have some fun on tumblr. Photo: Susan Bazell (on right in white straw hat) with Paula Shapiro, Jenny Marr, Robert Fisher eagerly starting off on a mushroom foray class offered by the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium in early 2012 on the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve). It was a wonderful day.

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here. Weekly essays are also posted on anewscafe.com a regional news source that is simultaneously universal and positively North State.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Canda says:

    Illustrating the plants would be a great way to really appreciate them. I enjoyed your interview with Susan, and sorry to hear we lost such a talented and passionate woman.

  2. Avatar Carrie says:

    As usual, a wonderful article!

  3. A wonderful tribute about a woman who made a difference in our region. Thank you, Jennifer.

  4. Avatar Maureen says:

    My husband and myself are buying Susans house. We hope to preserve as much of her hard work in her garden and add to it. She was a lovely bright lady as much an ornament to the garden as her plants and flowers.