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Western Sunflower


Melissa Blue Fine Art

Have I told you my Swink & Wilhelm story? It begins in a wonderful little bookstore in a nature center in Peoria. This was the gathering place for all of us volunteers embarking on a new venture~habitat restoration! Professional ecologists had their offices upstairs, and they would come down to mingle with us. It felt wonderful to be included, and treated as colleagues.

One day there was a buzz about a book that had “finally” come in. “Plants of the Chicagoland Region”, by Swink & Wilhelm. I forget which edition. Wow! I thought. I love books…but this thing is a monster. If I were of a technical nature I would now go measure and weigh it but I’m an artist so I’ll just say it is about 4″ thick, weighs a ton and costs a fortune. When I peeked inside its cover, I confess I was disappointed. No pictures! Keys, and brief descriptions~frankly, it looked indecipherable to me. I put it out of my mind at the time, little suspecting what a talisman it would become for me. Back then our focus was mostly on habitat, and we picked up plant ID on the fly but it wasn’t our focus.

A move to the northeastern corner of Illinois and a botany class later, things changed. Our wonderful instructor, and my dear friend, would exhort us to read our Swink & Wilhelm. We all laughed. It was a joke, right? And yet, something was making my fingers tingle. I looked again, and realized, it is like a puzzle, and she’d given us the first few pieces. For each plant, the authors gave a list of companions to look for. If you know one or two, you can begin to intuit another. And another. Suddenly it felt like it does when a camera lens pops things into focus. I could “see” the plant community a plant lived in, the soil conditions, etc, just by what was listed to grow with it. It was like a giant orienteering game! That book has been directing my footsteps ever since. I find the focus on my inner camera lens switching from wide-angle to take in the lay of the land to close-up to count stamens. Forest for the trees, flowers for the prairie, and back again. Kind of dizzying but exciting, too.

Journeys encompass more than one dimension, of course. You are already familiar with my struggle with myself over whether I am more scientist or more artist. It is a real relief to be able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for exactly what you are. And know that it is enough. While I’ve hiked over dunes and under oaks and splashed through wetlands, looking for the “next” one to draw, I’ve learned a great deal about myself as well.

But I can’t wait to see what the next plant will be….

38 thoughts on “Western Sunflower

  1. Oh Melissa, you articulated the struggle so well!

  2. Thank you Maria! It is really scary to tell one’s story, isn’t it?

  3. This is stunningly beautiful, Melissa! I really love the palette you have chosen, and how the light shines through. Wonderful!

    1. Thank you so much Pete. The light shining through~that was the thing I wasn’t sure I’d succeeded with. I’m so glad you see it!

  4. Beautiful, soothing colors Melissa!

  5. Thank you Anarette 🙂

  6. Love your story–and conclusion–about the huge botany book. Your painting is also lovely.

    1. Thank you so much, Angela! I was afraid I was being boring 🙂

  7. A voyage of discovery well translated!
    Love your use of background color in this painting, Melissa.

    1. Thank you Eliza! You know, I struggled with those colors and it was as though the painting decided what colors it needed.

  8. What a fabulous reference guide. What other flowers etc would you find near the Western Sunflower? Have you painted any of them? Also I feel sure the journey changes over time and space, meaning there is plenty of room to be all we want to be.

    1. That is a neat thought. I’ve spent all this time trying to figure out who I am…hadn’t even thought of what I might want to be.
      Western Sunflower grows in the foredune area near Lake Michigan, so it keeps company with nodding ladies’ tresses, downy cup, bear berry, horizontal juniper, to name a few. Although a sparsely vegetated area, what is there is special.

      1. Sounds very special. 🙂

  9. What a lovely painting you have here, Melissa. Absolutely a vision to brighten any day.

    Your description of receiving your copy of Swink and Wilhelm reminds me of the day my special order of Alfred Byrd Graf’s Exotica arrived. What a boat anchor! But the variety of the plant world was all there. It was huge and, in contrast to S&W, full of pictures.

    1. Thank you so much Steve.
      I followed your link…wow! That looks like an amazing book.

      1. If you are interested there is a smaller edition.

  10. Scientist, or artist? Hmmmmmm…

    In my opinion, it is good they both compete for most-ness in you. They raise the bar in you.

    You win…we win.

  11. Oh Jim~ that really is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. You have no idea how much that means to me. Thank you.

  12. The ‘key’ books intimidate me but I’m using online keys to identify leaf mines. I have no idea what I am. I call myself a dabbler but why can’t you be both an artist and a scientist and does it matter? Fulfillment is the objective. Your art is wonderful and I look at The Botanists each day on our wall.

    1. Hello Andrew,
      I haven’t been keeping up very well with my email and your comment got buried. You’re right about being both scientist and artist. I think you are a better scientist than I’ll ever be! Keys are intimidating and confusing. I loftily call myself a “gestalt botanist” 🙂 When I heard a friend use that phrase I immediately seized upon it as my own. Thank you so much, Andrew. I am pleased beyond words to hear that The Botanists continues to catch your eye.

      1. It is interesting that I had little aptitude for science at school. I dropped as much as I could as fast as I could and did languages instead. I suspect it was either poorly taught or I simply loved words more than formulae. My only consolation is that my ‘career’ has allowed me to expand and indulge my interests late in life. I have the dreaded man-flu at present and I am also not good on staying current. I like the expression ‘gestalt botanist’. Perfect!

      2. Oh no, the dreaded man-flu! I hate that. I do hope you are feeling better. It is lovely to discover that we can develop interests later in life, isn’t it, that it isn’t too late? And we can do it on our own terms. Our minds know how they want to learn things. I do have friends who adore keys. Go figure!

  13. It was so lovely to return to your blog after an absence and read your story and enjoy your shining piece of art. I understand your trepidation when you initially opened this fat picture-less book! How daunting they look. It is wonderful when slowly it all comes finally into focus. In school, I loved the humanities (art, history, literature etc) as well as the sciences. I was upset when we had to choose either the science or the humanities stream for our senior years. I don’t think we need to be one or the other. My daughter who is a portrait artist and a great anatomy and chemistry student was saying this to me just yesterday. Artists have good observational skills and often enquiring minds and intuition, all very valuable in the field of science. If we look to the past, people were encouraged to have a more general, diverse education which encouraged study in many fields. Some very famous artists were also inventors and scientists. I think the tendency to separate the arts from science and mathematics these days means we lose valuable insights and skills. They really do overlap and can benefit from each other. Many people do not know that Beatrix Potter the famous children’s author and artist was also a renowned mycologist. Her galleries of fungi are superb and scientifically valuable. You don’t have to be one or the other, Melissa, as you’ve shown. 🙂

  14. You make some great points, Jane. It does feel pretty wondrous to have a foot in each camp…just don’t ask me to measure anything or look through a microscope! 🙂 Thank you for your encouraging words. They always mean so much. Your daughter is very accomplished, isn’t she? Wow. And you’re right, I’d forgotten about Beatrix Potters work with fungi.

  15. So lovely and I have to agree with the other folks who suggest that you don’t need to box yourself in! 😀 Personally, I love the combination that is you.

    1. You are so kind, Gunta! How lucky I am to have found friends like you.

  16. Your experience calls to mind the day my copy of Shinners & Mahler’s Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas arrived at my door. I’ve rarely been so intimidated by a book. So much information, and so compllicated! But, little by little, I began learning how to use it: not as a textbook (I couldn’t learn all that!) but as a reference: a way of picking my way through the minefields of identification.

    As for your painting, dare I say it’s a ray of sunshiine? The ditches and fields of Kansas are growing quiet these days, and I’ve yet to see a sunflower blooming. But this occurred to me — the state of Kansas has a sunflower logo on their state highway signs. I think they should use your sunflower, instead. It’s far more appealing, and just seeing it might make drivers happier!

  17. You have warmed my heart with your sunshine-y comments. Thank you! I’m tickled to learn that there is an equally intimidating book to be enjoyed down your way. Isn’t it satisfying?

  18. A very thought-provoking post Melissa. Sometimes the simplest things can unlock mysteries like your Swink and Wilhelm book. I love your comment: ‘It is a real relief to be able to look in the mirror and accept yourself for exactly what you are.’ I would add, whoever that may be regardless of not fitting into accepted categories. Artist? Scientist? Who says the two can’t co-exist in one person? There is overlap in how these roles are generally perceived.
    I find your paintings inspiring.

    1. Wow, thank you Robyn!

  19. Oh, how well I know your dilemma. For my whole adult life I’ve vacillated between the arts on one side and math and science on the other. It seems both of us have veered more toward the arts. Even within painting, you’ve been pulled between more representational and more subjective, less realistic. Your recent tendency toward art for art’s sake seems the right direction for you.

    1. I appreciate your words so much. I think you are right; I feel more peace these days and suddenly a community of artists has sprung up around me. All I had to do, it seems, was commit.

  20. Lovely sunflower 😊. I wonder if they are the same species I see in tall grasslands here? Funny story about your 4” book. Yikes! Glad you figured out how to approach it. I think it is neat when humans blend science and art. It adds an extra dimension of interest to both. It just takes a lot of time and energy to master two things. But I suppose that if one just appreciates the journey, then that sense of not being good enough doesn’t have to be a mean little companion. I hope 😊.

  21. Hi Myriam~thank you! The mean little companion is always with me but I do enjoy learning to know my subject as deeply as I can. It is like you with birds 🙂

  22. You’re making me want to get a Swink and Wilhelm of my own. My ID of wildflowers tends to be pretty haphazard. I like that the book IDs common plant communities. I have tried to grow Western Sunflower but I think my soil was too moist and rich.

  23. Are you ever out this way? It would be fun to go out botanizing together. I like that too, how they describe communities. I suspect you are right about the sunflowers. I really only see them on the leanest, meanest dune soil.

  24. That sounds like a book that should be done for every region. I have that science/art thing going too, but we both know they are not antagonistic – people whose vision is narrow try to make them that way. I love the way you described going back and forth between the wide and close views.

  25. I just finished reading “Inventing Nature” about Alexander von Humboldt. Have you read it? Apparently he sought to weave art and nature too. We are in good company.

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