I caught up with visual artist Chantal Dupas as she wrapped up her first solo show at Lisa Kehler Art + Projects this past week. Learning about plants from a book takes us on a journey to look behind the methods of botanical documentation and shares stories of the weeds we pull from our own gardens. Dupas ventures beyond traditional botanical illustration in this work — and the results are stunning.
Tell us about what sparked Learning about plants from a book.
For a number of years I had been wanting to learn more about plants, simply for my own personal interest. It wasn’t until 2012 when I attended an artist residency in Riding Mountain National Park that I began to consider the possibility of flora becoming the subject matter of my art practice. During that residency I came across some really great local plant books and found myself outside identifying, photographing and drawing the plants in the park. At that point it was still just exploratory; I was really just having fun and enjoying myself. Taking the time to draw all the intricate details of a species creates this intimacy and familiarity with not only the plant itself but the natural environment as a whole. There is a reason why drawing still plays a vital role in botany courses today.
How does your work differ from traditional botanical illustration?
Well, that was something that I struggled with for a couple of years before I began the N 49º5_ W91º1 series. How could I take the work beyond simply painting plants? I was well aware that this was something that had been done throughout centuries for scientific purposes in botanical illustrations, for allegorical reasons in vanitas Renaissance paintings or simply for beauty and enjoyment in hobbyist flower paintings.
How they differ from traditional botanical illustrations lies within their inaccuracies. Botanical illustration is very, very detail oriented and specific. Specimens are carefully chosen to display as many parts of the plant as possible (i.e. leaf, fruit, flower, seed). Also, all parts of the plant are made visible, rendered to scale in relation to one another, and colours are matched as closely as possible. With this series, I wanted to focus on the transitions within the decomposition of the plant and allow detailed passages to be abandoned as the plant changed. The wilting alone would cause the leaves to curl making it hard to discern the vein networks and edging of the leaves often used in the identification process. In the end, the paintings became more about seeing the plant as an individual rather than learning about the species in general.
Why was it important for you to document the "fleeting moments of decomposition" as you did in N 49º5_ W 97º1?
This way of working was important for both my painting process at the time, as well as for conceptual reasons. I was at a point in my painting practice where I had a desire to abandon the photograph as a reference image and to paint from life. I’ve always had this strange internal struggle with my natural compulsion toward highly detailed and “tight” mark-making. Painting from life often forces you to abandon this. Light changes, the subject moves, and what you’re left with is maybe not as “accurate” of an image, but it captures that moment in time and the intimacy that is shared between you and the subject through the hours and hours of looking. That was what I desired for this work. It allowed me to to ponder and observe the results of my decision to pull this specific weed from my garden and to question my choosing that this plant, in specific, was not suppose to grow on this plot of land.
What stories were you able to uncover through this work?
As research for this project, as well as a few others involving plants, I have begun to seek out people who work with plants in various capacities. Volunteering at the University of Manitoba’s herbarium and working in one of the university’s plant anatomy labs has had a profound impact on how I “see” plants. Each person has their own story and their own relationship to plants. As I listen to these stories and learn about various facts and perspectives, my own relationship with my environment is transformed and enriched, and I become more aware of my own personal history with plants.
What have the plants taught you thus far?
Hmm... above all, patience. Pulling the weeds and painting them as they wilt makes it so that I have to work on their time, rather than my own. Some wilt within hours, others take days. Winters have also forced me to abandon projects and wait for summer to return in order to continue. There is something nice about being forced to slow down and wait.
You can learn more about Chantal's work at www.chantaldupas.com.