Barbara Klaas' Story Behind the Art

Smooth Sumac
Rhus glabra
My focus as a botanical artist is directed toward bringing native plants back into our lives, our gardens, and our natural areas. One of my favorite shrubs is Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra which sits on the border of my property. I am drawn to the brilliant, dark red shade of the large cone-like berry clusters of this shrub.  In the autumn, at the peak of their magnificence, these minute globes of berries are a challenge for any botanical artist to undertake. This particular painting fits in well with my body of work, having a propensity for working with autumn and winter subjects. 
Growing up on the north side of Chicago I was exposed to the sumac as a food seasoning in Persian dishes and have always loved the citrus accent that it gives to foods. Few people actually know that for thousands of years these shrubs have provided a delicious and refreshing summer lemonade type drink. Smooth Sumac also has many uses medicinally and is the only shrub/tree species native to all 48 contiguous states.  It is exciting to know that I can forage and eat from many of the plants that I paint.
My intent was to capture a moment in the Sumac’s lifecycle just moments before it is seized by winter’s grip. My difficulty with working with this plant is that once the leaves start to drop, they drop quickly and so there is a rush to complete the project before the leaves are gone. Not using photography, it is a difficult task since sketching and painting can last for months or seasons before completion. In this art work there is a missing leaf telling us that the falling of leaves has begun. Although rare for me, to remedy this problem, the branch was laid out flat for painting the way it may have been depicted in an older botanical painting possibly during it’s time at Bartrams’. Usually I paint my subjects in its’ natural upright position facing the sun but in this particular composition, the branch is set up to actually frame the cone of berries in a protective, nurturing and fanciful way.
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  • (C) Barbara Klaas