Derek Norman's Story Behind the Art

The Complete Life Cycle of the Wild Leek, Allium tricoccum
Perfoliate Bellwort, Uvularia perfoliata
Why did you choose these specific subjects to portray?
In terms of the wild leek, it is a plant with a great social history.  It grows all the way down the eastern sea board to the Carolinas and Georgia.  It grew in the area which was to become Chicago, where I happen to live, and gave its name to the city - the Indian name was Shikaakwa, It was later anglicized and so today we have Chicago.  A lot of people eat the wild leek or "ramps" as they are known in the East.  As a prized spring delicacy it is now, in some parts of the US, quite rare.  It does taste good, I'm told, like an onion!
The life cycle of the wild leek (Allium tricoccum) is quite wonderful.  I have lived on Chicago's Northshore since1976 and every spring, by mid April, wild leeks, with their two green leaves, cover the banks of the ravines.  Their buds begin to protrude through the stems in late April/early May, and the leaves gradually disintegrate and disappear.  By July, there is a spectacular flowering of their inflorescence - a hemispherical terminal umbel of small white flowers. When people see these flowers, they don’t realize that they belong to those lush green leaves of early spring, now long gone.   In August, you begin to notice the green seed pods; they become bulbous and almost abstract.  Eventually, their now hardened shells peel back to reveal a shiny black seed.  The seeds within are tiny, only 4 mm wide; in my painting, the scale of the seed is 4 times actual size.
It took me two years to complete the wild leek painting.  Each season, I would dig up a few plants, place them in special pots, and bring them one at a time into the studio as a subject.  Then, when I finished that aspect, I would replant them exactly in the location from where they came. For accuracy and authenticity, it is very important to me that I draw and paint from an actual plant. I never use photography as a reference.
In the case of the Uvularia, I was looking for a less well known subject on the Bartram listings and, importantly, one to which I would have easy access. The perfoliate bellwort (uvularia perfoliata) so happened to be the one!
What would you hope people would notice or appreciate when they view these works?
I hope that they would leave with a greater appreciation of the beauty of the individual plants. And that the chronology shown within each painting offers a better understanding of the botany and complex life cycle of each species.  Clearly, growing-up and being a plant is complex! Both the Wild Leek (Allium tricoccum) and Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) are plants that are quite amazing. Especially when you look at them really carefully - close-up and in detail.
How do these pieces relate to your body of work?
These days, I tend to be especially interested in documenting the life cycle of a plant rather than just creating a plant portrait. Showing the physical chronology of a plant seems to marry the art with the science in a very unique way. I enjoy the idea of including more botany, to tell a story, to offer a kind of narrative - to make public the private life of a plant, I suppose. They are all so incredible! For the more I learn about a plant, the more I want to know and the more detail I go for.  The microscope seems to prove that less is more!
What do you know about these subjects as they relate to the Bartrams?
What I know of John and William Bartram is that it is a great American story and one the larger public audience has yet to discover and appreciate. Reading the recent books by Andrea Wulf - "The Brother Gardeners" and "Founding Gardeners" offers the 'big picture' point of view - documenting the fact that ironically, the Bartrams, simple American nurserymen, made Britain a nation of gardeners and the epicenter of horticultural and botanical expertise. John Bartram, by procuring and then sending his new found American plant discoveries to a growing English clientele, almost singlehandedly transformed the English landscape and gardening forever.  It is a story little known.  William, John Bartram's son, continued the legacy - his own account of his four years of plant exploration through the southern states of colonial America in his story "Travels" makes for fascinating reading.  Unfortunately, he included only limited information about specific plants, and in terms of the subjects I chose, I could not find anything in his accounts.
Anything else?
 Two words are key, I believe, to the current trends in botanical art, and implicitly to my work - education and relevance.  I like to think that botanical art speaks persuasively and clearly to and for all the associated disciplines of botany, conservation, ecology etc.  The concept of one picture is worth a thousand words gives a beautiful botanical painting of a flower the power to speak to the larger public audience in a way that botany and the other disciplines cannot.  It has the ability to communicate so much instantaneously and at a very emotional level.
Botanical art connects science to people with one finely tuned, articulate voice. And it draws us to plants, to conservation and to a sense of awareness and concern that without plants we are nothing. All of which makes the subject of botanical art so enormously relevant - more relevant today, perhaps, than it has been for generations.
  • (C) Derek Norman
  • (C) Derek Norman