Judy Thomas' Story Behind the Art

Paw Paw
I have been gardening since I was a small child, and drawing flowers since the age of ten.  I became interested in the Bartrams and botanical illustration a decade ago, and consider myself to be an "amateur Bartram historian." For several years I have been working on novel of historical fiction, including illustrations, involving John Bartram, his family, his contemporaries and colonial society. John Bartram is a fascinating figure:  an adventurous explorer, a man who would go off on his own into the wild, climb a white cedar to get the seeds at the very top, or poke a stick at a rattlesnake to see what it would do; a religious iconoclast who was shunned from his Quaker Meeting for refusing to relent on a point of doctrine, yet continued to attend the Meeting; and a man who stopped plowing his field to gently examine a daisy that had grown there. I have always been interested in art, but my interests changed from my schooling in modern art for an art minor in college to more tightly structured botanical illustration.  These interests came together, and I was thrilled to learn of the ASBA competition "Following in the Bartrams' Footsteps."  As someone new to the field, I thought my chances of being accepted were quite limited, so I am delighted to be part of the exhibition!
After reviewing the Bartram catalogue, with which I was familiar from earlier reading and some related pen and ink illustrations I had completed, I decided to illustrate two edible plants. The work that was accepted, "Asimina triloba," represents North America's largest fruit, the paw paw.  Very few people outside my botanical circle know about the paw paw, unless they happen to be hiking in a area where ripe fruit has dropped, where it is noticed due to the sweetish (some say sickly) aroma.  To find paw paws, I contacted my hiking and nature-oriented friends. Paw paws grow in riverine habitats, which abound along the James River here in Virginia.  However, the first paw paw flower I found in bloom was 750 miles away, in Lafayette IN, near the Wabash River.  The flower is fly-pollinated, which accounts for its meat-red color and off-putting scent. The fruit I sketched was from Belle Isle along the James River in Richmond, 10 miles from my home. I found the stand of understory trees through its scent and some guidance from a friend.  In culinary terms, paw paws taste a little like banana and have very large seeds, which are easy to remove.  In colonial days, paw paws were used to make custard, hence their nickname "custard apple."
I enjoy drawing with colored pencil, though the media I use ranges from graphite to pen and ink, some watercolor and even wool (I teach the only botanically-inspired needle felting class in the country). The work on my entry was fun, and was completed through a series of steps, from collecting and dissecting the plant parts, making a graphite value study, color-matching each part with watercolor washes and colored pencil overlay, drawing small color studies of each part, and concluding with the final composition. At the bottom of the illustration, I added what is, to me, John Bartram's most profound words: "whether great or small ugly or handsom sweet or stinking...everything in the universe...appears beautifull to mee."
  • (C) Judy Thomas