Karen Coleman's Story Behind the Art

Quercus sp.
This past autumn, I was walking in the woods around my house and kept stopping to admire the beautiful acorns that had fallen from the different oaks.  The variety of color, shapes and sizes was amazing.  It was a high mast year, and I had never seen so many acorns.  You couldn’t walk around our property or drive the car on the driveway without crunching nuts.  I thought what fun it would be to capture all these different types of acorns in a montage.  About this same time, information began to arrive about the Bartram exhibition.  I suspected that the Bartrams planted many oak trees in their garden.  When the garden’s plant list came out, there were indeed several oak species included from all over the country.  I decided I would do my acorn piece and submit it for consideration.
I began collecting acorns from my property, which included White, Chestnut, Red, and Black Oaks.  I enlisted friends to help me find the other local oaks:  Scarlet, Willow, and Pin.  They came through for me with flying colors and provided excellent specimens of a variety of oak species.  After reading about the Bartram Oak, I really wanted to include one of these as well.  As noted on the Bartram’s Garden website, John Bartram first discovered specimens of the Bartram Oak, Quercus x heterophylla, a rare but naturally occurring hybrid of red and willow oak, on a nearby estate upriver from Bartram’s Garden.  I wasn’t sure how to get my hands on the acorn, since the tree is not local to my area of Virginia.  I tried a few resources on the web but had no luck.  I finally called Bartram’s Garden and was fortunate to reach Stephanie Phillips, the Assistant Director.  After explaining what I was attempting, Stephanie very graciously offered to try to find me an acorn from the Bartram’s Oak.  She warned me that it was going to be difficult to find one at that time of year as the deer, squirrels and birds had devoured almost all of the nuts.  I was surprised and thrilled a week later, when a very carefully packaged acorn arrived in the mail from Stephanie.
My goal with this work was to portray the acorns in enough detail so that the unique characteristics of each species would be apparent.  My challenge was to do this before the nuts began to dry up, darken, and shrink, losing their caps, which happened very quickly once I brought them inside.  At one point, I had to glue on one of the Black Oak caps, which kept falling off as I was drawing it.  I very much wanted to depict the gorgeous range of colors—scarlet, pink, yellow, ochre, bronze, orange, rich browns—of the just fallen, unripe Chestnut Oak acorn.  To do this, I found a fresh specimen, brought it into my studio and quickly made a layered colored pencil drawing using all the colors I saw in the nut (12 different hues).  When I had each acorn species drawn in graphite, I tried out many different compositions, finally deciding on a horizontal scattering, which carries the viewer’s eye across the page.  I thought it made a pleasing composition.  The media I used were watercolor and colored pencil.  I laid down a wash of watercolor as a base color and then added many layers of colored pencil, finishing with the details for each cap and nut.
I am thrilled and excited to be part of this very important exhibition.
I hope people who view my work will notice the details and appreciate the unique characteristics of each species of oak acorn.  I hope, too, that my Quercus acorns will convey a sense of wonder of the smaller things in nature.  As that familiar saying goes: “From the tiny acorn grows the mighty oak.” 
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  • (C) Karen Coleman