Wendy Cortesi's Story Behind the Art

Sassafras Painting
About the plant:
Sassafras albidum, a common shrub or small tree native to eastern North America, was well known to the Bartrams for its medicinal properties and had already been exported to Europe. Many teas and solutions made from its leaves, bark, and especially the root, were used to treat dozens of ailments. The plant was also an ingredient in various food products, the root providing the original flavoring for Root Beer.
I was first drawn to the sassafras plant’s mitten-shaped leaves that occur in several forms on the same tree. Although sassafras is not particularly eye catching at any time during it's growing season, the combination of yellow spring flowers, green leaves, bright blue and red fruits, orange roots and yellow, orange and red autumn leaves in one painting creates a vivid array of color. This watercolor was based on studies, photographs, and collected specimens of plants in the wild found in the Catoctin Mountain Park area of Pennsylvania and Maryland, the National Arboretum and various locations in Virginia. I documented the seasonal changes throughout the plant's annual cycle. 

All parts of the sassafras plant are aromatic with the rough root being the most strongly scented. Its distinctive root-beer smell remains long after the root is cut and dried out. A note of caution: The tree often grows among large poison ivy vines and the similar looking roots can be intertwined. The sassafras root, however, has a bright orange interior color and a strong scent. 
The leaves, twigs, and fruits of the sassafras tree are eaten by a number of mammals, birds and insects. This painting includes a female Papilio troilus (Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly) and two forms of its mature larvae, or caterpillars. Sassafras is the preferred host plant for this butterfly. The adults feed from the flowers and the larvae eat the leaves. 
Technical details about the painting: 
I used my favorite 300-pound, soft press, Fabriano Uno watercolor paper. This paper is acid free, does not buckle in humid conditions and has a slightly textured finish between hot and cold press. I also use distilled water and the most stable and lightfast watercolor paints available. My palette does not include any cadmium colors, which may be unstable in damp conditions, or ultramarine blue, which actually disappears when touched with anything acidic. I occasionally apply masking fluid to protect fine detail and often draw with quill pens with mixed watercolor tints instead of ink. I do not currently combine watercolor with colored pencil or gouache.
Artist’s connections to medicinal plants and Philadelphia
My interest in photographing and painting medicinal plants sprang from a 2006 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art entitled Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark—New Art For the Bicentennial. I was one of the three organizers, and a participating artist, for the exhibit that featured plants collected or described by Lewis and Clark during their extraordinary expedition of 1804 – 1806. 
Before the expedition set out, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Benjamin Barton in Philadelphia for training in the science of collecting and describing botanical specimens. William Bartram was an older friend and colleague of Barton’s and contributed illustrations to at least one of his botanical publications. Lewis was already familiar with plants as his mother, Lucy Lewis Marks, was a well known herbalist and “doctress” and a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Lewis and Clark had been instructed by Jefferson to collect everything and to send and bring back live and dried specimens and seeds. As the expedition included neither artist nor botanist (nor doctor!), Lewis’s botanical skills and ability to accurately and meticulously record information in their Journals proved critical to the huge expansion of knowledge of the flora of the territory that they explored. (Lewis mentioned the sassafras tree on Sept. 2nd, 1803, while they were still in Pennsylvania.) Hundreds of the specimens they collected now reside in special cases at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Many retain some color. All are beautiful, even after more than 200 years and an extraordinary history that includes a long period in England and accidental discovery and return to the United States. 
Later, I participated in an exhibition in the Jefferson Library at Monticello that centered on Meriwether Lewis’s mother and included paintings of medicinal plants of the time that were native to Virginia. My contributions were this painting of Sassafras and one of Orange Spotted Jewelweed, which also showed the various seasonal changes in the plant’s annual cycle.
Other medicinal plants (including Black Cohosh) were included in a commission from First Lady Laura Bush to portray twelve native plants of Camp David. These paintings, which reside at Camp David, are similar in size, concept and style to this Sassafras work.
About the artist:
Wendy W. Cortesi is a botanical artist and natural science photographer with a special interest in showing time-lapse changes and close-up details often missed by the casual observer. She holds a Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration from the Corcoran and the US Botanic Garden. She was elected to the Cosmos Club in Washington DC on the basis of original work as an artist. Ms. Cortesi’s botanical watercolors have been shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington), the US Botanic Garden, the Alexandria Athaeneum, the Byrne Gallery in Middleburg, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Library at Monticello, the Orchard Gallery, Brookside Gardens, the Studio Gallery, and the Cosmos Club in the DC area. She was one of eight artists selected to illustrate the 2010 White House Christmas Tour Guide Book. Her natural science photographs have appeared frequently in National Geographic publications and educational materials, as well as numerous other books and magazines.
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  • (C) Wendy Cortesi