The Draw of Nature

by | Oct 12, 2023 | Feature, Magazine, People

I’ve worked at the Wildflower Center since 2005 and over the last year, I’ve looked forward to coming in on Wednesday mornings especially. Often, I see a certain group gathered either in the Café or around our display of seasonal plant specimens, sketching and sharing drawings. Over time, I have become their unofficial plant tutor and staff liaison. They show me their work. “Spiderwort?” I ask. “It is!” someone answers. “Is this one firewheel? Is this the stamen?” A chorus of delight and “yeses” erupts. And on we go. Part of the reason this is so fun is because many members of this group are novice artists, and if they have captured a petal or berry with enough accuracy that I can identify the subject, it means their technique is improving.  They call themselves the Botanical Buds.


Origin Story

In the fall of 2021, the Center hosted a class on botanical illustration with local illustrator Clair Gaston. As the class concluded, a handful of participants exchanged numbers and a few were inspired to continue painting together. This is how the Botanical Buds were born. 

Botanical Bud Ann recalls that one of her favorite things about the illustration class was how Gaston would lead the group on nature walks to find specimens, then guide them through the drawing or painting process, even in the rain. Another member of the group, Stella, says that examining the stems and leaves of flowers or the way groupings of plants grow together and intermingle prompted her to think differently about shape, shade, texture and tone. 

Meanwhile, Botanical Bud Rachel says, “I’m probably the one who knows the least about plants.” She signed up for the botanical illustration class because her mother-in-law “is big into gardening and she asked me to draw her some flowers. I had no idea how, so I took the class. My final project, a daylily, is now hanging on her wall.” 

Ann Marie is known as one of the Botanical Bud’s bird photographers and native plant connoisseurs, along with Tina, who was already a self-proclaimed “obsessed gardener” with many native plants in her own yard. “Between the Wildflower Center, Austin Community College and Central Texas Gardener, I’ve learned a lot about the wonderful plants we have in this region,” she says. “Our ecoregion is unlike anywhere else in the world and the Wildflower Center showcases our natural beauty. In times of climate change, our native plants teach us what is truly resilient.”

LEFT TO RIGHT Katie Lydeck, Candace Vorhaus, Ann Marie Terzian, Stella Harper, Kim Freels, Tina Ritterhoff and Shannon McClenny PHOTO Ann Alva Wieding


Finding a Rhythm

The Botanical Buds enjoy weekly walks along different gardens and paths, pausing to inspect and identify particular plants that catch their attention. 

With the Center as homebase, they explore venues throughout Austin and continue to give themselves new challenges like felting and non-dominant hand drawing. The group has added a new exercise this year and is creating art inspired by celebrated poet Mary Oliver, such as this line, describing a swan: 

Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air — An armful of white blossoms

The group includes retired people and working people. It includes a mosaic tile artist and baker, a ballet student, an illustrator, a hair stylist, an architect and designer, and a Ph.D. of science and geology, resulting in an interesting mix of experiences, viewpoints and approaches. Finding new and unique things around every corner creates a new challenge for them each week. While their subject matter has grown to include birds, fruit and even longhorns, a deepening engagement and love of nature has been growing within each of them too.

LEFT Stella Harper at her plein air easel, painting firewheel, MIDDLE Tina Ritterhoff (left) and Ann Marie, BOTTOM Katie with her plein air paint box, painting cacti PHOTOS Ann Alva Wieding

TOP Wildflower Center’s Observation Tower by Katie Lydeck, BOTTOM Rachel with next gen Buds

Feeling the Impact

In February 2022, Stella experienced a healing moment at the Center that involved the maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), a yellow fall bloomer in the Aster family, reaching 10 feet tall and growing throughout the central plains from Texas up into Canada. As the Botanical Buds strolled out into the Savanna Meadow, looking for their challenge that week, everything around them was in winter shades of gray, tan and brown. A stalky stand of golden-brown remnants — remnants of something that was once green — caught their eyes. They unfolded their chairs to study and sketch. You see, in February, after the fall flowers of the maximilian sunflower have done their job of attracting butterflies for pollination, the small seed heads form. These seeds are an important food source for lesser goldfinches that land on the tops of the tall swaying stalks and pick the seeds out. It was a transformative moment for Stella, whose mother had recently passed, as she witnessed and acknowledged the beauty and reassurance in the cycles of life and death. Several members of the group submit art to various shows around Central Texas. One show in particular focuses on happiness and mental health, and Stella will be submitting one of her paintings of maximilian sunflowers.

In the winter of 2020, Botanical Bud Candace made a new year’s resolution to learn watercolor painting. She was a novice artist entering the botanical illustration class and over the course of that next year she began making her own handmade watercolor paints from natural pigments and sharing them with her fellow painters. She determined that hand-made paints allowed the group to better capture the colors of our native plant subjects. She recently completed an educator’s nature journaling workshop taught by John Muir Laws. The journaling starts with observation, taking the participants through a mindfulness exercise about nature stewardship, asking questions, and slowing down. Their art becomes the output of their observation as they ask themselves, “What’s the weather like as I observe this plant? Which direction is the wind coming from? How hot is it today? What are the companion plants nearby?” Candace was inspired to take what she learned and continue her journey in education. She is now teaching children watercolor painting. 



Fulfilling a Mission

Over time, I began to see something emerging in this group; something every conservation organization works to foster: community, inspiration, and a better understanding of nature and our interconnectedness with it. The painters became members of the Center. They started installing carloads of plants from our plant sales in their home gardens. They continue to return to the Center because — as members, volunteers and staff always point out — the place is new and different every day, season to season. Each spring reveals surprises. All summers hold promises. Every fall reveals new colors. All winters offer different textures. 

So many aspects of our lives demand speed, but studying a petal with the intention of drawing it encourages us to slow down and take in the details. Is its edge smooth or slightly toothed? Does its surface shine, or are there tiny hairs there? The practice of drawing asks that artists sharpen their looking skills. 

At the Center, we’re always thinking about how to make inroads with more people; to provide an experience where visitors can come to fully appreciate and celebrate the natural world and their place in it. We care for these landscapes and make inspiring gardens and we set the stage. However, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness.” 


Mexican tulip poppy (Hunnemannia fumariifolia) by Candace Vorhaus; monarch with fall aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) by Katie Lydeck; golden grounsel (Packera obovata) by Debbie Conyers


Taking a class can be like planting a seed, and just like in a garden, a collection of individuals has grown into a community. The Botanical Buds have bloomed, their art has evolved and their friendships have flourished. Their curiosity about our planet has intensified and deepened. And isn’t that what the Center’s mission is all about? 

I love the opportunity to see our landscapes at the Center through different perspectives. I sometimes look over the Botanical Buds’ shoulders as they paint. What a delight it is to look from canvas to meadow and back as they draw and paint and things come to life on paper or canvas. My eye might be drawn to a foreground of coneflowers edging a June meadow, where their skills capture the scene in abstract swaths of summery purples. 

And so, in the end, an art class can be much more than an art class. Like Marcel Proust suggested, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”