Sunday, 20 March 2016

Giants in Thimbles I - A Botanical Dystopia

I got a head start, I managed to squeeze out three and a half paintings before the end of 2015, but for Inky Leaves the countdown has now begun. I have to plan it out and be disciplined if we are to have enough work for two shows. Collections are important - to me they have to achieve something beyond what the art works communicate as individual pieces. In a collection, all the paintings should further the space they occupy to form an extended space where all the narratives join together to tell a bigger story. 

Stories within stories within stories, the success that was
The Colours of Reality exhibition at Kew Gardens, 2013
In my night dreams, plants feature prominently and when they do they dwarf me; they are always big - bigger than they should be in real life. As a child I was obsessed with scale, but I was more captivated by the miniature world. I collected dolls house furniture even though I had no house to put them in. I liked Polly in my Pocket and dreamt about Borrowers and Fairies. I guess when a child, one fears the gigantic and inside a miniature world one might feel more or less in control. “In a miniature world we stand outside looking in, but the gigantic envelops us. We know bigness only partially. We move through the landscape, it doesn't move through us” (Stewart, 1992). Bachelard further expands on this concept noting that the "miniature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world concious at slight risk" (Bachelard, 1994).

What fascinates me as a botanical artist is the paradox we generate when we choose to manipulate our sense of scale when painting something that is natural. This is because scale is a cultural phenomenon (objects are related to our own bodies and experiences). In nature there is no 'sense' of scale, scale does not exist. When seeing a piece of botanical art where the magnification has been altered on a plant portrait, the viewer is often shamefully made aware that whatever has been changed has so in order to fulfil their needs. That thing of beauty has been messed around with, and has become unnatural. This mostly manifests in scientific journals, where small items, such as a pistil, are portrayed at a magnified scale and large items, such as palm leaves, at a smaller scale. However, more often we are now experiencing something rather different, where parts of plants that do not require magnification for our eyes, are being enlarged regardless. We are shifting towards the land of the giant peach and the enormous pip. How very Lewis Carroll.

Rory's giant Tulip petal in the Colours of Reality exhibition
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens
For me, enlarged plants that do not require enlargement generate a whole other spectrum of feelings. In order for me to fully understand these I often revisit my dreams, where I climb grapes like I would Everest and peel back leaves the size of theatre curtains. Here I am afraid, but I am equally filled with a fantastic sense of wonder and freedom. The veil of responsibility is lifted, for I am small and insignificant and no one can see me in this forest of the colossal. There is no sense of shame either, for that is a condition attached to a sense of responsibility and as established, that burden for me has been taken away. Unlike a scientific plate, there is a comical side to this sort of absurd enlargement - it's fun and playful. Feeling small and full of wonder, onlookers are brought back to their childhoods where the vastness of imagination takes over. Reality is left behind. Such a release is something many of us long for. The land of giant balls of pollen and mushrooms for stools are part of a magical place we secretly yearn for or have long forgotten.

"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
Further examining the role of the monumental kumquat or the colossal conker we are also reminded that size can indicate power. By playing on our own sense of scale, artists can make the insignificant, significant. This is something that really speaks to me as a botanical artist trying to give plants a voice. Artist Mona Caron takes this theme of immensity to the extreme, by portraying the most insignificant of plants - weeds - as massive murals. Mona's use of space is two fold, as the idea behind the mural is not just to make these specimens huge, but to also embed their portraits in the very streets where they are ignored, confronting our impression of reality. 

Dandelion by Mona Canon

Taking Root by Mona Canon

He lay down behind the blade of grass
To enlarge the sky

(Bureau, 1950)

I am aware that I haven’t really touched on what it is to paint miniatures in my own art. I feel I lack experience in this domain and have chosen not to write about it at length, but I feel that to paint something much, much smaller than it really is generates an equally captivating sense of wonder. They are, after all, like treasure. Only I feel that a sense of responsibility would still remain for the viewer, because of ones own sense of little and large and what that means culturally. We own the little - the big need to look after the small. This is often true in real terms, such as communities looking after the individuals of that community, but we cannot use this standard all of the time otherwise it becomes absurd. For example, such a notion is probably is what has led us into the environmental mess we now find ourselves in – maybe we feel that because the landscape is bigger than us that it is the responsibility of the landscape to look after us?

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard discusses the importance of the miniature world to botanists in particular. "Botanists delight in the miniature of being exemplified by a flower, and they even ingenuously use words that correspond to thing of ordinary size to describe the intimacy of flower" (Bachelard, 1994). For example, "It wears a typically northern costume with four little stamens that are like little yellow brushes" (Herbs, 1851). What one can discover under a lens is a whole new world. To have a magnifying glass is to enter the world of the miniature - it is youth recaptured. We once again begin to play with the fantastical, whilst also seeing things for the very first time like a new born. Magnifying glasses give us an enlarging gaze that turns miniatures into giants, seeing the intimate detail of something very small suddenly increases the objects presence relative to ourselves. 

"Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness"
(Bachelard, 1994)

"Scale is established by means of a set of correspondents to the familiar, and a significance of space and scale refers to a significance in time" (Stewart, 1992). As botanical artists, we need to consider all the states of being in order to depict an authentic reality. Whenever I think about space I always look to Rory McEwen and his compositions. To me, the way he left so much negative space managed to distort time and brought me closer to the vastness of the infinite. His paintings captured a moment in time, but that time was infinite. Such an impossibility remains to be deeply moving – he managed to encapsulate that thing we secretly long for - transcendence whilst still existing.  

Lots of space around an onion, The colours of Reality exhibition in 2013
at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew
By exaggerating the space around his specimens and expanding their intimate space, Rory managed to bestow his leaves and flowers with poetic space. The consequence of this graceful extension effects the actual subject matter, giving them a elevated state of importance and being. They claim their space like royalty and the space that is around them is concentrated inside of them, they become dense - papery leaves become heavy. Some viewers experience Rory's work as immensely uplifting and 'light', and if one looks at the moment of time portrayed as a vacuum of stillness, it is. However, personally I feel that this is only the first layer of Rory's onion because infinity is not weightless. Space is heavy and by condensing that space into his leaves, Rory personifies the subject matter - the leaves carry the weight of life on their skeletons. Through witnessing the poetic space we enter a moment of heavy, exaggerated intimacy. 

"Darth", cabbage leaf, (76 x 56cm), drawn during black dog
J R Shepherd 2015
A while ago I experimented with the colour black in order to replicate Rory's magic trick on white. I suppose I was secretly asking myself, is black more vast than white? In honesty, I lost my way a little as this was new territory. The composition was not suitable to achieve the effect I desired, but it was most certainly close. The piece was never finished, but I was reminded about it after reading Coral Guest's blog post on black called 'Space like Black Velvet' where she reveals how black can represent both background and space. "When the subject suspended in the black is affected tonally by that black, the black is more apparent as space" (Guest, 2015). I guess the same is true of white - its about space touching a subject. As a life grows into its space it claims its soul and becomes.

If I ever finish the giant cabbage leaf, the right edge of it will disappear into the background completely so there is no line. The idea is to make the background invisibly powerful, to the point that it makes the leaf look scary, which in itself is an absurdity - there is nothing scary about a cabbage leaf.  The reason the leaf gets the flack it is the leaf that the viewer looks at and not the space, even though the whole thing is one and seamlessly joined. I feel that people often forget space - how to see it and use it. There is a philosophical element to space too, all environments alter their subjects physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally and of course, we are forgetting the elephant in the room here (couldn't resist the scale pun), that the big, scary cabbage leaf, although big, is still not as big as the space around it. 

Giants in Thimbles

So, with all of this in mind I am brought back to look at my current work and ask myself some questions, such as why am I painting these leaves so big that they don’t fit into the ‘box’ they've been put in and where are their edges?

Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm), found on the lawn behind our house in Granada whilst I was raking. 
J R Shepherd 2015
To cut a long story short, I consider the edges to be very important in this collection (and in everything I see). They are the interface between this world and the next, the beginning and the end. In this assortment I have made it so that the edges of my mounts can’t contain. Rory McEwen did this a little bit with his decaying leaves, but in Rory’s work, as the subject disappeared to the edge the picture, it began to softly vanish, playing on themes of transcendence and fantasy.

My works do not do this. There are no ghosts, it is just that the paper is inadequate for the subject. The subject will not be contained, it is too magnific. After all, who are we to think we can contain the giant that is mother nature? 

Personally I feel that Rory's compositions also generate an air of apprehension over our measures of space, time and decay. The viewer finds themselves having to let go, or grapple with holding on. His edge is a natural ragged cliff edge, but mine is a man made boundary. Both works are a reminder that we cannot control, but my work is getting bigger and is travelling towards you, Rory's is getting smaller and further away. His leaves don't appear to threaten in the same way as mine. His leaves are shifting into invisibleness, mine too, but not through a visible death, my collection is experiencing a deathless death. The death of life being able to roam freely. 

"¡¡Cuidado Veneno Peligroso!!" 
(Artichoke - Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) (76 x 56cm). 
Found on one of my walks after they had sprayed the fields.
J R Shepherd 2015
My collection is slowly evolving to tell a story about a dystopian ecology that is trapped and morphed by us. Manipulation at its most extreme. A trapped world that cannot grow. As I look around my studio at all the leaves hanging off rafters and walls they look like birds in cages. Trapped they are restricted by the pressures of a materialistic world and cannot reach beyond. Rory's touched way beyond. He turned botanical reality into a fantasy, but mine can't reach that utopia, they are chained on the parameter of the paper. To me, they are the living evidence of the struggle that is life, conforming to an unmarked standard. They override their man-made niches, unable to conform to our world. Giants in thimbles, their desires and needs out-do supply. They are over-reaching, but again who are we to judge? They are only too big according to our own measures and sense of scale. They are boxed up because these leaves live in our reality and our own measures of it.

Disappearing Catalpa Leaf (76 x 56cm) found on Brick Lane in the last days of my relationship with Henry.
J R Shepherd 2015
This is a tragedy and like all tragedy's there is something moving and beautiful.  The beauty I see in any tragedy is the way it poetically describes the flaws of humanity whilst at the same highlighting our positive nature of wanting to nurture and knowing right from wrong. How we react to this tragedy is something that will never be held or measured, and we will never fully grasp nature in its boundlessness. We cannot contain its beauty, for if we try to, that beauty disappears because the context of the extraction has been lost. 

The Day Dreaming Leaf

"Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone" (Bachelard, 1994). Plants are immense and can create silencing black holes of vastness when growing together. Maybe this is where my night dreams of 'forests of the colossal' manifest from? The feelings one channels when present inside both a dream and a forest occupy the same sense of vastness. Bachelard said that forests "accumulate infinity within their own boundaries". With this, one revisits the concepts surrounding edges and boundaries and my recent blog posts on leafscapes and mapping. These giant leaves are so magnified that they reveal a whole new landscape of a miniature world within their boundary. They are vast pictures of the miniature. "These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased" (Bosco, 1952). Edges define the dimensions of being. What is beyond the edge of the paper, what was there and what was not included in the composition no one but the artist will know. We have to imagine what was there, entering the vast space in the mind that has no boundaries. 

Seizing the Hourglass

Now it is time to briefly touch on 'time' as space and sum up 2016s work. I'll be quick. These leaves will be barcoded by time, not only in the way they look in the moment of portrayal, but in other ways. There will be numbers involved and these will conform to a pattern. It's up to my followers to work out the pattern if they choose to. 

Close up on Darth
In the end, what I hope to make is a collection that documents both natural and cultural measures of time and space in a captivating, disconcerting and beautiful way. With hope, the Botanical Kingdom will be looked at differently and bridges will be built crossing the gap between 'us' and 'them'.


Stewart, S., (1991), On Longing, Duke University Press Books
Buchard, G., (1994), The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press

Herbs, (1851), Dictionnarie de botanique chrétienne inside Nouvelle Encyclopédie théologique 
Bureau, N., (1950), Le mains tendues, Ed. de la Girafe
Bosco, H., (1952), Antonin, Gallimard, Paris
Guest, C., (2015), 'Space like Black Velvet'


  1. A fascinating post ... Beautiful, beautiful work!! This is going to be a brilliant collection on so many levels.

  2. Thank you Hedera! Very happy to hear that you enjoyed the post and are looking forward to the end story.