Since 2004, Michael has shown his artwork with fellow artists of Studio 155, a group of botanical artists that formed the core of the 2006 Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark. Our group continues with a common purpose of seeking to expand the definition of botanical art. We have exhibited as a collective in many venues. Besides the Corcoran, at the Delaware Art Museum, Studio Gallery, the Cosmos Club, Adah Rose Gallery, and other places.
Michael retired in 2009 after 25 years in early childhood education. Throughout his career, he took children on field trips to art museums, organized art projects, and mounted an annual children’s art show for colleagues, family, and friends. He also taught young artists at the Corcoran Gallery’s summer art camp.
Michael received a Masters in Early Childhood Education and Administration, as well as an undergraduate degree in political science, from George Washington University. He also earned a Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration in 2006 from the Corcoran College of Art and Design and the U.S. Botanic Garden.
My interest in creating art began early, truth be told, to get positive attention from my family — five boys and one girl; I was five minutes younger than my twin. (My brothers, not to mention our younger sister are smart, brave, talented, and no less needing attention than I do). We have remained close all these years, each with his or her own pursuits, writing, poetry, music, photography, art for me. Our parents were creative, talented, and independent – traits their children inherited. And family sentiments were wont to be expressed in creative works. I drew well and it thus became my route to get noticed.
My Mother inspired me to pursue art. She was a painter, who had studied with Emile Walters, whose oils are in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. (One of his Adirondack paintings now hangs in the living room of my oldest brother Joel’s camp on Mountain View Lake in the northern part of the park.) Sick for a year and unable to go to school, I accompanied my mother on painting expeditions. I discovered how fulfilling the company of fellow artists could be. I inherited her eye and her love of nature and plants.
Teacher that he was, when Emile saw my drawing of a cornfield he suggested including it in the outdoor art show his class was mounting, and positioned it adjacent to my Mother’s painting. No sale: I had forgotten to price it.
School days: My First Art Projects
When I was in 5th grade, the visiting art teacher noticed a wall mural of Santa’s workshop I had done for the upcoming holiday parent’s night. She was impressed, taking me out of class to help decorate the entire school. She even let me plan the decorations! The entrance to our school was a wall of glass surrounding the main entrance doors, which turned out to be the most difficult task. I decorated this glass wall with colored tissue paper of holiday and winter shapes, placing the tissue paper between sheets of clear contact paper fitted to the windows, thus making them look like stained glass. The comments from the parents were wonderful, positive feedback for my creative bent.
Years later, this art project using colored tissue paper between two sheets of clear contact paper became a surefire hit with the parents of the children I cared for and likely graced many a holiday window.
In 6th grade my twin Stratton and I shifted elementary schools. Our classes were located in the older section of the school which had high ceilings and large windows. We had a new teacher who came from an inner New York City school where she had learned to push the rules. The visiting art teacher – the one who had taken me out of class last year at the old elementary school – told this new teacher I was a natural artist, having done a wonderful job decorating my old school. Our new teacher, who loved the holiday season, decided the class would take a break from studying before the holidays so the entire class could decorate the room for parents’ night. She chose me to lead the effort.
Wow! From a frieze hung along the top of the room depicting children from around the world in native costumes to each window painted with a holiday winter scene in tempera paint, the room looked fabulous. Everyone was engaged in creating the over all design. Among the projects our class made were mobiles, hung from the ceiling, filling the room with bells, ornaments, snowflakes, and stars. It was exhausting and yet exhilarating for me. It took 2 weeks of hard work with every afternoon devoted to this enterprise. On parents’ night, my parents went to see how the twins were doing and talk with our teacher as I lay in bed, sick and exhausted.
My serious efforts studying art began in middle school. Boys were required to take one or another shop class – metal, woodworking, print, or mechanical drawing – while the girls took home economics. It was in mechanical drawing that Mr. Weatherbe shared his joy of perspective and the wondrous images an artist could capture with a pencil.
Then trouble struck: rheumatic fever kept me out of school for a year. When I returned, school officials decided that since I was a Christian Scientist relying on spiritual healing, gym was too risky for me. I was able instead to take art classes. It was in my freshmen year I fell in love with watercolors, which joined my first love, my No. 2 pencil and a sketchbook.
My first watercolor was a made-up scene with a waterfall. My second was of a dock in the Beaufort River, in South Carolina where my family vacationed. I added the boat in the foreground to compose the picture rather than to render what I saw, which has been my tendency. The pumped up colors were what my art teacher had suggested since most of my experience to date had been in drawing.
Junior year my art teacher, Mr. Fairbanks, entered works of mine in a show in New York City at which my first artworks sold. The work was so underpriced the couple who bought them sent along with my payment a large box of pastels and a pad of paper with an encouraging note thanking me and telling me how the work would join their collection.
I did not choose to study art after high school, instead going to Washington, D.C., to study international affairs at George Washington University. Art took a back seat as I explored and discovered who I was. To earn spending money, though, I drew portraits of fellow students in graphite. Once, in exchange for rent, a friend asked if I could do portraits of FDR’s advisors during the New Deal. (This friend later became a successful lawyer in Chicago.) And I did original posters for the Christian Science lectures on campus – geometrical designs with bright tempera paints that took on a new brilliant luminescence when bathed in black light. I was surprised to see they disappeared off campus bulletin boards. Later, some of these posters were found on the walls in students’ dorm rooms.
Seeking volunteers for a psychological student help center, I did another poster and handbill featuring a drawing of a woman curled up on a bench with her hands wrapped around her knees.
While at GW, I missed the countryside of my youth. Fortunately, nearby was the Potomac River and the towpath for the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal that George Washington was an original investor in. The canal with its towpath and locks bordering the Potomac brings nature within easy reach of city dwellers.
During my college years, there was the Viet Nam war and racial unrest after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The riots in Washington, D.C., inspired me to take up my brush and to try charcoal.
After university, now out in the world, I started as an intern at the new Council on Environmental Quality in the federal government. That led to a position at a land use task force, then to a nonprofit think tank in the environmental field, The Conservation Foundation.
I knew in my heart that the field of conservation and environment wasn’t my passion. After 15 years, I left to find a new direction. As I considered my future, I thought about getting back into art. At the Corcoran College of Art and Design I took a watercolor class with the noted painter Brockie Stevenson. This became my big watercolor period.
The watercolor class was a life drawing class in which we were asked to paint the model in
At the end of a year, I did find my new career — childcare, commonly known as daycare. It seemed made for me. And so it was for 25 years young children and I were a perfect fit. I went back to school to get a Masters degree in Early Childhood Education and Administration. Though my year of concentrating on art had come to an end, making art along the way continued.
For Family and Friends
Over the years, I have created many original artworks intended to add a special, personal touch to events for family and friends – invitations, birthday cards, place cards for dinners, Christmas cards, tags for presents, and so on.
Vacations and Travel
Over the years, traveling has inspired my artwork. Whenever and wherever we travel, we enjoy capturing the experience in art.
I always take my sketchbook along so I can indulge myself in pencil (black and white). Only recently I started to record the colors with my iPad.
From my Fire Island sketchbook, my three loves, the beach and outdoors, drawing, and the man sketching away.
I spent my last nine years in childcare at a large Washington law firm’s center. It was for employee’s children, from infants to five-year olds. After a few years there, I negotiated a day off from the usual workweek so I could take classes with Leslie Exton at the Corcoran. Gordon had recommended her and I noted that she taught classes in botanical art. I took her watercolor class. Our first assignment was to render a single leaf. Not very exciting, I thought, so I embellished. On seeing the result, Leslie said, “Please, when you are in my class, do only what I tell you to do. Later, when you are ready, you may do it whatever way you want.”
Since I already had a well-developed style of my own, I did poorly in this first botanical art class. As a matter of fact, Brockie Stevenson had commented that I used watercolor like people use oil paint, rather than as most watercolorists do using washes or wet on wet techniques. He added, though, it works very well for you. But in the beginning, learning the traditional methods of botanical art, it didn’t work so well.
Leslie’s next class was drawing plants in graphite. I was immediately on firmer ground. She
taught blind contour drawing, a system of drawing using one continuous line without picking up the pencil and without looking at your paper. I became good at using just a single line. (I confess, I did cheat a bit as my “continuous” line required an occasional glance at the paper.)
Next it was a class devoted to colored pencil, a good class for me as it turned out.
An important opportunity came my way while studying at the Corcoran school. I was invited to join a group of botanical artists to participate in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art marking the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s journey of discovery across the Louisiana Purchase and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. They brought back hundreds of specimens of plants and animals. No illustrations were ever made of those specimens. For the Corcoran exhibition, each artist was asked to choose and illustrate a selection of these. I chose tree specimens they had sent back to President Jefferson. To my surprise they turned out to have been later designated state trees for their importance to the respective state’s economy and history.
It was through this exhibit I met botanical artists who have become my friends and together in
2006 we formed Studio 155 and began to show our work in galleries and other venues.
My pen and ink work improved while working on my Certificate in Botanical art and Illustration from the Corcoran College of Art and Design and the U.S. Botanic Garden. In a class on botany and illustrating plants, Alice Tangerini, the botanical artist for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, taught us how to do botanical illustrations using pen and ink on sheets of plastic film. The two most important points for me from the class were: your lines need to be continuous, no breaks, and all plants grow in a pattern reflected in all parts of the plant.
Finally it was time to tackle oil painting.
In her class Plant Portraits in Oil, Leslie Exton began again with painting a leaf.
I had only done one oil painting before in Mr. Fairbanks’ high school class and, frankly, it was dreadful. Not having the patience to let the paint dry before trying to paint over areas, the mess overwhelmed even me, who by nature is a messy person. Thus, I had given up on oils, favoring watercolor instead along with graphite. And studied my three favorite watercolorists – Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and J. W. M. Turner.
Plant Portraits in Oil class was a chance to try my hand again.
In Plant Portraits Leslie taught the old style of oil painting – a burnt sienna underpainting with color added layer by layer – glazing – over the burnt sienna underneath. This is a slow process requiring that the artist have in mind his or her design first, for the under painting cannot be easily changed.
My first oils concentrated on light and dark, plants and the sun. My third and fourth a pair of orchids slashed by sunlight with a deep rich background.
I painted my first series of tree portraits in oil on 10”X8” panels.
With the course and a supportive group of fellow botanical artists who met at studio every Friday afternoon, I ventured forth on a series of oils about trees from my childhood.
There was experimentation,
Recently I learned a new method of oil painting from Glen Kessler in a class about painting from photographs. He taught color, mixing colors, reducing the picture design to large blocks of color to begin with. I like the new method since it is faster and fits my looser style.
Where my paintings come from
It is my firm belief that good art has its beginnings in emotions and feelings. I just don’t paint anything. The subject I chose to paint has some significance in my life.
When my Mother moved from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to Williamsburg, Virginia after my father died, she gave up painting and turned to a new creative endeavor, poetry. She became quite good at it, joining the state poetry society. When I visited, she would read her new work. One Friday evening she read me her poem titled Queen Anne’s Lace.
Queen Anne’s Lace
You trail beside railroad tracks,
Junk yards; tenaciously thrusting
through broken asphalt;
embroidering trashed empty lots.
Scourge of gardens, neat paths,
bordered beds, you pattern
the landscape with fine lace
from your white Elizabethan collars,
stained with a carmine speck
spilled from your small, royal,
Neatly severed head.
Mom would take me to see particular sites she thought would be fun to visit, museums, botanical gardens, Colonial Wiliamsburg, Jamestown, movies, shopping (my least favorite). After reading the poem, we decided one Saturday afternoon after lunch to visit one of the plantations along the James River, the historic Berkeley Plantation the home of the Harrisons.
There was a wedding taking place in the house so we toured the gardens. Mother got tired, sat down to rest and sent me off sketching in the fields surrounding the house. In the field next door there were white lace heads bobbing in the grassy field along with the gentle brush of the weeping willow. And I sketched Queen Anne’s Lace.
I discovered that I was sketching in the field where taps was first played while Union troops encamped during the Civil War’s Peninsular campaign next to the Berkeley Plantation. I found myself standing in that field where taps was first played, where a legendary wild flower named after a murdered queen bobbed their saucer white heads in a gentle breeze.
I particularly liked the Lace and thought it might make a nice oil painting, particularly with a green grass background.
What started so many years ago with my mother’s inspiration and my trusty pencil has settled down in retirement into a satisfying and rewarding artistic life. I work at my own pace spurred on by doing something for the next show or to follow my family tradition of sharing our creative output. More importantly, I have formed friendships with a group of fellow (pushing the envelope) botanical artists. I still make art for special events and occasions for family and friends. Matisse’s cutouts show what can be accomplished in old age so I’m looking forward to seeing what I do in my old age.
An original watercolor given as a gift to new babies in our family, a first original art work for their room.
Songs of the Earth, Recent Works from Studio 155, VisArts, Rockville, Maryland, September 2014
EnviroNature, gallery plan b, Washington, July 2014
The Sweetness of Grass and the Startling Brevity of Life, Adah Rose Gallery, Kensington, Maryland, May-June 2014
Plants in a Different Light, Cosmos Club, Washington, June 2012
Beyond Words: the Symbolic Language of Plants, Delaware Museum of Art, February-April 2012
Songs of the Earth, Branching Out, Studio Gallery, Washington, May-June 2011
Songs of the Earth, VisArts Center, Rockville, Maryland, April-May, 2011
Poster for Songs of the Earth at Studio Gallery, digital print, 19”X13”, 2010 with insert Sea Oats, oil on panel, 10”X8”, 2006
Sketchbook Project, Hillyer Art Space, Washington, April 2011
Songs of the Earth- Contemporary Views, Orchard Gallery, Bethesda, Maryland, June 2010
Songs of the Earth, Great and Small, Studio Gallery, Washington, January 2010
Nature Sings, Byrne Gallery, Middleburg, Virginia, 2009
Botanical Art at the Athenaeum, Alexandria, Virginia, 2008
Great American Trees, solo show, Bath BookWorks, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, 2007
Botanical Art & Illustration, U.S. Botanic Garden, 2006
Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 2006
Invitational Show, Studio Gallery, 2006
Solo Show, Corcoran Georgetown, 2003