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Portrait of a Meadow

Anne Ophelia Dowden draws upon 'the most beautiful, intricate network'

September 24, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask botanists why they draw plants instead of photographing them and they'll tell you that you can't understand how a plant works until you draw it. Form follows function.

Ask science publishers why they so often prefer illustrations to photographs and they'll say the artist can subtly emphasize traits that are critical to identifying a plant.

Ask 95-year-old painter Anne Ophelia Dowden why she dedicated her career to botanical illustration and she'll reply that it was to show people how nature works. "The world is the most beautiful, intricate network," she explains in a phone interview from her home in Colorado. "My job was to portray part of that network."

Between 1950 and 1990, Dowden wrote, designed and illustrated 11 books and was brought in to illustrate nine more. Each was dedicated to drawing our eyes to everyday wonders: wild greens in the city, poisonous plants in our paths and, her favorite, the timeless rituals of pollination. In all, a meadow's worth of flowers fell from her brush--not in some country studio but in a two-room apartment in New York City.

Dowden's work is now the subject of an exhibition at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But don't go to it, or seek out the catalog or her books, expecting the work of an Audubon or Mark Catesby. This naturalist's work is part chintz curtain, part educational illustration and part Gray's Anatomy.

She was born Anne Ophelia Todd in Denver in 1907 and raised in Boulder. Her childhood passion was roaming the Front Range. English neighbors, biologists who taught at the local high school and university, became her earliest tutors.

"Every time my sister or I would find a bug or a flower, we'd run down and pound on their door to find out what it was," Dowden recalls. She began painting these bugs and flowers.

By 16, she was producing medical drawings for her father, a pathologist at the University of Colorado. By 20 she was studying art at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University) and by 23 she had assumed the first of two jobs teaching art, at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her second teaching job was at Manhattanville College, then in uptown Manhattan, now in Purchase, N.Y.

Soon after her move to New York, a fellow Carnegie art student, Raymond Dowden, followed and the two married. He joined the staff of Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture in 1936, eventually becoming head of the art department.

"He was a very good painter himself. I used to scold him for devoting so much of his time to his students," she says. But she, too, enjoyed teaching: "Pedagogy suited me," she recalls. Meanwhile, she was intent on remaining a working artist. She took courses at the Art Students League and joined a group that in 1933 did a mural for the Chicago World's Fair. An amused Dowden recalls that they "somewhat grandiloquently" called themselves "the American Design Group" and, "with no experience, started designing wallpapers and drapery fabrics."

"I did an awful lot of chintzes and things like that," she says. "For that, the research material was all floral. Botany had always been my hobby. I began drawing more and more flowers." In 1952, this led to a job for Life magazine illustrating edible wild plants, milkweed sprouts and the like. Soon Natural History and Audubon magazines were also publishing her drawings.

She gave up teaching, turned full time botanical drawing and sought out scientists to ensure that her work was accurate down to every last stamen and pistil. On one project, drawing Western flowers like flax and columbine in New York, using only dried specimens and photographs, had her in agony.

"I hope I didn't pull any botanical boners," she confessed in a letter to a scientist advising her on the project. In New York, she sought out Peter Nelson, then a botanist at Brooklyn College, for advice. He remembers her as shy but determined and absolutely unflappable. "She wasn't in the least bothered if I said, 'It doesn't go that way; it goes this,' " he says.

Her exactitude involved what Dowden jokingly dubbed "the world's slowest working method." During summer holidays, she would make exhaustive field sketches of flowers. Back in New York, where she and her husband lived on the edge of Greenwich Village, she would depend on specimens sent to her in the mail or donated by botanic gardens. "What I liked best was to get the specimens, bring them home in bags, put them in the bathtub and paint them like mad before they all died," she says.

Where did she and her husband bathe? "We took sponge baths."

"I get the impression that her husband was very patient," says Nelson.

The magazine illustrations led to a long association with Thomas Crowell publishers (later HarperCollins), where she was promptly shown to the children's department. "They were the only ones that did illustrated books," explains Dowden.

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