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Staid and stuffy? Hardly

Botanical illustrator Lisa Pompelli compels us to look closely at the thin green line between science and art.

April 06, 2006|Ariel Swartley | Special to The Times

PAINTING flowers, that favorite pastime of Victorian women, sounds like a sedate occupation. Lisa Pompelli, a botanical illustrator for the Huntington Botanical Gardens since 1977, disagrees.

"Before the camera," she says, "there were all those voyages of discovery to Africa and Asia, bringing back exotic plants. Sometimes the illustrator was on the boat. It was dark, they were trying to paint these flowers that were rotting, there were flies."

Pompelli, 51, leans against a desk in her home studio, a converted garage in West L.A. The decor is white and workmanlike -- no flies -- but there are flashes of foreign color. A bulbous South African blood lily, Scadoxus multiflorus, droops menacingly over the drawing table. A striped dress hangs in one corner, souvenir of a trip last summer trip to Turkmenistan, where her great grandfather, an archeologist, began an excavation a century ago. Pompelli's painting of bok choy, the humble vegetable rendered surprisingly formal, brightens a wall.

"It's wonderful to capture just one moment," she says, indicating the watercolor, part of a magazine series on Chinese vegetables. So much pale green symmetry would tempt the fussiest chef, but from a botanical perspective, Pompelli notes, "it's not really an accurate picture." The bug-bitten outer leaves were stripped away before the bok choy was brought to market.

Botanical illustration lies midway between art and science, as anyone who has admired a Pierre-Joseph Redoute engraving will attest. The 18th century Frenchman took his many-petaled subjects from Empress Josephine's rose garden and combined the detailed accuracy of a species handbook with a poignant evocation of fleeting beauty.

Contemporary practitioners also strive for a balance between interpretation and exactitude. One of the best known is British artist Pandora Sellars, who weaves the seeds, leaves and blossoms into a densely patterned close-up. At once stagy and slightly menacing, her portrait of an arum lily emphasizes the plant's dramatic form as well as the dank conditions in which it likes to grow.

Pompelli's taste leans to more naturalistic artists. Her favorites include A.R. Valentien (1862-1925), who painted 1,500 species of California wildflowers, and Margaret Mee, author of books and folios on Brazilian flora, who died in 1988.

"She was a tiny little thing, and she went up into the Amazon about 14 times, in a canoe," Pompelli says. The paintings that Mee made have a distinctive, earthy style. Ground and sky are often visible. "I get a sense that she was actually in the environment with her botanicals," Pompelli says. "They're decaying. They're not perfect specimens."

Some of the earliest examples of botanical art are the medieval herbals that describe plants' medicinal uses. "A lot of the time they drew the plants upside down because they were more interested in the roots," Pompelli says.

Like the herbalists, later botanical illustrators often portray plants as isolated specimens. When the subject floats against a plain white background, a viewer's attention can be more easily directed to small, identifying details. Do pairs of leaves sit opposite each other on the stem? Does a flower darken as it ages?

Learning to recognize those aspects is part of the illustrator's job. Cactuses, which Pompelli frequently draws at the Huntington gardens in San Marino, are particularly challenging.

"Their spines look like they're sticking out, but there's a very specific organization," she says. "It took me a long time to understand what the pattern was."

Such time isn't always available. While she was working on a University of California-commissioned poster that illustrated the world's Mediterranean climate zones, large plastic FedEx boxes would arrive at her door regularly. They contained wildflowers -- chosen by the project's plant ecologist, picked at the peak of their bloom and overnighted from as far away as South Africa. Pompelli would then hurry to capture their salient features in watercolor. That rush is one of the major challenges botanical illustrators face, she says with a smile. "The models can die on you."

In classes she teaches at the Huntington, students often want to fix a subject with a photograph, but it's a temptation she urges them to resist.

"You just end up copying the photograph instead of really looking at the plant," she says. "And of course the colors are never quite right."

Pompelli grew up in Pacific Palisades in a house with an old rambling garden, where she liked to wander, sketchbook in hand. She began her career as a teenager when a family friend -- an orchid collector -- asked her to paint the denizens of his three large greenhouses. Later, after attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, she worked for Myron Kimnach, then curator of the Huntington gardens and a noted succulent expert. Meanwhile, she married and was busy raising a family.

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