Dr M has always been particularly fond of art, and although convention wisdom tends to pigeon-hole art and science as separate disciplines Dr M feels that, on the contrary, there is a very natural connection between them, perhaps most obviously seen in the art of botanical illustration, but also much more widely as demonstrated in the recent Symbiosis project.
And so Dr M is delighted to continue his series of botanical “selfies” with botanical illustration and a young botanical illustrator very much to the fore…
I AM… Jessica Rosemary Shepherd, otherwise known as ‘Inky Leaves’ and am currently working as an ethnobotanical artist, botanist and curator. My main interests are in relation to the interpretation of botanical science and how it is presented to audiences. I am fascinated by scientific illustration and the ways in which collections, props and places are used to generate dialogues. In my studio I work on a wide range of commissions that actually go beyond ethnobotanical art, including scientific diagrams and illustrations for all types of flora, but my main interest is to depict economically important plants in a creative way.
I GOT INTO BOTANY… through my father who is a keen gardener. His passion for plants was passed onto me when I was young. I was first attracted towards plants from an aesthetic angle in the form of gardening, horticulture and design. Then later I wanted to know more about their physiology and taxonomy. I have always enjoyed being outside with nature and feel very strongly about our need to protect our habitats through good land management practice and appreciation.
Becoming an ethnobotanical artist was a conscience decision that I made in 2012. I basically wanted to find a system that would improve our relationship to plants. I wanted to make plants fashionable and interesting and I felt that the only way to do that effectively was to highlight their presence in our cultures and consequently make them part of the ‘self’. Out of our entire economic flora, food plants are the best way of doing this – everyone loves to eat and everyone needs to eat. Eating can be an incredibly social activity in some cultures.
Furthermore, in the UK, emphasis on food and the diet has become trendy and it is a popular topic for discussion. People are turning away from processed foods and looking at the bare essentials. I am trying to connect with this new wave of cultural thought and deepen the ideas so that we fully understand the importance of plants in maintaining our health and well-being through my art.
I STUDIED BOTANY… at the University of Plymouth between 2003 and 2006. This course gave me my first taste of tropical field work and biochemistry and deepened my fascination with the plant kingdom. After the course finished I went on to study for an MSc in Plant Taxonomy at the University of Edinburgh. This course was invaluable in that it provided me with an understanding of nomenclature, how to prepare and use descriptions and keys and developed my skills in fieldwork so that I could identify plants more effectively in the field. These skills are invaluable for my illustration work as they give my studies structure and form. I have been painting plants since I was a child and in 2009 I decided to take my painting more seriously. I was accepted to study for a diploma in Botanical Illustration with the Society of Botanical Artists. This part of my career was essential; it improved my observation and technical skills.
I HAVE WORKED WITH PLANTS… nearly all my life, but in a more professional capacity for the last 8 years (since graduation). I will never forget when I was at Primary School and was made ‘garden monitor’, which meant it was my responsibility to look after the allotments, rose boarders and indoor plants (there were a lot of spider plants). At the time I was overjoyed with my new title and embraced my extra responsibilities whole heartedly. I am still in awe of my teachers who must have responded to what they saw as an early sign of enthusiasm in the classroom. How encouraging of them to have created such a role. Since then I have worked in garden nurseries, laboratories, museums, universities and more recently at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
MY RESEARCH/INTEREST AREA… I am currently working on a personal diary project illustrating every single plant I have used over a twelve month period; from food and cosmetics to textiles and pharmaceuticals. In this study, every species will be represented accurately in accordance with traditional botanical illustration and drawn to scale. I hope that the final piece will detail the journey that each product and substance has made, from the soil and the harvesting, refining and manufacturing processes to their subsequent distribution, highlighting the global impact of what we consume. This project is completely original in its effort to underline the connections between the mechanical and natural worlds and I hope will successfully challenge current perceptions of botanical art.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR BOTANY TODAY… it is generally accepted that the way we are living our lives today has caused many habitats across the globe to become critically endangered. Trying to find a solution to this overwhelming reality is a massive cultural challenge and I believe that the issue needs to enter our social fabric and become part of the entire global population before it can be fixed. Through creativity and artistic thinking it is possible to cultivate a visual language that can be transmitted on a human scale without barriers. In my work I am building on this idea by producing botanical illustrations that are more personal; delivering intimate experiences to audiences so that they can reflect on their circumstance and environment. By integrating the ego into a scientific illustration, I hope to rejuvenate our connection to plants on a collective scale.
MY FAVOURITE PLANT TO EAT/USE… My favourite plant to drink is probably Camellia sinensis – I drink a LOT of tea and I don’t think I could get through a day without it. To eat I especially like coriander, legumes and nuts, this includes liquorice which is my favourite sugary thing. Aesthetically my favourite trees are Delonix regia, Ginkgo biloba and Robinia sp. Ethnobotanically my favourite tree is Juglans regia. I like to grow ferns, mosses and paeonies in the garden, and beans because their ability to grow so fast never fails to impress me every summer.
I am not a massive fruitivore, but if I had to choose my favourite it would have to be the Cantaloupe melon. I don’t like eating bananas, but as plants they look awesome in the garden. As you can see this is a very tricky question for me to answer because I love all plants! I feel that really it is the combination of plants that is what can make them look, taste or smell amazing. Mixed planting schemes and ecosystems can be breathtakingly beautiful.
MY BOTANICAL SUPERHEROINE… would have to be botanical artist Margaret Mee. Between 1956 and 1988, she embarked on several expeditions to the Amazon Rainforest where she produced paintings that became powerful symbols for plant conservation. Having committed her artistic talent to the benefit of botany she successfully captured the attention of the wider public through these paintings that captured her personal response to the rainforests. She risked her life many times in order to fulfil her calling and never failed to put on her makeup in the jungle – something which I find to be pretty admirable.
MY WEB PRESENCE… I believe that one needs to make their work as accessible as possible so that people can see it, interact with it and form an opinion on it. I do this by putting examples of my work online and in exhibitions. On my blog I like to show people how I created the painting so that people feel they are on a journey with the piece. I think this gives work more depth. So yes, you can find me:
Featured image at the top of the post: Jessica painting in Sideman, Bali in 2012.