Botanical artist Sherry Mitchell shows some her extremely realistic paintings, now being exhibited at The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply. Mitchell also has two pieces in a national botanical art show taking place in Ottawa, which runs in parallel with 24 other shows taking place across the planet. — Adam Kveton Photo

Local plant artist featured in national exhibit and in Qualicum Beach

Sherry Mitchell showing in Ottawa and at The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply

Qualicum Beach botanical artist Sherry Mitchell is featured among some of Canada’s foremost realistic plant painters and drawers in a national exhibit taking place in Ottawa from May 10 to Oct. 14.

But for those who can’t make it to that exhibit, her work is on display at a much closer location: The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply.

Mitchell is a watercolour painter with no formal art education, but with decades of experience painting extremely realistic works of mostly native plants of Vancouver Island.

Her family’s enthusiasm for gardening and the outdoors, as well as its deep roots in the Qualicum Beach community, informs some of that focus.

“We’re a plant family,” said Mitchell, and an old family in the area, with Jones Street in Qualicum Beach named after Mitchell’s great-grandparents, she added.

“My grandparents always had a big garden. Grandpa sold sweet peas to all the local hotels at the time.”

Time spent in her own parents’ garden and camping are two possible origins for her plant passion.

“I’ve always just loved plants, I don’t know. Just growing up around them I guess.”

A big focus of her work is on native species of plants. “It’s things… that people don’t see,” she said. “Especially native plants because they’re generally not as showy as the cultivated ones, and so you miss them unless you’re really looking for them.”

One way Mitchell features those less obvious plants is to paint just one example of a plant with nothing surrounding it, and on a white background — the typical botanical art style that harkens back to illustrations made by or for scientists during Charles Darwin’s time and earlier.

While faithfully recreating what she sees is Mitchell’s goal, she’s not creating illustrations, but artwork. She said more and more people are seeing this kind of work through an artistic lens rather than in the context of a scientific illustration.

Though she takes photos as part of her process, her artwork itself does things that a photograph cannot, she said, and some people recognize that while others don’t.

In creating a piece, Mitchell looks for strong lighting that helps to give her final piece a more three-dimensional look. In terms of composition, much of that is intuitive, she said, with some pieces showing what she saw in one photograph, and others that are representations of several photographs.

Other than that, she said, she can’t put her finger on what it is about photo-realistic paintings that goes beyond the photos themselves, other than to say it’s there.

“There’s always been criticism about photo-realism — ‘Why didn’t you just take the photo?’ she said. “But more people look at them (the paintings) and say, ‘Well that’s way more than what a photograph can be,’ which is nice.”

There’s no question that creating such exacting work is a time-consuming and, at times, overwhelming process, said Mitchell.

Some of her pieces can take 80 hours to finish, and there’s always a point at which the task seems to big, and Mitchell feels like stopping. But after a certain point, it all comes together.

The inclusion of two of Mitchell’s pieces in the national Art of the Plant exhibition in Ottawa is perhaps a testament to her having pushed through that feeling over and over again.

Art of the Plant is the Canadian contribution to a worldwide botanical art exhibition, with concurrent shows taking place in 24 countries.

Whether in Ottawa or at The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply, she said she hopes her work sparks a greater appreciation in flora. The ability to do that is perhaps one way her paintings go above and beyond a photo.

A flower or fern or tree grows from a seed, with all its complexity sprouting and growing from that point onward, and a photo can certainly capture that.

But for Mitchell to recreate what she sees in nature so faithfully, she has to physically paint every petal, every vein, and every tendril. In an hour and a half, Mitchell may only have completed a single leaf. That kind of dedication can certainly draw the eye.

“Some people really do get that part of it,” said Mitchell. “And some don’t. They just look at it, and they either like it or they don’t. And that’s fine.”

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