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.”
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.
“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.