Bolinas residents, studying botanical art, show work in library

Judy Stemen
A colored-pencil illustration of a "sunburst" succulent is among the drawings on display at the Stinson Beach Library, where students of the Bolinas School of Botanical Art are exhibiting.   

The students at the Bolinas School of Botanical Art practice exactness in rendering the color, texture and form of natural objects. “I give a real foundation in technique,” said Bolinas resident Molly Brown, who started the school in 2014 with one student and now teaches 30 students four times a week in classes at the firehouse. “It’s not super creative—at first,” she went on. “It’s technique-oriented. We start with just graphite, learning how to make three-dimensional spheres and cylinders, and then work on translating them into natural forms. You draw a sphere, and then you draw an apple. You draw a cylinder, and then asparagus.” Ms. Brown’s students are displaying their work for the month of October at the Stinson Beach Library. The show features samples of three projects: abstracted plant parts in colored pencil, texture studies in graphite, and letters of the alphabet illustrated with natural forms. Ms. Brown’s students make use of some of the earliest drawing tools: for example, a divider, which is used for measuring and perspective. She takes inspiration from what is known about Sydney Parkinson—the Scottish botanical illustrator who traveled on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in 1768. Ms. Brown studied science illustration at the University of California, Santa Cruz and worked for the California Academy of Sciences in the ichthyology department, rendering catfish and eels, among other sea creatures. After she moved to West Marin in 1997, she worked as an administrator for the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department. (She no longer works for the department, but rents the facility for her school.) Ms. Brown says her classes have formed a kind of community, inside and outside the classroom. In their search for subjects, students travel around Bolinas, to the University of California, Berkeley’s botanical garden, and even as far afield as Mexico. “Students end up doing a variety of things once they master the basics,” she said. “Most are interested in very traditional, botanical compositions, but others are more into abstraction, such as blowing up the center of a flower, making it huge.” Many of her students take classes purely to master the craft, though Ms. Brown also encourages them to exhibit. Ms. Brown—who herself is finishing a credential with the Filoli Botanical Art Certificate Program—said she never thought the school would attract so many ongoing students. “There’s a spiritual aspect,” she explained. “Just working with natural forms, being quiet, really observing closely how a plant is structured, is relaxing. Students say that now they go for walks and they see a lot more in the plants around them. They notice details.”