Retired professionals find second careers as botanical illustrators 

  • Courtesy Shanelle Deater

After 25 years in law, Kathy Cranmer retired and settled into an idyllic pursuit: painting flowers. That's what she's been doing full-time for the last 15 years. One of her paintings, Nuttallia rhizomata, is part of the RARE: Imperiled Plants of Colorado touring exhibit, currently at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center.

If Nuttallia rhizomata sounds a little less retiree art and a little more textbook, well, that's appropriate. Cranmer is a certified botanical illustrator, as well as the former Vice President of the Rocky Mountain Society of Botanical Artists (RMSBA). Her flower portraits are also scientifically accurate diagrams of her subjects. And her painting is less a retiree's hobby than a second career.

"I've always painted," she says. She started in high school and took courses in college, but she stuck with law as a career, citing money as a motivator. Still, she kept painting through her time as the Assistant Director for the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. After retiring, she decided to paint full-time. She developed an early interest in gardening, growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, and she often painted her own flowers when she first had children. Going back to flower painting seemed reasonable.

"I decided if I was going to paint flowers, I ought to learn a little bit more about how to do it," she said. "That's when I decided to start taking classes for the botanical illustration certification through the [Denver] Botanic Gardens."

The Botanic Gardens' program was the world's first dedicated botanical illustration program when it was formed in 1979, according to Dr. Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski.

"Even though we don't have the oldest certificate in the country ... [other] classes and programs are much younger than ours," she says. Hjelmroos-Koski, who has been the program's coordinator since 2007, says that most if not all of the RMSBA members got their certificates through the Botanic Gardens. The program takes around two years and requires 15 classes on botany and illustration, plus electives. RMSBA president Vanessa Martin, also certified by the program, calls it an intense course load, with at least the demand of an associate degree. A former VP of Commercial Real Estate with Wells Fargo, she retired in 2010 and received her certificate two years later.

  • Courtesy Kathy Cranmer

When Hjelmroos-Koski first took over the program, students like Cranmer and Martin were typical — retired professionals, often with technical backgrounds, who had given up art for financial stability. But younger and younger students are coming in — some as young as middle school.

"There are many people who come to us directly from art school," she says, "or they come to us before higher education to get their portfolio ready." That said, the average age she sees is still around 40 to 45, so the kids haven't taken over entirely. And though some of her students are from arts backgrounds, she also gets people with more technical backgrounds, like architects, engineers and biologists. "We get students from everywhere." And though a scientific or technical background helps, Hjelmroos-Koski says it's not necessary. Being a skilled botanical illustrator relies more on the eye and the technique.

"You need to develop your eye to see, and then you can execute what you are seeing," she says.

Cranmer can speak to that — though she was always a realistic painter, botanical illustration takes it to another level.

"Learning to ... see all those distinctions, learning the names of the plant parts and understanding what someone who's looking at a true scientific illustration needs to see, I think, was more of the challenge than actually learning how to paint with that degree of control," she says. Martin might agree.

"The thing that we pride ourselves in is being able to merge art and science together," Martin says. "Over time, you learn the basics [of botany], but basically, we research our plants, and then we get down and we draw them, and we make sure they're scientifically accurate."

When the Indy called to talk about her art, Martin was working on a future exhibit on cannabis plants, sketching hemp at a greenhouse in Longmont. So far, she's called it a good challenge.

"Everybody sees those five leaflets ... [but] it's a lot more complicated," she says. "The flower part of it is very complicated." She and the artists she's working with are debating growing their own in the studio to observe, dissect and better understand the plant's structure. The exhibition, to be titled Cannabis: Respect the Plant, will cover everything from industrial hemp to medical and recreational plants. She hopes to have it ready by 2017.

"We wanted people to take it seriously," she says. "We're a bunch of little old ladies who draw, and we want to respect the plant. We live in Colorado, and we want to learn about it."


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