By Jess Shepherd | January 11, 2017
Image by Jess Shepherd
by Jess Shepherd
January 11, 2017

Jess Shepherd is a botanist and artist specifically trained in plant taxonomy. She uses her scientific training when illustrating plants. In her work she develops new approaches to enrich our current perceptions of botanical illustration, its applications and how it sits within the larger scope of the visual arts. You can see her work here: www.inkyleaves.com.

Without fail, the garden has always played a significant role in every stage of my life which is most likely why I still find that my need for a garden always outweighs my need for a comfortable house. If I have a piece of land in which to grow things I find I can keep my head above the turbulent waters of existence. As an artist I am constantly inspired by the garden. In 2014 I swapped my tiny London yard for a large garden in Granada, Spain. I went from growing vegetables to growing trees. The Spanish garden is an unusual space in that it comes with a natural well, which means it is one of a few places in the province that has a lawn. This is indeed a luxury in the baking climate of Andalucía.

The house is owned by a Spanish lady who is very proud of her collection of trees. She is particularly fond of her enormous horse chestnut tree. It certainly is remarkable in its size and unlike the horse chestnuts of England, it doesn’t succumb to the troublesome Cameraria ohridella, so it has a luxuriant canopy all the way into December, until the nights do finally get too cold for it and I end up straining my back after filling dozens of buckets with leaves. As a British citizen, I find my landlady’s pride in her conker tree a little odd, but then again, it is the only conker tree I have seen in the area, so I guess it is somewhat of a rarity for her.

Over the last two years I have been studying a Catalpa tree that grows adjacent to the giant conker. I am drawn to its huge leaves which are already beginning to fall off, drying like poppadoms in the blazing sun. Being so hot, the leaves quickly become mummified, keeping their colour like a pressed specimen. This quality makes them perfect subject material in which to paint from. I have painted seven paintings in total from this tree, more than any other; every single one is different in its colouration and form. Over the time I spent painting the leaves in my garden and the countryside around it, I have built a sizeable collection of 34 leaves in watercolour which will be displayed for nine days in an exhibition that opens on the 16th February 2017 at Abbott and Holder in London.  Every leaf is painted accurately in watercolour and many of the leaves are larger than life size, some are as big as 1m x 1.25m, which I believe is something that is rarely done in botanical painting.

Alongside the exhibition I have recorded the environmental sounds taken from the places where each leaf was found for a composition on CD. As a continuous soundtrack, these sounds chart a journey from my old garden in the East End of London, through the avenues of Hyde Park and Kew Gardens into the deep rural countryside of Granada in Spain where I now live. It is inevitably disorientating yet strangely familiar. The idea behind this is to add a new dimension to botanical art; to communicate the importance of plants and our environment more poignantly in our modern day. It is my way of trying to catapult botanical art into the 21st Century whilst also looking at topics close to my heart such as how we need to look closer at (and listen to) the natural beauty around us.

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