Berkshire Botanical Garden

Making art out of the blue

Artist Joan Dix Blair captures 'plant shadows' with sunlight


When noses and toes turn blue from the cold, chase winter blues away with some blue-hued art at the Leonhardt Galleries in Berkshire Botanical Garden's Center House.

"Plant Shadows: Cyanotypes by Joan Dix Blair" is a creative departure for the Berkshire artist, a seasoned printmaker of 40 years.

For the past two years, the longtime Williamstown resident has experimented with exposing plant materials from her garden to natural sunlight on ultraviolet sensitive paper. The results are distinctive cyan-blue artworks known as cyanotypes, after the photographic printing process first used to replicate blueprints.

Ghostly white, same-size leaf silhouettes stand in sharp contrast to deep Prussian blue backgrounds. Degrees of shading add depth, stemming from translucency, how long materials remain on the paper, plant shapes and wind gusts during the 20-minute exposure.

Twenty-five years ago, Blair first came across an 1840s cyanotype image by English botanist Anna Atkins (sometimes credited as the first female photographer), who recorded seaweed plants using the then-innovative process and published books Blair describes as "breathtaking."

A quarter century later, after attending a cyanotype workshop, the modern day artist was ready to experiment. "It's such a wonderful available process," Blair noted. No darkroom is required and paper pretreated with the iron-based chemicals is easily purchased.

The weather was good in the fall of 2017, perfect for mining her garden for materials and waiting for windless days to make her exposures.

"I work in the sunshine out in my backyard," she said. "You put the plant life on the paper, expose it to light and then rinse it in plain water."

Sometimes she adds an extra chemical prior to rinsing to deepen the color, though she declined to identify which one.

Her work requires planning, however. "Once you take the paper out of the package, you've got to go, so you have to prepare in advance what you're going to use for imagery."

Working representationally is a departure for the usually abstract artist.

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"My work is always thematically informed by the landscape," Blair said. "This body of work has allowed me to be very explicit about my narrative intentions to make a portrait of my own garden. With abstraction that's not always clear."

Blair regards cyanotypes prints — technically photograms, not photographs — as works on paper, which is her preferred medium. But unlike her etchings and woodcuts, they are unique contact prints, "[with] no multiples, and I'm not used to that," she said.

She calls her images "captures," recording on the back the date and time of day they were created. Compared to using copper plates, it was a rare pleasure to work in a medium "where I could be spontaneous," she said.

And at the mercy of clouds and breezes. Just like a printmaker, a cyanotype artist has to be flexible and enjoy surprise, Blair said, noting "you have to welcome the accident."

Touring the exhibit, Blair identified plants such as snowberry, ivy, goldenrod and cedar. A spray of Queen Anne's Lace evoked 4th of July fireworks, white pine needles became streaks of light. In one three-part series, she progressively positioned household objects — flower can, glove, jug — on cut rice paper to suggest a table top.

The artworks, ranging from 5 inches to 5 feet in height, hang in three low-ceilinged rooms of the historic Center House, one of Stockbridge's oldest buildings.

Cyanotypes have a quiet quality, said Berkshire Botanical Executive Director Mike Beck, and the blue and white reminds him of Asian pottery. The monochromatic simplicity and familiar plant shapes, he suggested, add up to "a wonderful show this time of year, when things are bleak outside."

According to Beck, this is the eighth exhibit since the indoor gallery space opened a year ago, following a $2 million restoration and expansion of the 18th-century building. Before then, the garden only displayed outdoor artwork in annual sculpture shows on the grounds.

"That was the intention for the space," Beck said. "We consider this a community resource; there's so much art going on in our region. We want to provide a whole variety of different points of view."

Exhibits include representative and abstract art in diverse media with some connection to plants or the natural world, in group and solo shows by local and regional artists and Berkshire Botanical's art instructors. A recent landmark show featured lithographs by late world-renowned artist Ellsworth Kelly.

"We've seen [how] people respond to there constantly being new things going on here," Beck said, noting artists additionally relate to the interplay between the building's character and the art exhibited.


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