Historical roots: Artists bloom at the Jefferson Library

Lara Gastinger, "Aselepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed/Pleurisy Root)."
Lara Gastinger, "Aselepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed/Pleurisy Root)."
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Quick, name a woman who contributed to Lewis and Clark’s “Voyage of Discovery.” Did you say Sacagawea? Surprise, she was not the only one. Had Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks not taught her son, Meriwether Lewis, how to treat wounds and sickness with herbs and roots, the entire expedition might have gone septic. Illustrator Christine Andreae discovered this fact while doing research for the 2006 Corcoran exhibition, “Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark.”

Intrigued, Andreae wanted to learn more about the twice-married Marks’ career as an herbal doctor, or “yarb,” in late 18th century Virginia. Andreae invited nine other botanical artists to join her in exploring Marks’ life and the plants she likely used in her practice. The results of this two-year undertaking are currently on view at the Jefferson Library in the exhibit, “Lucy Merwiether Lewis Marks: Virginia Planter and Doctoress, 1752-1837.”

Beginning with a portrait of Marks, as imagined by painter Janet Brome, and a quilt created by Vicki Malone, the show comprises 24 botanical illustrations of herbs, flowers, and roots regularly prescribed in Jefferson-era Virginia. An accompanying brochure describes the medicinal worth of each plant.

Beyond the historical value of the exhibition, the variations in representational style reveal how each artist infuses individual flair into scientific studies. Most of the illustrations conform to a standard in which secondary views and/or detailed close-ups in graphite supplement a central color image, usually rendered in watercolor. But within these formal parameters, certain artists excel.

Lara Gastinger’s ButterflyWeed, for instance, features a graphite drawing on the left depicting a shoot of seedpods crawling with bugs. One pod releases feathery seeds that blow across the page behind the central image of an orange-blossomed sprig. In addition, Gastinger includes a small representation of a root ball, deftly using the negative space of the page to represent the roots themselves.

Another standout is Christine Andreae’s Black Cohosh. Here a graphite drawing of the above-ground foliage serves as a backdrop for the plant’s mauve, russet, and gold medicinal root, which appears almost heart-like at the center of the image.

Two of the most striking pieces are by Vicki Malone, who opts for a black rather than white background. Her illustration of a Mayapple, with brown tendril-laden roots curling beneath red-veined green leaves, is particularly compelling.

A content-rich website supports the library display, offering biographical information about Marks, a discussion of historical medical practices, and insights about the images from the individual artists.

The exhibition, “Lucy Merwiether Lewis Marks: Virginia Planter and Doctoress, 1752-1837” is on view through November 12 at the Jefferson Library. A website with information that enriches the library display is located at http://www.monticello.org/library/exhibits/lucymarks/. 1329 Kenwood Farm. Rte. 53, 1/3 mile beyond the entrance to Monticello. 984-7540.

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