Wildflowers are rarely associated with danger.
“Rarely” and “Never” are two different terms, however, and for watercolor painter Jean Ann Mitchell, capturing the area’s native flora has not been without adventure.
“I’ve been stalked by elk in the fall, (inadvertently) clocked a bear running 35 miles an hour, glimpsed a cougar from inside a rig, experienced snakes under foot, and once a bird landed — briefly — on my clipboard,” the Milton-Freewater resident says. Over 13 summers in which Mitchell worked with the U.S. Forest Service, on projects largely involving plant identification and use of native plants in restoration, she has traveled, generally by foot, to isolated places.
“There was a LOT of hiking involved,” she remembers.”This was seldom on roads, and almost never on paths, but almost always cross country, reading maps and relying on compass orientation, aerial photos, and relocation directions — across dry open scab, through forested areas, mountain meadows, riparian areas, and sometimes through yew, alder or ceanothus thickets.”
Mitchell, who holds a university degree in art history and served three years with a mission in Nigeria, did not start out adult life with an expertise in Pacific Northwest flora and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants other than grass). But after “marrying into the Forest Service” and moving to the area, she became fascinated by the rich diversity of native plants. When her husband presented her with the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, she voraciously devoured every page, then embarked upon a self-directed study that included plant and botany courses at both Blue Mountain and Walla Walla Community Colleges. Concurrently, she worked for the Forest Service Native Plant Seed Program, identifying grasses; leading crews; teaching identification skills and gathering techniques; and learning to carefully catalog.
While she considers herself retired now from the Forest Service aspect of her work career, Mitchell continues to hike, research, study, gather wildflowers (“I never take a plant out of the ground unless there are more than 20 others in the immediate area”) or get down on the ground to draw, in situ, an endangered plant, resulting in a collection of wildflower paintings that encompass more than 100 different species, and counting.
“Keen observation of the living plant is not something you can fake,” Mitchell says, adding that Ziploc bags, and refrigeration, are two friends that allow her to collect specimens (NOT endangered ones) and save them for later, although not too much later, for drawing.
“To draw a plant looking fresh — and you do want to have the buds, petals, and leaves oriented as though growing — it has to be done immediately, within a day or so,” Mitchell explains. Because the family refrigerator is the best place for temporary storage, it’s important to clarify what is, and isn’t, suitable for meal preparation.
“While my family has grown used to being cautious with any Ziplocs in the refrigerator, I always live in fear with guests,” Mitchell says.
As Mitchell grew in knowledge of native plants, as well as the artistic ability to render them, the student segued into instructor, and she has taught native plant botanicals for public school science classes, Walla Walla Community College, the Blue Mountain Land trust, specialty camps, and the Daniel Smith art supply center in Seattle. Working with the Native Plant Society of Oregon, she produced a number of drawings which were published in the Trailside Guide of Wildflowers in the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla.
Note card sets of her work “have been a great hostess gift while traveling,” with the result that Mitchell’s art finds itself in Germany, Finland, Poland, Jordan, Brazil, South Korea, and more. Closer to home, Mitchell’s cards are available at the Fort Walla Walla gift shop, the Arts Portal Gallery in Milton-Freewater, and Wenaha Gallery in Dayton.
There’s something about botanical art that draws people closer, “like a bee to honey, or a . . . flower,” Mitchell observes.
“Native plants are breathtaking, the way they are truly, divinely put together, pigmented, orchestrated to carry out their life cycle and play their part in the ecosystem.
“‘Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.'”
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.
Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists. Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.