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a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
December 9, 2013
Flowers have been a favorite subject of artists for centuries. Vincent van Gogh was captivated by vibrant sunflowers, Claude Monet by shimmering water lilies.
Penny Crawford finds similar beauty in the flowers many of us never notice—or worse, dismiss as weeds.
Crawford is a self-taught painter of wildflowers native to Mississippi and Louisiana. Working at her home in Diamondhead, she painstakingly renders in watercolor the blooms, berries and leaves of plants she regards as underappreciated.
“It’s discouraging to me when they mow the interstates. Just when I figure out there’s something good there, they mow it down,” Crawford said laughing.
Her life-long interests in native plants and art stem from her childhood in Lafayette, La. Her talented father drew landscapes and portraits. Her mother, a gardener and flower show judge, collected native irises in swamps with her two daughters in tow. “She eventually got over that but I never did,” Crawford said.
After moving in 1968 to Slidell with her husband, Norris “Ping” Crawford, she was excited to find unfamiliar species of plants inhabiting the woods around her home.
“The first thing I discovered in Slidell was a pitcher plant. I had never seen anything like that in my life, so I brought one home and stuck it in a little vase in the kitchen.”
(This led to her next discovery: The carnivorous pitcher plant emits an unpleasant odor when it has an insect in its belly.)
Crawford wanted a way to record her plant finds. Lacking camera skills, she turned to drawing. Then, inspired by Lucille Parker’s paintings in her book “Southern Wildflowers,” she tried her hand at watercolors—and liked the results.
Her “studio” is the kitchen table at the home she and her husband, members of Coast Electric Power Association, built in 2005. Daylight filters through a large west-facing window to illuminate her subjects, usually live stems freshly plucked from a roadside, vacant lot, woodland or river bank.
Crawford’s method of producing intricately detailed, botanically correct paintings begins with observation. She turns the plant material this way and that to find the best view before starting a pencil sketch on watercolor paper. “Staging and arranging it—that’s where my flower show experience comes in.”
Next, she inks the drawing with a fine-point permanent marker. Then, in a manner allowing the utmost control of the paint, she brushes on watercolors to individual stems, leaves, petals and berries.
“It’s kind of intense for me because I’m trying to get every single detail. But it’s relaxing too because it’s nature, and I’m looking at a beautiful plant.”
Hers is a “warts and all” approach—surprising for one who is a master flower show judge. Insect damage, faded color and weathering can add visual interest, Crawford believes. “I find all the defects even more entertaining than perfection.”
She enjoys painting hybrid roses, daylilies and camellias as well as the natives. “I draw basically anything that makes a leaf or a flower, especially if the leaf makes color,” she said.
Her framed portraits of family members and realistic ink drawings of historic homes fill her home. Most of her art work is similar to her botanical paintings in the level of precise detailing. But now and then she slaps acrylic paint around with a palette knife to create a less literal representation of the subject at hand.
Crawford exhibits and sells her work, but she has no plans to market her botanical paintings. “I can’t make myself sell the pictures because I might one day want to do a book.”
For now, she hopes the paintings will encourage others to notice and appreciate Mississippi’s vast wealth of native plants. And just maybe it will inspire others to start painting their own pictures of the natives in their neck of the woods.
“Mississippi is just covered with fabulous, fabulous native plants. It’s everywhere. You just have to open your eyes.”
Penny Crawford’s native plant paintings are being exhibited through May at the Kiln Public Library.
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