Using nature to make an impression, artist offers ‘invitation’ to historical figures who impress her

 Laura Bethmann's 'Packing Seed Boxes With John Bartram' Nature Print Painting 2017 (Provided)

Laura Bethmann's 'Packing Seed Boxes With John Bartram' Nature Print Painting 2017 (Provided)

Which person from history would you like to share a meal and good conversation with?

That question sets Laura Bethmann to daydreaming. The Ocean County, New Jersey, resident portrays those ideas in a series of watercolor paintings called “Invitation.” Each work portrays facets from the life of an historical figure, such as 18th-century botanist John Bartram.

“Each one has something to dine on, a meal or tea and cookies,” she explained. “It’s an artistic version of an invitation, so it’s not meant to be completely historic. In John Bartram’s, I’m inviting him to let me help pack some of his seed boxes that he shipped to England. I also included a letter he actually wrote to his daughter.”

Bethmann has developed a mixed media style, starting with watercolor and adding ink highlights and nature printing  — a process where paint or ink is applied to leaves, flowers or other botanical materials, then pressed onto paper — to the work.

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She began including nature printing in her work purely by chance, while painting by a river in South Jersey.

“The water there is very murky and dark and full of iron oxides,” she said. “There were all these deposits on the leaves that were on the shore. It looked like pigment on there, and, basically, it is. I pressed it to my paper, which was slightly damp. It made an impression and I was hooked. I just love that you can use the actual plants to create images of them.”

Bethmann’s paintings are lush with details.

“I want them all to be very colorful and interesting to look at. For all of them, I use a background of sky, so they’re sort of floating,” she said. “It gives it a dreamlike quality.”

Librarian Janet Evans, who curated the show, thinks Bethmann’s style is a natural for botanical themes. “Both art and gardening are about looking very closely,” she said. “The closer you look, the more you see. And it’s the same with the plant world as well.”

You can look closely at Laura Bethmann’s “Invitation” series of paintings at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, through Aug. 18. The artist is donating a portion of sales to PHS’s gallery.

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