Botanical Watercolorist and Late Bloomer as Artist in Residence in the Woods

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Botanical Watercolorist and Late Bloomer as Artist in Residence in the Woods

By age three, Kathleen Garness was noticing plants.  While walking along a Chicago sidewalk with her mother, she noticed a little 5 petaled yellow flower growing between cracks in the sidewalk.  That little flower she now knows is Oxalis stricta, a native plant.

Her Chicago Neighborhood was in decline; most people had no plants or gardens, but affluent people had nice shade gardens.  She and her parents lived in a high rise building with no plants to enjoy.

That little yellow wild flower — surviving, “Now, it feels like a metaphor for my life,” she says.

“We always lived in an apartment.  Neither of my parents were interested in plants or gardening at all. My mother loved literature and opera, my father loved sailing.  But I was different.  And in that first apartment on my own, despite that my only window was from a window well over the garage area below the building, I had to have some plants for company, I guess.  And because they just seemed beautiful and intriguing to me!  (They didn’t do well there though – the fumes from the cars and the lack of sunlight made it hard for any of us to make it).”

“As a kid, I’d play with my friends for a while and then I’d go look at the plants in the alley to see what was in bloom.”

Another area of frustration as a child was with the inferior stuff they gave them to work with in art class at school.  Kathleen was frustrated in elementary school by a Sargent brand tempera paint where the colors did not mix as they should have.  “I knew what I wanted to be able to achieve but the materials weren’t there.”

A brief respite from the city came when she was three; her mother contracted TB and had to spend a year in a TB Sanatorium, where Chicago’s North Park Nature Center is now.  After that year, Kathleen and her mother moved in with an aunt and uncle outside Detroit.  Her aunt had a garden and taught her the common names of plants.  It was a beginning. 

Early Training

Her love of plants and art were strong and she had to learn to nurture them herself and find the training she needed.

I asked her how she got her skills in rendering incredibly accurate and beautiful drawings and watercolors of plants, in particular orchids, and if her early interest in art was supported.

“My dad was very proud of my artistic abilities and I’m sure he thought he was being encouraging to me, but he never sat down and showed me how to draw, even though that was something he did every day for a living.  My mom did embroidery as a hobby, painted on china in school, etc. but I don’t remember her doing much of that after coming down with tuberculosis when I was three. 

And my parents didn’t, say, send me for art lessons, or invest in materials (aside from what was required for my years of high school art class), or take me to art museums. 

I had to do that myself, as a young person and as an adult.  I think some of it was cultural sexism, and maybe a bit of pragmatism – that whole idea of ’the starving artist’ etc.  Studio artists had an undeserved reputation of being a bit either antisocial, irresponsible, or even morally disreputable, so women were not encouraged to enter that field.  (Not to say there weren’t a few irresponsibles who gave the others a bad name – but in my experience, most of the commercial and fine artists I knew and worked with were married, had stable jobs in art or another discipline, and lived a clean life). 

Women weren’t really a feature in the commercial art landscape at that time, either – most professions were still heavily dominated by men. 

You’d see women, maybe, in lower-paying jobs such as keyline/pasteup, as studio assistants, or as receptionists; but women were definitely in the minority in the art field.  And certainly seldom seen as lead illustrators or account executives, until maybe the early 1980s, when women who had worked their way up from the bottom during the 70s were starting to gain some recognition for their talents. 

In my day, women were expected to get married and have children, whether they were suited to it or not, or be nurses or caretakers for someone, such as the elderly. 

My mom suggested that if I wanted to go into art for a living, I should consider becoming a medical illustrator.  Drawing the insides of people didn’t really appeal to me at the time.  I didn’t realize there was a field called ‘Scientific Illustration’ that included medical illustration, but also plants, fossils, geology, animals, and so much more. I would have certainly pursued that diligently if I had known!

One of the finest alla prima painters I knew, Louisa Boshardy, was told by her instructor at the American Academy of Art that she was taking up valuable space in the classroom (as if to say she was usurping the place of a man), and that she’d just get married and have kids anyway, and not do anything with her art after art school, so why was she even there? 

But she and a few other talented women stuck it out.  She worked full time with her commercial and fine art, working when the kids were at school and after they went to bed, to help pay the bills. She also taught in the evenings when the opportunity presented itself.  (I was, for a time, one of her students at the Oak Park Art League, and have a small painting or two of hers.)

Another thing was that college was expensive, even back then.  My dad never went, didn’t see the use of it, unless you were going to be a doctor or teacher or engineer.  I would have to get a job and save my money to go to college, even if it meant staying at home a few more years. 

But I was 18, and I couldn’t wait to get out and be on my own, so I took a low-paying clerical job and found a studio apartment near public transit.  However, that barely paid for food and office clothes after my fixed expenses of rent, utilities, and carfare were covered.  

I learned to sew, made my own clothes, didn’t go out, lived very modestly, and bought a few art supplies with the money I saved.  When I was in my late 20s I found one-room walkup apartment on the near north side, and discovered Tree Studios and the Palette and Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. 

Classes there and at the American Academy of Art changed my life. Some of the classes weren’t that expensive at the time.  I lived very simply but bought good quality materials, which always are a better investment in the long run than cheap ones.  I quit my clerical job after being offered a good opportunity in a small commercial art firm, stayed there twelve years, saved for a house and car, had a family.  But the winds of change were blowing there too – everything was headed digitally, and three years after my son was born, I was laid off.  So I had to reinvent my life and livelihood again,

After my son was born I didn’t really have a lot of time (or money) for painting, but I did try to keep my skills sharp.  I read a lot, went to museums with him, drew things that I loved when I had time.   And when he was eleven, I discovered the scientific and botanical art program at Morton Arboretum and picked up the thread again.”


Another chance flower sighting changed the course of her artistic life.  “One day I walked into a store, Minim in Chicago, and saw my first moth orchid.” 

It was an unusual store with artistically arranged plants in a high-ceilinged, old store front.  She got a job there.  “It aided and abetted my love of plants,” she said.

Kathleen said that orchids are one of the most widely distributed plant families in the world, and certainly the most morphologically diverse.

The book, Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region by Fred Case opened her eyes to the fact that there are orchids that are native to Illinois.  This led her to meeting someone from the Audubon Society; they had a table at REI, and she asked how to learn more about Illinois orchids.  He introduced her to the idea of citizen science and monitoring orchids.  They do identification, census (counting the plants) and evaluate habitat.

Kathleen explained that if the work is through a scientist-designed study, it’s citizen science.

The volunteers note the GPS location of the plants.  They measure the area, count and flag the plants and the report is sent to Plants of Concern at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  She has been doing this for 15 years.

Such is her dedication to orchids, that she had to work her way up to orchids by starting with level two plants of a different plant family. This meant finding 100 tagged plants, visiting them three times a year, and collecting ten sets of data on each plant.

The Orchids of Illinois Project

“I decided I wanted to paint and draw all of the orchids of Illinois.”  She said this is a manageable goal, in contrast to, say, all the plants of Illinois.

First she has to find them, take pictures, do some sketches and color notes, and work fast, so that she does not betray the location of these rare plants or create undue impact on their habitat.

She also pre-makes color swatches, then circles the ones that are the closest to the colors of the plants she sees in real life.

She has been working on her Orchids of Illinois project for 15 years, and has painted about half of them.  The creative constraint is that she has to paint them from life. 

“Yes, I try to work from life whenever possible!  I use my own photos and color notes for reference, and occasionally, if someone I know has a better photo, I use theirs, with permission, and credit on the back of the piece.  If I can’t see a plant in its habitat, I’ll settle for studying it from a herbarium specimen, though.  There are details you will see in the real plant that may not be evident in a photo.  I work from a combination of field sketching and painting, photographs, and herbarium specimens.”

Her work is featured on the North American Orchid Conservation Center’s website; you can view an extensive portfolio there.

A highlight so far in the Orchids of Illinois project is that one of her orchid watercolor paintings was in a traveling Smithsonian show called Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World. 

“I illustrated the entire North American yellow ladyslipper complex: Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens and Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin. (There is also an intermediate form between these two that botanists can’t agree as to whether it’s a separate species from the former.)”

The show travelled to botanical gardens and museums including:

Missouri Botanic Garden, St. Louis, MO

Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL

New York Botanic Garden, NYC

National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution), Washington, D.C.

Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens, London, England

Artist in Residence in the Woods

It seems natural that when the Forest Preserves of Cook County (the county that includes the city of Chicago) wanted to invite its first artist in residence to stay at their new campgrounds, that they would reach out to Kathleen, with her history of stewardship work, as well as her art work.

She agreed to work with the Forest Preserve in developing a residency.  Her residency includes:

  • a solo exhibition of art at the Trailside Museum of Natural History in River Forest, IL.
  • a stay in a cabin at Camp Bullfrog Lake in Willow Springs, IL.
  • teaching a watercolor pencil workshop at Camp Bullfrog Lake.
  • creating a landscape painting based on her time there by the end of the residency, in October.
  • going to various spots in the forest preserves and painting and interacting with the public.

Her stay at the campground as part of this residency is her first vacation in 20 years.

Speaking of the watercolor pencil class at Camp Bullfrog Lake, her “goal is to send them home with some tools, some excitement, a better understanding of the artistic process.” 

She added, “I can contribute to the world, try to make a difference,” and teach people that they can make art when so many people have told them that they can’t.  “I want to do something to break through those barriers.”

She has previously taught ten drawing classes in the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Lake County, and Will County.  For those workshops, she brought fruits and vegetables for them to draw, including Forrelle pears.  “You can draw them wrong and still have a believable pear. And I loved how colorful they were!”

Inspiration and Closing Thoughts

“Maria Montessori talks about ‘The Inner Teacher.’  I really feel that if you keep an open mind, an open heart, and are willing to allow that Inner Teacher help you navigate through life, you will find yourself exactly where you are meant to be to reach your fullest potentials. 

But there are so many distractions and stumbling blocks. It’s important to look for the ‘Yes’ and listen for the ‘Nos’ in life and take a chance on yourself. But not be foolish, either. You have to eat, have people around you, pay the rent, take care of yourself. I was always a practical person. 

In every artist, there is something that they love, that pulls them forward with joy, through life. 

Find that thread in the maze. Hold onto it for dear life. Be patient with small steps forward, and never, ever, give in to despair about yourself or the world around you. What would the world be like without the arts?  It  may or may not be the work that pays the rent, but it should be the work that pulls you forward and gives you enough happiness to share with others.”

“If we don’t teach people to understand, value, and appreciate nature we’re going to lose it.  I think we need to raise a generation of kids who are as connected to nature as they are to the internet.”

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