Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 13, 2012

Botanical curiosity

Local artist inspired by horticultural oddities and antiques

by Maytal Mark

Pria Graves likes antiques. Not just stoves and houses — her home dates back to 1904 — but antique plants, too. In her prolific Palo Alto garden, there are several species of plants dating back to the 1700s and the Middle Ages.

"I've been around unusual plants always," Graves says. "My mother was a keen gardener when I was a kid and she was always looking for unusual things, so I probably got it from her."

Bursting with greenery, the garden includes more than 20 types of dahlias; vegetables from snow peas to potatoes; and several trees providing shade over small walkways.

Graves has been studying and practicing botanical art since the '90s. Known for its detailed depictions of flowers and plants, botanical art will be featured as one of the genres in Gamble Garden's "Art in the Garden" exhibition on July 20 and 21. On the 21st, Graves and other local artists will paint in real time for visitors and sell their work to benefit the garden.

The event is in its second year of showing and selling paints and pastels. Botanical art is new this year, in part because the new garden co-president, Judy Paris, is a botanical artist and has connections with the community, event organizer Shirley Finfrock said.

Graves says she's excited to participate. For the paint-out, she plans to bring a small painting of a dahlia with petals already started. "If it gets screwed up it won't be a huge loss."

This makes sense, as the detail required for Graves' paintings means they often take several weeks or months to complete. This can explain her unusual subject choices.

"If you're going to spend a month staring at a piece of paper with a painting on it, you want to be inspired by it," she says. "I've always been a plantaholic, but I started collecting weird stuff because of being a botanical artist." Graves' time in Australia also inspired her love of odd plants.

"Traveling in Australia as a child and seeing things that just couldn't be grown here — and there's a lot of weird plants in Australia — that gave me a taste for it."

In preparation for an upcoming New York exhibition titled "Weird, Wild and Wonderful," Graves has grown several oddball plants. The first is strawberry spinach, used by monks in the Middle Ages as a food source. "It has spinach-like leaves, but it grows these berry-like structures on the stock," Graves says. "It's very bizarre."

Another interesting specimen is the caterpillar plant, with curly, hairy seed pods that resemble the namesake insect. "People used to put them in salads in the 1700s to freak people out," Graves says. "They thought a caterpillar was in their salad, but it's not toxic to eat."

Before she became a botanical artist, Graves was studying garden design when one of her teachers commented that she was drawing plants, not landscapes. Graves read up on botanical art and took classes in Point Reyes and Filoli in between working as a software engineer, a career from which she is now retired.

At the beginning of her art studies, Graves was set on using colored pencil, whereas most botanical artists stress the use of watercolor.

"With watercolor it felt like I had gone back to kindergarten," she says. "It's much less easily controlled." Today she is thankful for her transition to watercolors due to her carpal tunnel syndrome.

"Using a brush is much less stressful on my hand than using a pencil," Graves says. "Since I'm now painting four or five hours a day, not doing a lot of pressure is a really wise thing."

Graves' artistic detail is grounded in her depth of knowledge in botany. "I have a fair bit of botany and horticulture background. I'm very interested in knowing how the plants are put together."

This detail has served Graves well in various competitions.

"In theory, a scientist could look at your botanical painting and determine exactly what species it is," Graves says. "One of the things you will lose points for is if the way leaves or flowers attach to the stem is not done correctly."

The care required for botanical art extends to the planning process of what to paint and how. "You have to start the paintings when they're growing and flowering, so there's a lot more going on in the summer than in the winter," Graves says.

A 27-year resident of Palo Alto, Graves has become involved in the community, and even ran for city council in 2001.

"It's probably just as well that I didn't get elected," she says. "I enjoy being out in public and meeting people but I don't want to do it 24 hours a day. I still enjoy being well known around Palo Alto. It gives it a small-town feel."

Graves sells some of her artwork as prints and cards, and on rare occasions the original art itself. "It keeps me in paint," she says. "It helps pay for the shipping of stuff to shows. Basically, I don't really make money at it; it kind of helps be self-sustaining."

Ironically, Graves didn't believe she could do art when she was younger. While she was attending high school in the '60s, the art scene never quite sat well with her.

"Art was all large, abstract stuff, and that's not me," she says. "Because of what was going on around me, I became convinced that I couldn't do art, period."

Through botanical art, Graves rediscovered her passion for painting, eventually becoming a member of the local chapter of the Northern California Botanical Artist Society. The other facet of her passion for antique varieties of plants is an ecological and environmental message.

"I'm not a big fan of agribusiness, the vast monocultures of genetically modified corn," Graves says. "I think that's a scary direction we're taking our food supply in, so I'm pushing in the other direction."

The artist's series of historical vegetable paintings is just that.

"One thing I'm going to paint is the kind of potato that was being grown in Ireland when the potato blight hit, causing the potato famine," Graves says. "We're now as vulnerable because all the potatoes we grow are almost all one variety."

Being informative through art has always been important to Graves.

"I philosophically believe that it's important for us to grow (antique vegetables) and preserve them, and I think they have a story to tell," Graves says. "It is definitely my intention to use my art along with my writing to continue to educate people."

Graves' studio is a makeshift space, filled with natural light and a view into her overflowing garden. She often brings her subjects up to the studio to paint, preferring it to the outdoors.

Her paintings start from one spot on the page, almost finishing the layers of paint, then slowly spread outwards to fill in the penciled sketch. Graves often leaves a seemingly finished painting in her studio to let it settle.

"I like to live with it before I declare it done," Graves says.

What: "Art in the Garden," a garden-themed art exhibition, "paint-out" and sale

Where: Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

When: An artist reception and preview sale are scheduled along with the exhibition on Friday, July 20, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. On July 21, the garden will host the exhibition, "paint-out" and art sale.

Cost: A ticket to Friday's events costs $30; admission on Saturday is free.

Info: Go to http://gamblegarden.com or call 650-329-1356.

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