Margaret Best explores the Irish-Newfoundland connection through plants and paint
Margaret Best’s “Centaurea Nigra: Black Knapweed”
By Susan Gay Decker
Special to The Telegram
With their intense colours and dramatic compositions, Margaret Best’s watercolours of Newfoundland common wildflowers and plants have a paradoxically otherworldly feel.
Larger than life, each subject is rendered with fine precision so that the wonder of its intricate structures is clear to behold.
“I like to get up close and personal,” says Best, referring to her artistic process, which includes a lot of “coupying down” to inspect the plant in its environment and trudging about in all kinds of weather to find samples for her next work.
“One week I went to Tors Cove to paint this flower … it rained the whole week,” she says. “I was out with my raincoat on and clipping these off from the side of the road and bringing them back to my studio. Cut flowers don’t last very long so the next day I’d run out and get some more. People must have thought I was absolutely mad doing these cuttings of what they consider to be weeds.”
She even keeps a pressboard and bottles of water in the back of her car for the spontaneous collection of wildflower cuttings when she’s on the road.
“My car’s a mess,” she laughs.
From either her clippings or in situ, the first step in her artistic process is to do a drawing of it. While she does take photographs as aids, she finds direct observation essential to capturing the intricate details of each plant.
She also does a great deal of research, finding out everything she can about its structure, history and purposes. This process informs her artistic product.
“It’s almost like getting to know a person. You see them first, the first glance, and then you go back and you notice all the other things about them,” she says. “In plants, there are actual structures — whether the leaves are lateral, the personality and characteristics of it. Just like bodies and not everyone is the same.”
Best also thrills in the discovery of less widely known facts about a species. When she gives artists’ talks or workshops, she often asks participants for their local names or what they know about a plant’s uses.
A member of the Botanical Artists of Canada, she strives to represent her subjects as accurately as possible — the norm for scientifically oriented drawings and paintings.
However, for her artistic works she spends a great deal of time thinking about composition, playing with different shapes and orientations. She also pays close attention to the background, suggesting the plant’s natural environment, but also giving many of her works a magnetic depth of field.
Best’s interest in flowers and plants were nurtured by her grandmother Margaret Glover Walsh, a native of Ireland who, while visiting Newfoundland just after the First World War, met her husband and settled in the town of Kingman’s Cove on the province’s southern shore.
An avid gardener, she cultivated both a vegetable and an ornamental flower garden, which was uncommon at the time.
From her Best, who grew up in Fermeuse, gained a lifelong appreciation for nature. As the eldest of 11 children, she spent a lot of time with her grandmother tending her garden.
“I have this memory of being out there and this light rain falling and the two of us digging up weeds around the carrots and enjoying being out in the rain,” she says.
While Best is a versatile artist and art educator who has worked in several mediums and on various subjects in her career, her latest work focuses on her love of plants and her interest in her Irish heritage.
At the end of this month, she will be travelling to Waterford, Ireland for the opening of a show she is both curating and participating in, entitled “The Ireland Newfoundland Trail: A Journey of Plants and People.”
The exhibit, which features fine craft and art by artists from both Ireland and the Irish Loop, will explore the story of the Irish-Newfoundland connection through artistic interpretations of the plants that many settlers brought with them.
As Best points out in her curatorial notes for the show, the migration of plants is often overlooked in history books, but settlers often travelled with plant seeds and clippings — for sustenance, but also to remind themselves of home.
Best’s grandmother was one of them. She remembers her returning to Ireland once and bringing back seeds for heather, yellow loosestrife and sweet william.
In fact, according to Best, many of the province’s wildflowers, such as buttercups, black knapweed, foxglove, September mist, purple loosestrife, coltsfoot, morning glory and cow vetch, were brought by the Irish, either as seeds in their pockets or as part the soil ballast used in their ships.
The Waterford exhibit marks Best’s second on the subject of migrating plants. She currently has a solo exhibit, “Balancing Act,” based on invasive alien plant species, on tour in several galleries across North America.
She’s in the process of developing a new project with her horticulturalist brother Tim Walsh entitled, “Roots of Migration,” in which Walsh will give walking botanical interpretation of plants along the Southern Shore and Best will lead relevant art workshops.
Painter, art educator and curator, Best says she enjoys every aspect of her life as an artist. But it’s clear that her aesthetic sensibilities are at the core of everything she does.
“I am always struck by the beauty of a plant … or seeing it in a particular light. Last night I was out watering some plants and I was looking at the way the light was coming through and the water was running down over the fox glove and it was so lovely. I thought, ‘How do I capture this?’”
Seven other Newfoundland and Labrador artists from the Irish Loop will be participating in Best’s upcoming Irish show: Nicola Hawkins, Bonnie Johnstone, Ray Fennelly, Peter Sobol, Maxine Ennis, Frances Ennis and Stephanie Barry. Loyola Hearn, Canadian ambassador to Ireland, will officiate its opening.
“A Journey of Plants and People” will also run at the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador Gallery from August to September 2013.