A life in leaves: Charlottesville artist rocks the botanical world

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Photo: Sanjay Suchak Photo: Sanjay Suchak

When Lara Call Gastinger posts a page from her natural journal on Instagram, it routinely garners a few thousand likes. “Lush life!” comments one follower on a recent post. “How wonderful your talent,” says another. “Gorgeous.” “Wonderful work.”

In the photo, a drawing pen—the printing worn off its shaft by Gastinger’s hand—lies in the center of the open journal. “JUL 9-15” is stamped in green ink in the upper left corner. The pages are filled with her precise botanical drawings, labeled in angular handwriting: coneflower, wild raspberry, hop clover.

This journal, which has a spread designated for every week of the calendar, has been part of Gastinger’s routine for 17 years. In a way it’s one of the humbler things she creates: a single book, not even as large as an encyclopedia volume, which can’t really be sold or shown in a gallery. Yet the journal is central to her art practice.

This work, part of Lara Call Gastinger’s unfurling ferms collection, is a watercolor on paper. Illustration: Lara Call Gastinger

Gastinger is recognized well beyond Instagram; she’s an award- winning botanical artist, and a resource and inspiration to nature lovers far and wide. Charlottesville is lucky to claim her, and Central Virginia is also key to her becoming the artist she is: She’s spent most of her time here since she arrived at the University of Virginia as an undergrad, and the plants of this place are the subjects for most of her paintings and drawings. If she’s working on her art, she’s probably staring—with rapt, devoted attention—at something that grows near Charlottesville.

A native of Virginia Beach, Gastinger “always wanted to combine science and art,” she says. Though she began college with a medical career in mind, she already knew she loved to observe and draw plants. As a young teenager, she’d traveled with her family to a National Wildlife Federation camp in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where a sketchbook artist taught her the basics of keeping a field sketchbook. On the same trip, she was shown a plant called dwarf cinquefoil, a rare species that, in another aha moment for Gastinger, spurred her lifelong interest in ecology and native plants.

As a trained plant ecologist, illustrator Lara Call Gastinger sketches flora in the wild, like the above watercolor, titled “April.” Illustration: Lara Call Gastinger

After earning a master’s degree in those very topics at Virginia Tech, Gastinger was hired as chief illustrator for Flora of Virginia—a massive project, around 1,300 pen-and-ink drawings, which took her a decade to complete. The book is a comprehensive guide to Virginia’s plant life, and it clocked in at 1,554 pages when at last it was published in 2012. Now it’s also an app—and a useful one for plant ID in the field, Gastinger says. “I recommend it. It simplifies things.”

Through all the years she was making those illustrations (and becoming a mother: she and husband Breck have two sons), Gastinger was also working on art—images that not only convey information but glow with the stunning beauty that earns her so many fans online. She surely knows her plants, and can draw them with great accuracy; but, more than that, she has an artist’s gift for composition and color.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

Art meant watercolor paintings, more drawings—and her journal. The book began as a commission from a client who lived on a farm in Ivy. “I said, ‘I’ll be your eyes for a whole year,’” she remembers. “I had a journal and I went to their house once a week,” drawing and labeling plants that grew on the property. “I wanted to continue that at home by myself.”

She decided not to restrict her personal journal to a single year, but just to keep adding to it indefinitely. In this way, it becomes a layered document of her life in botany and art. And, she says, a “perpetual journal” is a great way for anyone to engage with nature. “You can do that anywhere with minimal resources,” she says. “You can pick it up and jump back in; you don’t feel like you missed something, or have that guilty feeling.”

In July, Gastinger traveled to London to participate in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Botanical Art show, where she won a gold medal for her collection of images inspired by the 19th- century artist Ernst Haeckel. Like Haeckel, Gastinger assembled symmetrical compositions of numerous plants, but each of her pieces included only Virginia plants from a single month. April, for example, features dogwood, trillium, and Dutchman’s breeches, among others.

“One of Haeckel’s goals was to clearly present science in an aesthetically pleasing way,” she says. “I want people to learn the plants; I’m always trying to educate.” Some of these pieces will appear in a November show at Chroma Projects.

She’s been teaching botanical art classes around town for over 10 years. This fall, she’s offering numerous classes, including a field sketching class in which students can get started on their own perpetual journals. She’ll also teach at Albemarle CiderWorks, where students will draw apples while partaking of cider, and at Vitae Spirits, whose labels feature her illustrations. Part of her mission is to encourage students to look harder at the nature around them: “Anyone can be a citizen scientist along the cracks of a sidewalk.”

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