Page by page: City artist Lara Call Gastinger leaves a local stamp on a botanical opus

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Bleeding heart, a native spring wildflower, as illustrated by Lara Call Gastinger for the Flora of Virginia. Image: Lara Call Gastinger Bleeding heart, a native spring wildflower, as illustrated by Lara Call Gastinger for the Flora of Virginia. Image: Lara Call Gastinger

Ever since she was a child, Lara Call Gastinger has found ways to combine science and art.

“My parents would take us to these National Wildlife Federation Summits where I started keeping a field journal, like this one,” she said, pointing to the notebook of illustrations on a desk in the sunny studio in her North Downtown home. Over the last 11 years, similar sketches have allowed her to illustrate Flora of Virginia, the massive tome published by a coalition of experts last year that, for the first time, offers an index of nearly every plant species in the Commonwealth. “I remember having that realization, that I could draw plants that people could identify,” she said. “It was sort of a great moment.”

Gastinger studied biology and architecture at UVA, and pursued landscape architecture before deciding she wanted to do more field work. She went back to school, this time to Virginia Tech for a master’s degree in plant ecology. It was there she learned about the nonprofit Flora of Virginia Project, formally created in 2001 by botanical experts from the Department of Conservation and Recreation and numerous partnering organizations, who came together to build the first comprehensive plant guide since Flora Virginica—published in 1743 and written entirely in Latin, it was more a relic than a relevant tool.

She contacted Chris Ludwig, one of the primary authors, who ultimately hired her to illustrate the book. That kicked off a relationship with the project and the team that has defined her career for more than a decade.

And because she moved back to the area not long after she began working on the book, Albemarle County has left its own special, if invisible, stamp on the book. Gastinger draws and paints largely from live specimens, and her rambles through the nearby Piedmont and Blue Ridge with expert botanists provided many of those specimens.

Not every entry is graced with one of Gastinger’s simple black-and-white drawings. That would have been impossible, she said, as it details 3,154 species.

“We mainly focused on ones that amateurs will see,” she said.

Now that the collaboration has borne fruit, Gastinger is focusing on other work, including large-scale watercolors, a collection of which won her a gold medal at the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual exhibition in 2007. She works on commission, creating custom sketchbooks and paintings for people who want to document their properties and immortalize favorite plants, and teaches watercolor workshops, one of which is coming up November 9.

“There’s definitely still sometimes an ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ moment,” she said of the project—understandable when you realize the collaboration yielded a book that’s 1,500 pages long and weighs seven pounds.

Her own copy of the Flora sits on her desk, and it’s usually open. It’s gone from her main job to an important reference point for new projects. “Toward the end, things were going so fast I couldn’t really learn the plants’ names,” she said. “Now it’s great to actually be using it and keying them out.”

More images of Gastinger’s work and details on her upcoming workshop are at laracallgastinger.com.—G.B.

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