Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Art of the Amazon

By Debbie Gilbert

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Not many people in history could claim to have made valuable contributions in the fields of both art and science (Leonardo being an exception). Even fewer have achieved such recognition for a single body of work.

That’s what made botanical illustrator Margaret Mee so extraordinary. Her paintings have provided naturalists with an accurate guide to many rare and vanishing tropical plant species, yet her works wouldn’t look out of place hanging in your living room.

Or in an art gallery. A career retrospective, “Margaret Mee: Return to the Amazon,” opens at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens this Sunday, February 8th, and continues through May 3rd. The Dixon is actually an atypical venue for this exhibition; most of the stops on the show’s three-year national tour are in science museums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The point is that Mee’s work can be appreciated in either mode, whether you approach it from the perspective of a scientist or an artist. Mee dedicated herself equally to both disciplines.

Margaret Mee was born in 1909 near Chesham in southern England. While still a young woman she established a reputation as something of a risk-taker, speaking out against fascism and in support of trade unions at a time when women were expected to keep silent on such matters. She’d always had an aptitude for drawing and painting, but it wasn’t until World War II ended that she attended art school and received formal training. In 1952, she and her husband Greville went to Brazil to care for an ailing sister, and they were so captivated by the area that they ended up settling down in São Paulo.

The city, which was not yet the metropolis it is today, sits on a plateau behind the coastal mountains, at that time still densely forested. Mee often hiked up into these hills, and was inspired to begin creating portraits of the plants she found there.

But it wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for her, and at the age of 46, she made the first of 15 journeys into the Amazonian rain forest. Exhibitions of her botanical paintings began to attract attention, and in 1960 she was asked by Dr. Lyman Smith – a world authority on bromeliads, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution – if she would participate in a project called Flora Brasilica. The plan was for Mee to supply the illustrations for a reference book on bromeliads. (Even in the age of photography, artists are necessary for botanical studies, because no photograph can show all the identifying characteristics of a species.)

Working closely with Smith, Mee spent five years traveling around Brazil and quickly became an expert on the bromeliad family, later discovering in the Amazon a number of new species – three of which were named after her.

When the project ended, Margaret and Greville relocated to Santa Teresa, a suburb of Rio, where they found a home near the herbarium of orchid expert Dr. Guido Pabst. It was also a convenient jumping-off place for her to make trips into the Amazon.

And with each expedition, Mee could see the Amazon changing before her eyes. The rain forest had been pristine when she’d first encountered it in 1956, but by the 1960s, development had come to the area. The Trans-Amazon Highway was built, and land was cleared for huge cattle ranches. Deforestation reached crisis proportions in the 1970s and 1980s, and Mee began to realize the significance of her work: It was a permanent public record of a world that soon might not exist anymore.

Mee was on a mission, and nothing could deter her from documenting what she saw. Her paintings were always made in the field, direct from nature. For months at a time, she lived among the tribal peoples of the forest and endured tremendous hardships in the tropical environment, including bouts of malaria and hepatitis, near-drownings and other accidents, swarms of insects, giant anacondas, and nightly attacks by vampire bats.

Still, these horrors did not diminish her love for the rain forest or her passion to protect its wildlife. Along with her close friend, landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, she became an outspoken critic of Brazil’s forest policies. The country was under military regime at the time, and her remarks could have gotten her into trouble, but this physically unimposing woman would not be intimidated.

For most of her career, Mee had been selling her original paintings to earn a living, but by the mid-1980s she began holding onto them, intending to establish an Amazon Collection that might be purchased by an institution and made available for public view. The Mees weren’t wealthy enough to simply donate her entire body of work; they needed money to retire on.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, expressed interest if the financing could be worked out, and a fund-raising trust was set up. In November 1988, Mee’s Amazon Exhibition premiered at Kew, and a collection of her diaries (Margaret Mee: In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests, edited by Tony Morrison) was published. Mee toured the U.S. to promote the book, and despite her 79 years and fragile appearance, she exuded energy when speaking about her beloved forest.

Then she returned to England and, in one of life’s tragic ironies, was killed in a car accident. Having survived everything the jungle could aim at her, she lost out to an automobile.

But what a legacy she left behind: paintings and sketches of astounding detail and exquisite beauty, plus volumes of notebooks, all capturing an ecosystem that was fast slipping away. It’s possible that some of the species Mee portrayed have already gone extinct. Fortunately, you’ll now have a chance to see them represented, and to share in the sense of wonder and mystery that drew Mee to the Amazon again and again.

When Ruth Stiff, curator of the exhibition, began assembling the project five years ago, she too made several trips to the Amazon. “I wanted to retrace Mee’s steps and immerse myself in her life,” Stiff says. She selected a total of 84 works (gouache paintings and field sketches) for the exhibition, gathered from the Kew collection and several other institutions. Also on display are 12 sketchbooks and several notebooks (“I thought it was very important to show her creative process,” Stiff explains). In addition, there are 10 interpretive panels, dried plant specimens collected by 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce, and even a replica of Mee’s canoe, all on display at the Dixon.

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