Walk into your garden. What do you see?
Flowers? Grass? The city tree you are not allowed to cut down?
Look a little closer. You may see aphids on your roses or caterpillars on your plants. If you do, you are witnessing a plant-insect interaction — an interaction between an insect and the plant they use for food, shelter or egg-laying. The rapport between insects and their plants is at the core of the artwork created by natural science illustrator, Mindy Lighthipe.
Mindy Lighthipe has always loved art, plants and animals (especially insects). She has been an illustrator all her life and an entomologist since the age of five.
Mindy began her professional art career as a hand weaver and spinner. She grew her own dye stuffs and studied hand weaving and textile design. She was a professional hand weaver from 1985 to 2000 and created handwoven clothing and accessories for her company Fantasy Fiber Designs.
In 1992, Mindy decided to make a career shift because hand weaving was becoming back-breaking work. She was weaving 25 yards of fabric each day and wasn’t sure she wanted to be in this line of work when she turned fifty. Wanting to make a return to fine art, Mindy enrolled into the certificate program for botanical art at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Mindy graduated from the program in 1993 and began teaching at NYBG in 1994.
During this time, Mindy became more and more in-tune with plants, their habitat, and the impact humans have on the environment. She became increasingly aware of monocultures and started to learn about invasive plant species and native plants. The more she delved into these subjects and fine art, the more she thought about combining art and her interests in plants and insects to educate children and adults about plant-insect relationships.
Last year, Mindy wrote and illustrated Mother Monarch, a children’s book about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. She wrote Mother Monarch because she found that most people do not understand the symbiotic relationship between caterpillars and their host plants. Mindy says, “You can plant all the nectar plants you want, but if you don’t provide the host plant, biodiversity is lost.”
The audience Mindy wants to connect with the most are homeowners. She wants to drive home the message she first presented at an exhibition titled “McMansion.” Her message then was, “If you build it, they will disappear.” A spin, of course, on the well-known expression, “If you build it, they will come.”
Mindy finds homeowner attitudes toward wildlife and eradication of natural habitats upsetting. She doesn’t understand why homeowners do not understand that the coyotes, deer and bears walking through residential areas do so because they have no where else to go. She also finds people’s reactions to insects a bit worrisome. Especially the reactions of those who scream upon first sight of an insect. One of her objectives is to make insects appealing enough to the public to prevent this from happening.
All signs indicate Mindy is delivering her educational messages successfully. She even made a lasting impression on the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in London, England. Earning an award from the RHS is an incredible honor and is botanical art’s “grand slam.” When Mindy submitted work to the RHS exhibition, she wasn’t expecting an award. The RHS show is known for awarding botanical art that is very detailed and executed flawlessly according to traditional standards. They don’t do insects. Mindy’s collection of 12 themed paintings included insects and were created using what Mindy calls, her usual “rapid painting and flamboyant technique.” To her surprise, she was awarded the silver medal. The jurors stated that “Mindy Lighthipe’s work is reminiscent of 18th-century artists such as Catesby and Maria Sybilla Merian. Her insects are fantastic.” They also felt that if they had a gold medal for mass appeal and public education, they would have given it to her. The educational message she was hoping to send through her work had come through clearly and she received the nod from the Royal Horticultural Society.
When communicating her message, Mindy prefers to do outreach in urban areas and to introduce the disciplines of art and science to an audience who may not have the time or resources to visit museums and art galleries.
Mindy’s recent move to Florida was propelled in part by her work for Symbiosis: Butterflies and Plants, a solo exhibition at the Florida Natural History Museum that closed on March 13, 2011. Living in Gainesville will afford Mindy the opportunity to work at a more relaxed pace and to take more risks with her work, something she had not been able to do living in the New Jersey/New York area. She is hoping to be more creative with her message as she works with the staff at the Florida Natural History Museum and their 25 million insect specimens. She may even return to school to major in entomology. Eventually, Mindy would like her symbiosis artwork to be included in an educational book about plant-insect interactions.
Mindy says her lifelong fascination with art has been with color, texture and pattern. The insect world is filled with fantastic colors, textures and patterns and Mindy feels as if her life as an artist has gone full circle. Where before she was taken with dyes, fabrics and surface designs, she is now taken with insect coloration, exoskeletons and wings!
Ask The Artist with Mindy Lighthipe
Mindy will participate in an Ask The Artist Q&A during National Pollinator Week on June 20-24, 2011. You are invited to ask Mindy questions about her botanical and entomological work and her workshops. Please post your question by June 20.
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