Heeyoung Kim is a botanical artist whose illustrations and paintings of American prairie plants have graced posters, postcards and exhibition catalogs. Earlier this year, Heeyoung’s paintings of prairie plants were awarded a gold medal by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in England. Heeyoung’s collection of paintings at the RHS show focused on the common, rare and endangered plants of the American prairie. Heeyoung explains why she is devoted to documenting these rapidly disappearing plants:
Since the late 1800s, the fertile tallgrass prairie has been converted into an intensive crop producing area. This region of the US is called America’s ‘breadbasket’ or ‘corn belt’. What was once the largest ecosystem of the American continent with a biodiversity rivaling the richest rainforests, has yielded to commercial agriculture leaving its flora and fauna in peril.
Heeyoung brings attention to the fragile state of America’s prairies by exhibiting her work in national and international exhibitions such as Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World, a traveling exhibition by the American Society of Botanical Artists. Her award-winning RHS paintings were recently featured in a solo exhibition at Northbrook Library in Northbrook, IL.
Heeyoung began her botanical art career in January 2007. Before this time, painting was more of a recreational activity. When she first came to the U.S., she started painting with oil and colored pencil just to make friends and to learn English at the senior center where she volunteered. Then one day, after a couple of years of painting this way, she noticed that every single painting was a detailed floral painting. She began to think about painting flowers seriously, but didn’t know how to begin until she saw a magazine published by the Chicago Botanic Garden. “It mentioned something like ‘botanical art’, which I had never heard of in my life,” says Heeyoung.
So Heeyoung enrolled in Botanical Drawing 1 at the Chicago Botanic Garden and became a botanical artist the moment her instructor shared samples of botanical art with the class. Heeyoung says, “I felt like the drawings grabbed me right in the heart.”
After completing this class, she signed up for Botanical Drawing 2, Ink Drawing 1, Ink Drawing 2 and other classes offered through the botanical art certificate program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Instead of pursuing a certificate in botanical art, Heeyoung decided to work on independent projects and to work with her instructor independently. The mentor who inspired her so much was Derek Norman, Vice President of the American Society of Botanical Artists. As Heeyoung explains, “I was with the right person from the beginning.”
During her first year of botanical painting, Heeyoung spent all of her available time at the Reed-Turner Nature Center in Long Grove, Illinois. Fascinated by the many beautiful woodland plants that grew “like magic in every moment, showing off their flowers and preparing for the next generation”, Heeyoung began to draw the different stages of plant development she observed. She did this without having any purpose in mind. “I just loved the changes,” she says.
Sometime later, Heeyoung became friends with Stephen Packard, the leader of a Chicago land volunteer team working to restore the tallgrass prairie. Heeyoung was surprised to learn that the tallgrass prairie is almost extinct and that there are experts and volunteers working tirelessly to preserve what remains of America’s prairies. These same experts and volunteers are also converting abandoned farmland back into prairie. Heeyoung explains that, while the conservation efforts are strong and steady, the public has no idea what is happening with the remnants of prairie located within their own neighborhoods. Upon learning this, Heeyoung knew that she could do something to change this.
I believe art is a great way to make connections with people and to inspire them to act. At this point my prairie project started. I changed my website domain to www.PrairiePlantArt.com, and started to focus on painting prairie plants from my long wishlist. When I had my first solo exhibition at Ryerson Woods Conservation Area last spring, I invited Stephen Packard to the opening reception and shared stories about prairie culture and restoration. That was an eye-opening moment to most of the 320 attendees.
I showed eight paintings from my prairie project at RHS London last March and twenty-six drawings and paintings at a local public library in May. When the art director of the library invited me to have a solo show there, I hesitated a little because I was concerned about possible damage to the artwork from heavy traffic, especially from the many children visitors. But then I thought that libraries can be the best place to get (the public’s) attention. So I accepted the offer gratefully. The result was fantastic. The best feedback was, ‘The whole town was in awe!’
Please join me in welcoming Heeyoung Kim as the Featured Artist for July!