Remember tucking a purple violet or four-leaf clover in the pages of a big, heavy dictionary
when you were a child? Anne Blackwell Thompson, a decorative painter with a lifelong love of plants, has made the nostalgic act of flower pressing into an art form. She takes 3-D elements of nature — ferns, hydrangeas, grasses, vines, cosmos, seaweed, black-eyed Susans, elephant ears and other specimens — and preserves them in one dimension on paper and under glass so that the stunning abstract shapes of seaweed or blooms of a beloved wisteria vine can live on through the years.
R•Home: How did you become interested in pressing botanicals?
Anne Blackwell Thompson: In May 2010, I saw in a magazine a photo of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife sitting on their terrace and on the wall was a large framed botanical [dried plant specimen]. A couple of weeks later, while reading online, I found in a blog some information about the creator of the botanical. His name was Stuart Thornton, formerly chief butler to the prominent Agnelli family of Italy and the Aga Khan. Aside from his long career in service, he is known for his botanicals, particularly the large ones. I just knew this was what I wanted to do. I called him up at his studio in Turin, Italy, and we had a great conversation. I told him I wanted to apprentice and, three weeks later, I was on a plane to Italy.
R•Home: What are the steps of the process?
Thompson: I harvest the plant when it is in the peak of bloom, and then I dissect it into all of its parts. I press it in a flower presser for two to four months until all the moisture is gone and both paper and plant are dry. I then place all of the parts on acid-free paper and arrange them using tweezers and X-Acto knives. Each piece is glued into place. So basically, I dissect the plant, and I build it back up. When the piece is finished, my calligrapher, Ginny Rogan, writes the botanical name and the date in the corner.
R•Home: How do you remember the details of how a flower looked when you picked it?
Thompson: I study photos and books for reference, and I [then] try to make it as realistic as possible.
R•Home: What's most challenging about pressing botanicals?
Thompson: I'm at the mercy of nature! Water, insects, mold, mildew and chemicals — anything can come into play and ruin a specimen. Harvesting a plant right at its peak can be difficult, too. Learning the Latin names of plants is hard. I volunteer at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, working with all of the wonderful horticulturists, and I ask a lot of questions while I'm there. The process takes
a lot of patience, and I can get lost in the Zen of it, but it's all enjoyable.
R•Home: What are the hallmarks of a well-pressed specimen?
Thompson: Composition is key … the angles of the leaves and buds. You need to be mindful of your forms and how the plant looks on the page. I always think, "How would it grow in nature?" It needs to be perfectly imperfect.
For more information, visit blackwellbotanicals.com.