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Attention to detail
by Mollee Francisco
Jan 13, 2012 | 1316 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Pops of color have begun to appear at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Despite a warm winter, it is not signs of spring. It is the art of Anne Ophelia Dowden and it’s providing a sharp contrast to the browns and grays adorning the Arboretum grounds.

“Eye candy for the winter months,” said curator and Arboretum volunteer Lucienne Taylor.

The Arboretum will open its latest exhibit, “Wild Green Things: The Art of Anne Ophelia Dowden,” on Jan. 18. It runs through May 2 and encompasses the majority of the Arboretum’s buildings.

The exhibit showcases the prolific work of the renowned botanical illustrator – work that quickly captured the heart of Taylor.

“I’m blown away by her work,” she said. “I’m awed by her ability, her eye, and her commitment to art and science.”


Born Anne Ophelia Todd in 1907, Dowden grew up in Boulder, Colo., the daughter of a pathologist and a nurse. She spent much of her childhood exploring the natural treasures hidden in the neighboring foothills.

“She became immersed in the natural world,” said Taylor.

Dowden collected and drew any living thing she could find, especially insects and flowers. She would continue to do so for most of her life, until her death in 2007, just months shy of her 100th birthday.

“She knew early on art was going to be her career,” explained Taylor.

Dowden had her first piece of work published in her father’s pathology textbook when she was just 16. She went on to pursue a degree in art from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) before moving to New York City in 1930. There, she found work teaching drawing at the Pratt Institute. She later founded the art department at Manhattanville College.

Dowden married fellow artist Ray Dowden in 1934.

She continued to build her collection of drawings throughout her 15 years of teaching.

“She was drawing all the time to build up her research paintings,” said Taylor. “It was her source for anything she wanted.”

In the early 1950s, Dowden began to get her botanical illustrations published in magazines and journals. She became known for the extraordinary accuracy and detail of her work.

“She drew them absolutely the way they grew,” said Taylor. Dowden amassed more than 400 research paintings in her lifetime.

As her work began to receive recognition, Dowden quit her teaching job to focus on her art full time.

“It really was a change of career,” said Taylor. “I find her courageous to be doing that.”


Dowden was in her 50s when she published her first book “Look at a Flower.” It would be the first of 19 books she would release commercially, most of which are geared toward students in the middle grades.

Dowden was intimately involved in the entire book publishing process, from the art to the text to the layout. “She liked the proc-ess of choosing the words that would go with the illustrations,” said Taylor. “It would take her two to three years per book.”

Her work encompasses a range of interesting book themes from plants of Christmas (as featured in the Dec. 22 Herald); to plants of the Bible; to plants of Shakespeare. All of her watercolors feature anatomically accurate plants and insects, with an eye for what would be visually appealing on the page.

Dowden’s last book “Poisons in our Path: Plants that Harm and Heal” was published in 1994. Dowden was 87 years old.

The Arboretum’s exhibit, which includes her books and scanned illustrations along with original notes and artwork, covers Dowden’s entire career with special attention paid to her “Wild Green Things” publication. Dowden spent three years seeking out the weeds native to New York City in order to create the book.

The University of Minnesota Libraries obtained some of Dowden’s original artwork from “Wild Green Things,” which will be on display in the Andersen Horticultural Library, just outside the rare books room. Visitors can delight in art that brings common weeds – like the dandelion – to life.

“I want to just get my pick and scoop that out,” said Taylor, remarking on the realism of the dandelion.

Dowden’s work exemplifies an art that is largely being replaced by digital technology in modern day. “It’s definitely art that is not as wildly distributed as before,” noted Taylor.

But what she loves about Dowden’s work is how it speaks to the relationship between art, science and literature. Taylor hopes visitors to the Dowden exhibit will get a “renewed sense of the interaction between the plant world, insects and people.”

“I hope people start seeing and observing,” she added.

And come spring, people will be able to do just that, taking their inspiration from Dowden’s work right out onto the Arboretum grounds to see the same plants and insects with their own eyes.

Anne Ophelia Dowden

What: Wild Green Things: The Art of Anne Ophelia Dowde

Dates: Jan. 18 – May 2

Location:Anderson Horticultural Library, University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, 3675 Arboretum Boulevard, Chaska

Cost: Free with Arboretum admission

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