Phipps Garden Center showcases botanic art

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Bill Paxton was not a typical student in botanical illustration classes at Phipps Garden Center. Everyone else, including his teachers, was content to draw wood violets and other wildflowers from photographs, photocopies or dead specimens flattened between the pages of a book.

“They didn’t recognize the real plants or know where they grew,” he said.

The retired forester and amateur botanist knew, and he decided to show them. He took his teacher, Sue Wyble, to the north side of Loyalhanna Gorge, where he had seen wood violets growing. Then he went back to his easel and produced a painting of the flowers with a human face – and green eyes.

“I had to do something that no one else had ever done,” said the 79-year-old Latrobe man.

“Wood Violets” is one of 88 pieces in “Bigger Than Life,” an exhibition of Mr. Paxton’s work on display at the garden center in Shadyside through Aug. 8. Each of the graduates of Phipps’ illustration program is given a solo show on the walls, but most have produced just a handful of artwork. Mr. Paxton, who began painting when he was discharged from the Navy in 1960, had a lifetime’s worth, including more than 40 pencil drawings done during six years of classes at Phipps.

Some, like “Nodding Onion,” are straightforward renderings of the minute parts of a plant. But many others are much more, true art that hints at the soul of the natural world – and of the artist. Consider “Iris and Dragonfly,” a strong vertical print that suggests the slow tango of a languid insect and a flower swaying and dipping in the wind.

Although Mr. Paxton loves plants, they are often not the leading players in his art. They are only shadows and outlines in the largest piece in the show, “Cat Tai-Ling.” Measuring 12 feet long and 4 feet high, it resembles ancient Japanese prints in style and subject matter. A Siamese cat leaps to catch a butterfly amid swirling weeds in which a tiny mouse hides. The entire image was created with India ink splashed upon blueprint paper that has been treated with ammonia to turn it a golden color.

So how did he make the cat so lifelike? You may not want to know.

“The lady next door ran over her cat. I asked her if I could have it. I brayed it with ink and pressed it on the paper,” he said, adding that he did the same with a dead butterfly and mouse.

Phipps Garden Center, 1059 Shady Ave., Shadyside (15232) is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 

Kevin Kirkland: 412-263-1978 or

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