Category Archives: Interviews

Botanical Alchemy: An Interview with Artist Benjamin A. Vierling

Benjamin Vierling is an artist of exemplary abilities whose art features many themes, from magical plants to alchemy to astrology to mythology. His layered, nearly lacquered look and exquisite attention to detail rivals that of the great Renaissance painters. I was lucky enough to catch up with Vierling recently and discuss his rotanical leanings. Here are the results.

Plants seem to play an important role in your paintings, including being the main subject of several. What is your earliest plant memory?
T
he first actual plant memory may be of hanging house ferns, and of the delicate light being filtered through their lace-like fronds. I spent the early years of my childhood in an elegant San Francisco flat, and I seem to recall the atmosphere being imbued with soft green shadows and coiling tendrils. I believe that my mother had a number of plants placed near the tall, paned windows. I presumably spent hours as an infant watching the interplay of light and shade on the ivory walls and ornate Victorian moulding. The strongly aromatic scent of eucalyptus likewise permeates these memories, as a grove of the trees stood very near to our residence.

The subject of your paintings Papaver Somniferum and Atropa Belladonna, are both rotanicals in their own right, considering their deadly attractive properties. Can you tell us more about how you came to choose these plants as subjects?
These images were originally commissioned for the musical-herbal, Infernal Proteus, which was released by Ajna Records in 2002. This eclectic compilation of music featured a score of different bands and musical projects, each of whom selected a plant to illustrate by way of image and sound. In part because of the musicians with whom I was collaborating, Papaver Somniferum and Atropa Belladonna were selected along with Ficus sycamores. All of these unique flora figure prominently in folklore and legend. I always endeavor to depict the soul of the plant in my paintings, and so it is important to weave in mythological references along with the botanical details.Vierling_Papaver_SomniferumHF_

Are plants more difficult to paint than people or objects?
This definitely depends on the individual identity of the subject! On the whole, plants require more meticulous rendering, with their widely diverse manifestations of leaf, stem, and flower, all of which may appear in an infinite variety of colors. Textures are always important to acknowledge when rendering any form with paint. Some surfaces, like planed wood, or naked bone, are somewhat formulaic to render, whilst others, such as the multileveled labyrinth of pine-bark, pose a more rigorous challenge. The human subject is furthermore unique. The patron of a portrait inevitably has expectations about how the sitter should be depicted and perceived, whereas a plant is less vocal with it’s standards. I have nevertheless had nightmares about plants whose unique personas I had failed to exalt with due grace at the easel.

What are the plants in Sacred Heart and what do they represent?
There are three distinct species blossoming from the Sacred Heart; Datura stramonium, Hyoscyamus niger, & Atropa Belladonna. These herbs from the Witch’s garden were selected in part because of their toxic yet visionary properties, and also because of their wonderfully alluring forms. The general idea was to create a microcosm of rich abundance, in which 13 different species of small fauna navigate and interact amidst the radiant flora. The stylistic inspiration comes from baroque-era dutch floral paintings. The theme of the Sacred Heart further elaborates on the idea that life stems from a radiant source, however dangerous or venomous certain facets of it may be. The complex balance of nature.Vierling-Sacred-Heart-Web-HF

Your painting Pomegranates has a luscious but somehow sinister quality. What drove you to paint this fruit?
I have long been bewitched by the tantalizing color and form of the legendary pomegranate. This particulate fruit has a strong presence in art history, is featured often in still-lives and in cornucopia motifs, and is sometimes used as inspiration for the fruit of original sin within depictions of the garden of Eden. All of these nuances were implied in the creation of this work.

The story I am specifically insinuating with the composition is the Persephone myth from classical Greece. In the legend, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, abducts the goddess of Spring and brings her down below to his subterranean kingdom. Whilst captive, the Goddess partakes of the pomegranate offered to her by Hades. The Fates had ordained that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld would be doomed to stay for all eternity, but Hades capitulates to the will of the protesting Gods, and releases the goddess for all but the winter months of each year. She remains annually captive in the Underworld one month for each seed eaten.

10-Vierling_PomegranatesThe painting is an allegory for this dramatic tale, the watchful preying mantis standing in for Hades, while Persephone is represented by the small, luminous butterfly that has alighted upon the jeweled seeds of the ripe pomegranate below. The lifeless fly on the tabletop indicates the realm of the dead that Hades rules, as well as denoting the willful smiting of adversity, for which Cronus’s eldest son was renown.
The composition contains layers of meaning, but the viewer need know nothing of mythology to appreciate the image. If one enjoys the rich, succulent vitality of a ripe pomegranate, then hopefully this painting will provide some food for thought.

Benjamin Vierling is available for commissioned work and many of his botanicals and other amazing works are for sale at: bvierling.com

If you are anywhere within driving distance of Seattle, you can check out Benjamin’s work will be at the following gallery:

Coming Soon to the Steele Gallery:
Benjamin Vierling: A Decennary Retrospective
January 17 — February 14 (2014)Concurrent Artist Lecture: Friday, January 17
7:00pm/Geo Studio (3rd floor)Showcasing select drawings and paintings from 10 years of work, 2004-2014, A Decennary Retrospective is California artist Benjamin Vierling’s first solo exhibition in Seattle. Employing primarily a 15th century mixed media technique of egg tempera and oil paints on panel, he integrates mythical references with contemporary subjects to bridge the timeless with the ephemeral. The iconic compositions of these panels indicate a rich historical precedent, distilling influences from the classical era, through the renaissance, the romantic period and into the present.

Artists’ Reception: January 17, 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Sacred Heart appears on the cover of Three Hand’s Press  Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Poison Path by Daniel A. Schulke. His painting Mandragora officianarum appeared on the cover of Raven Grimassi’s book, Old World Witchcraft. All images courtesy of the artist, Benjamin A. Vierling, and all rights are reserved.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Wicked Cool: An Interview with Amy Stewart

For all you fans of the rotten, stinky, beautiful, wicked plants in the world, if you haven’t somehow yet heard of Amy Stewart take heed! She is the author of Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, Flower Confidential, The Earth Moved, From the Ground Up, and a forthcoming book called  The Drunken Botanist. She writes blogs called Dirt and Garden Rant.
She is fun, punchy, and incredibly knowledgeable. Her book Wicked Plants has been touring the country in the form of exhibits at botanical gardens and conservatories since it first hit the stands.  Once I read Wicked Plants I was hooked and went back to read nearly everything she’d written. Amy was gracious enough to recently grant me an interview for Rotten Botany.  Read on for a few words from Amy about the most beautiful and low-down rotanicals she fancies.
What is your favorite plant (wicked or otherwise)?
I am a big fan of salvias of all kinds–there are many species native to California that do really well with no effort at all.  I love the colors, and the fact that they are so tough and drought-tolerant, and the fact that they attract a lot of hummingbirds and bees.  I probably have 30 or 35 species in my garden.
And there is a wicked salvia–Salvia divinorum, an intoxicating little annual salvia native to Mexico.  It apparently causes quite nasty hallucinations.  It’s not illegal, but the DEA does consider it a “plant of concern.”
What is your favorite poisonous plant?
I really love castor bean–it’s gorgeous, very dramatic, quite frightful-looking–and the seeds contain ricin, one of the most deadly poisons the plant kingdom makes.  Just a few seeds, chewed well, could kill a person.
What do you think is the most dangerous plant?
In terms of the number of people it has killed?  That’s easy–tobacco.  Over 90 million people have died because of that plant.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spiritual Botany: An Interview with Raven Grimassi

Raven Grimassi is a plant witch. He is a world-renowned author on witchcraft, folklore, Wicca, and Neopaganism whose most recent book, Old World Witchcraft, addresses something he refers to as the organic memory of the earth. He is a spiritual botanist–that is to say he goes beyond the medicinal or ethnobotanical uses of a plant and works with the spirit and the consciousness of the plant. In particular, he works with what we may all consider traditionally “witchy” or dark plants–rotanicals such as Aconite, mandrake, and hemlock. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to Raven in Salem, Massachusetts a couple of years ago and to work with him as this book came out. I recently interviewed him.

What is your earliest plant memory?

This question brings back fond memories.  When I was around five or six years old, my mother had an herb garden in the backyard.  She would often call me over, show me a plant, and then ask “Did I ever tell you what we do with this plant?”  This was always a learning opportunity.  Here was the beginning of my interest in herbs and my understanding that they possessed abilities to influence things.

In Old World Witchcraft you introduce readers to the Ash, Birch, and Willow magical system. Can you describe this?

It’s a system that, in part, is designed to link people with the sentient nature of plants and the spirits that inhabit them.  At the core is a desire to be linked to the Green Wood in intimate ways, as were our ancestors before the time that humans moved towards mastering Nature as opposed to living in common cause with Her.

The practice is intended to establish communication on inner spiritual levels with the consciousness of the living plant life within Nature.  This is done through a variety of techniques such as meditation, conscious dream work, and the use of plant symbols that open direct channels to the Green Wood.

You speak of the organic memory of the earth. Where do plants and plant magic fit in with this memory?

Yes, the idea is that every living thing that died upon the earth had its essence absorbed into the soil.  The memory of each is contained in the mineral composition of the earth, what we call the “bone memory” of the Land.  We know scientifically that crystallized minerals can store, transmit,  and direct energy.  Plants absorb minerals through their root system, and the associated magical belief is that plants therefore can tap into the organic memory of the earth.   This makes it possible to extract memories from the earth when we work closely with plants and their spirits.

The book cover has an image of the mandrake on it. What is the significance of the mandrake?

Poetically speaking, the mandrake is the plant that dreamed of being human, and therefore its roots took on a humanoid shape.  Because we view the mandrake as part plant, part human (in the mystical sense) we think of it as a bridge between humankind and the Green Wood Realm.  In this way the mandrake is a mediator between the worlds.  Therefore we rely upon it to help with spirit contact and as an ally when working with plant spirits.

Do you have a favorite plant?

I have several that call to me in different ways and on different levels.  I like the mandrake because of its direct connection to humankind, and have grown them for many years.  The foxglove enchants me and I love its flowers.  Aconite is another plant that I love for its potent energy that it emanates – it is quite mystical.

What is growing in your garden right now that you are especially proud or fond of?

Well, all the traditional plants of Witchcraft, of course!   I grow them all: aconite, henbane, hemlock, hellebore, belladonna, and foxglove.  These plants surround a rose bush that represents the spiritual teachings of my personal tradition.   I also recently planted seedlings from selected trees that have legends associated with them:  rowan, hawthorn and blackthorn.

Learn more about Raven Grimassi at his website: www.ravengrimassi.net

Cover artist for Grimassi’s book is Benjamin A. Vierling. Look for an upcoming Rotten Botany interview with Vierling and his botanical alchemy!

Also be sure and watch for future entries on all of the above mentioned wickedly wonderful plants!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,