Goodbye Walls, Hello Vellum

A small tulip — just a single tulip — may take the meticulous Ms. Kluglein four days to paint
The botanical artist Karen Kluglein lives in a pine forest in Northwest, where she competes with the deer for much of her subject matter. Her watercolor of Rosa rugosa will be this year’s poster for the upcoming Ladies Village Improvement Society Fair. Durell Godfrey

   Karen Kluglein’s pleasant life fell apart in the year 2000, when her husband, a landscape contractor working with big-name East End architects, died suddenly at the age of 44, leaving her with a 4-year-old daughter, a mile-high stack of medical bills, and a career that had started going south just around the time the child was born.
    In the years before Steve Jobs and Photoshop and the baby came along, Ms. Kluglein had been a successful illustrator for commercial displays, packaging, and book and magazine covers, with such clients as Nestle, Keds, and IBM. Caught unawares by the digital revolution, like a medieval monk turning out illuminated manuscripts and stopped in his tracks by Gutenberg, she hardly noticed that the demand for her meticulous hand-drawn images was fading until it was too late. What Madison Avenue ad agencies expected in 2000 — computer-generated graphics, pixel art, digital painting — was outside her comfort zone.
    “The last job I did was for Earth’s Best Baby Food,” she said last week at the Sag Harbor studio where for the last seven years she has created botanical paintings that are much prized by collectors, though perhaps not as well known here on her home ground. “I didn’t want to use a computer. It’s so different. The work even looks different. It’s too perfect — airbrushed, maybe. It has a cold look to it. There’s something so tactile about using brushes.”
    Instead, Ms. Kluglein, whose watercolor of Rosa rugosa will be the poster for next month’s East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society Fair, went to work for James Alan Smith of Water Mill, painting decorative surfaces and trompe l’oeil on beach house walls, as well as large landscapes, chiefly of rocky shorelines, for a now defunct Southampton gallery. (“ ‘People want big paintings in their big houses,’ ” the dealer told her.) In the studio, she still has a few of the landscapes, which look about as far from her delicate botanicals as an ostrich from a hummingbird.
    “Then came ASBA,” said the artist, recalling the aha! moment when she happened to drop in on the American Society of Botanical Artists’ annual show of work by its members. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s where my work belongs!’ Because when I had free time or was between jobs, I’d do those for myself.”
    Goodbye walls, hello calfskin vellum.
    A small tulip — just a single tulip — may take the meticulous Ms. Kluglein four days to paint; large assemblages need up to a month. Her luminous creations start at about $1,800 for watercolors on paper and go up to $5,000 or more for work of the kind she’s doing at the moment for a Russian collector, who has commissioned a series of paintings that uncannily echo those ornamented medieval texts.
    In the United States, one of the most prominent collectors of botanicals is a stockbroker-turned-entrepreneur named Isaac M. Sutton, who lives in Brooklyn, where he has an ongoing project revolving around his favorite tree, a pink dogwood. Every year when the tree is in bloom he asks a different artist to paint it. (“It’s taking the Monet haystack theory but distributing it among different artists,” he once explained.) Among botanical painters, being asked to paint the Sutton dogwood is apparently like being told you’ve won a MacArthur genius grant (without the $500,000). Ms. Kluglein, who was asked several years ago, assumes the paintings will make a book someday.
    The challenge for the botanical artist is not only to capture the beauty of the subject but also, with scientific accuracy, its unique form and function, and to do it in a way peculiar to the artist’s own sensibility, so that the viewer, ideally, will recognize it as hers.
    Ms. Kluglein had a banner year in 2010, when, after her work was named Best in Show at ASBA’s annual exhibit at the Horticultural Society of New York, she also won ASBA’s annual award for excellence in botanical art and had exhibitions both in California and at the Spanierman Gallery in East Hampton.
    This year, her finely drawn watercolor of a Frankliniana twig in flower was chosen by ASBA, which has 1,500 members here and abroad, to illustrate its current traveling exhibition, “Following in the Bartrams’ Footsteps.” The show opened last month in Philadelphia and will go to Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Berkeley, Calif., before closing in February 2015. (John and William Bartram, brothers, were 18th-century naturalists who found a hitherto unknown tree with red leaves and white blossoms growing wild in Georgia, collected its seeds, and named it for their friend Benjamin Franklin.)
    Warren and Bebe Johnson of East Hampton’s Pritam & Eames Gallery spotted Ms. Kluglein’s work a year ago and are currently exhibiting several of her watercolors in conjunction with their 33rd anniversary show, on view through July 30. “There’s a line her paintings tread, particularly her still lives, that is especially provocative,” Ms. Johnson said, citing a painting of hydrangeas in a metal container with a pair of scissors off to the side, its point headed directly at the viewer. “There’s this absolutely luscious gathering of hydrangeas,” said Ms. Johnson, “and then this edge.”
    “When I find a subject I want to paint I often know right away,” Ms. Kluglein said. “Sometimes something looks so absolutely perfect you can’t believe it.” She once brought home an entire heirloom rosebush because it had “one exquisite blossom,” and bought a “perfect-looking oyster mushroom” in a grocery store because “I have never seen another quite like it.”
    The New York Botanical Garden, where she teaches classes in botanical art, has her painting of grapes, done from a photograph she took at the Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, in its library. “One of the nicest things for me was to get into the [N.Y.B.G.’s] historical library,” she said. “It means your work is saved and taken care of.” For someone who sees her living subjects die or decay within days, preservation on that level is understandably meaningful.
    Ms. Kluglein lives with her daughter and her second husband, a retired fireman for the New York Fire Department, in East Hampton. Her mother, June Kluglein, also an artist, died four years ago, and a year later her father suggested she move into her mother’s studio behind their garage. The setup has been perfect for both of them; he has his daughter around and she, who’d been using a spare room in her house, has both her father and the space she needs.
    “Rosa rugosa,” her L.V.I.S. Fair poster, will be on sale at the fair itself on July 27,  and she will be there to sign her work. Notecards will be available as well. The chairwoman of the fair, Wendy Serkin, who chose the subject, was a student of hers one summer. And speaking of notecards, Caspari, a maker of high quality paper products, has bought nine of Ms. Kluglein’s images in the past year for use as cards and placemats. “I saw one at the East Hampton Party Store,” said the former commercial illustrator.