Nanaimo artist Yvonne Vander Kooi is showcasing her recent work in Strange Botanicals at Gallery Merrick from May 3 to 17. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

Nanaimo artist showing new floral work ‘Strange Botanicals’

Painting series inspired by 19th century gardening and botany manual

Nanaimo artist Yvonne Vander Kooi is exhibiting her work for the first time in three years with a collection of paintings inspired by a 19th century botany manual.

Vander Kooi discovered Greenhouse Favourites, a 150-year-old book on gardening, in the rare and collectible books section at Well Read Books and was “enraptured” by its botanical illustrations.

“I found these illustrations, the hand-painted ones, to be almost surreal,” she said. “Really unusual looking. They almost don’t look real. They look otherworldly to me.”

The book was published in London and includes descriptions of plants and flowers brought to the metropole from the reaches of the British empire. Vander Kooi said the book was written for the accomplished upper-class Victorian gardener.

“The language is also very flowery,” she said. “It’s very British and over-the-top, very nicely articulated but it’s almost like these qualities in the language are similar to the qualities of the flowers, in a way. So it kind of cracks me up.”

When Vander Kooi’s son bought her the horticultural tome last Christmas, she was so excited that she immediately began work on a series of paintings based on its floral images. From May 3 to 17 she’ll be displaying some of those paintings alongside Banff, Alta. digital artist Deborah Cameron in the joint show Strange Botanicals at Gallery Merrick.

Vander Kooi said she’s never done a series of work primarily focused on botanicals before. While she’s inspired by Greenhouse Favourites’ illustrations, she’s aiming to play with those images and make them more abstract through inventive painting techniques.

“To me what is also important is not just a floral, a painting of a flower, but exploring the formal qualities of paint,” she said. “Experimenting with paint and the materiality of paint and pulling paint and scraping paint and doing all of those things that I normally do and have been experimenting with, but sort of applying it to this series so that the series itself becomes even wilder.”

Vander Kooi will be presenting work on canvases ranging from five-by-five inches to two-by-two feet. As an artist used to creating murals and working on large surfaces, she said it was a bit of a departure to downsize, but she said it suited her subjects.

“The individual flowers are obviously blown up and there’s aspects of the flower that are accentuated or exaggerated in the painting work,” Vander Kooi said. “But then [I’m] sort of letting go of the image at some point and letting my imagination and my decision-making as an artist take over.”

WHAT’S ON … Strange Botanicals by Yvonne Vander Kooi and Deborah Cameron comes to Gallery Merrick from May 3 to 17. Opening receptions on May 3 from 7 to 9 p.m. and May 4 from 1 to 4 p.m.

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