Artist brings life to works of nature

Essence: Peggy Duke's work is described as capturing the anatomical details of flowers and plants, as well as their spirit and beauty.

October 09, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

For years, Peggy Duke made a career creating precise pen-and-ink drawings of plant structures for books and manuals, painstakingly showing the multitude of hairs in the roots, the minute details of the leaves and the shape of individual petals.

Then, about 15 years ago, she discovered Oriental brush painting, a style at the other end of the artistic spectrum, with its broad, loose strokes and liberal use of ink. Called Sumi-e, or black ink, (although many artists, including Duke, use color), it focuses on capturing the essence of the subject and a harmony with nature rather than exact replicas of the subjects.

"With the botanical stuff, you have to get every tiny detail," said Duke, a Fulton resident who has illustrated more than a dozen publications over nearly five decades. With brush painting, "it's more free. ... They are two very different things, yet I enjoy doing both of them."

Duke's brush paintings of bright flowers and soft-focus landscapes and her detailed, hand-colored drawings of May apple, St. John's wort, ferns and other plants are on display at Tai Sophia Institute for the Healing Arts in North Laurel through Nov. 20.

A reception, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 6, will feature a talk by her husband, botany expert James Duke, on the healing properties of many plants that appear in the artwork.

Peggy Duke started drawing as a child in New Jersey and, when she attended Maryville College in Tennessee, developed an interest in plants and an aptitude for drawing them.

She earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1953 and went to the University of North Carolina for a master's degree in botany.

There, two professors asked her to create drawings for a botany textbook.

Duke also met her husband on her first day at North Carolina, where he was earning a doctorate.

A leading authority on herbal medicine and ethnobotany, James Duke is a faculty member at Tai Sophia, has a large botanical garden in Fulton and teaches around the world.

Over the years, the couple collaborated on numerous projects, including The Green Pharmacy, a compendium of natural remedies that has sold more than a million copies. Peggy Duke said her husband's work also brought her in contact with other scientists in need of a skilled illustrator.

"My whole career has been happenstance, really," she said.

"Peggy has a sensitive eye," her husband said in a statement for the exhibit, "one that captures the precise anatomical details of flowers and plants with scientific accuracy, as well as their spirit and beauty."

After living in St. Louis, Beltsville and Ohio, and working in Panama, the couple moved with their two sons to Maryland in the early 1970s.

Peggy Duke worked part time at the University of Maryland, College Park in the mid-1980s as an illustrator for the botany department. She illustrated a book of herbaceous plants of Maryland by two area professors and exhibited her drawings at the National Arboretum in Washington, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Wildlife Federation.

"I just love the biology," she said of her lifelong dedication to drawing plants. "I really love the science."

Duke had studied painting for her own enjoyment when, about 15 years ago, a friend encouraged her to take a class in Oriental brush painting at Montpelier Cultural Art Center in Laurel.

The style "is something I sort of fell into," Duke said. Compared to other watercolor classes, "It was free and loose and easy." She also enjoyed the style's traditional focus on nature. "I knew how plants were put together, of course," she said.

She took more classes and, 12 years ago, started studying somewhat regularly with watercolorist Henry Wo Yue-Kee of Alexandria, Va.

According to the Sumi-e Society of America (Duke is president of the National Capital Area chapter), brush painting involves creating lines and forms using specific brush strokes.

It traditionally uses a stick of pigment made of soot and glue, which is mixed with water on a stone and applied to rice paper. A red seal, signifying the artist's name, is an integral part of the work as well.

Most brush painting backgrounds are plain or colored with a simple wash. "That's another thing I like about it," Duke said. "Backgrounds are hard."

Tai Sophia President Robert Duggan appreciates the botanical themes of Duke's work. A list of paintings and their prices also denotes which of the 40 plants pictured have healing properties.

"The most critical thing for us is that young people be able to recognize herbs," Duggan said. "It's a wake-up call to the plant life around us instead of just thinking of it as vegetation."

Duke's exhibit is open to the public through Nov. 20 at Tai Sophia Institute, 7750 Montpelier Road, North Laurel. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. Information: 410-888- 9048.

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