There are, in fact, 20 types of bum­ble­bee and 77 dif­fer­ent species of soli­tary bee in Ire­land, but only one honey bee

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Botan­i­cal art was first pro­duced in Egypt 3,500 years ago. The an­cient Egyp­tians be­lieved that ev­ery­thing that was painted on to the walls of their tombs would come with them into the af­ter­life. Pharaoh Thut­mose III (who ruled from 1479–1425 BC) col­lected rare species dur­ing his mil­i­tary cam­paigns and cre­ated a botan­i­cal cham­ber at Kar­nak, in which ev­ery plant and an­i­mal in his king­dom was care­fully recorded on the walls.

She­vaun’s knowl­edge of Egyp­tol­ogy was picked up dur­ing the years she lived in the shadow of the pyra­mids in Cairo, while her in­ter­est in botany was an­i­mated by her for­ays into the Si­nai desert as she taught her two daugh­ters about their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

“My art is very much con­nected to my re­la­tion­ship with my daugh­ters. While we were liv­ing in Egypt, Alia and Na­dia would come home and show me things they had found — a bee­tle or a plant, and ask me about them. I started re­search­ing what they were show­ing me so as to teach the girls about them, and then I would paint what I saw.”

She dis­cov­ered that the Si­nai desert was on the mi­gra­tion path for swal­lows and swifts mak­ing their way from Europe to Africa. But it was not just mi­gra­tory birds, the Painted Lady but­ter­fly is known to wind­surf all the way from Europe to Si­nai.

Egypt in­spired her be­cause it “has in­cred­i­ble light and that light bounces off things”. She ap­plied to do a dis­tance learn­ing course in botan­i­cal art and dis­cov­ered that the wo­man who founded the So­ci­ety of Botan­i­cal Artists in the UK in 1985, Suzanne Lu­cas (1915-2008), was sim­i­larly in­spired dur­ing her time liv­ing in Egypt.

His­tory and art col­lided for She­vaun in Jan­uary 2011 when she was study­ing for the So­ci­ety of Botan­i­cal Artists’ Dis­tance Learn­ing Course as the Arab Spring was un­fold­ing in Egypt. As things es­ca­lated in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there were “tanks all around where I lived, he­li­copters over­head, men with ma­chetes on the street out­side”.

Her brother-in-law wit­nessed some­one be­ing shot dead on the street in front of him. Mean­while, She­vaun was try­ing to com­plete a botan­i­cal art as­sign­ment on Egyp­tian car­rots, not even sure if it would ever make it to her tu­tor. “We were freaked out. It was just my daugh­ters and my­self. This lovely wo­man from the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs would ring ev­ery day to see how we were. ‘Grand,’ I would re­ply, ‘I am paint­ing car­rots and it’s fine.’ It was re­ally sur­real!”

When she fin­ished her di­ploma, she de­cided she re­ally wanted to make a ca­reer as a botan­i­cal artist but found her­self at a cross­roads. “Botan­i­cal art is very ex­act­ing, so each paint­ing can take weeks, even months, so it’s not very lu­cra­tive. Not only that, but the paint­ings are in wa­ter­colour, and are not val­ued like oil paint­ings, even though wa­ter­colour is tech­ni­cally more chal­leng­ing.”

Last year, she stud­ied dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing at the Dublin Busi­ness School to learn how to mar­ket her work on­line, and judg­ing by her 27,000 In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, it is work­ing.

Pas­sion­ate about con­ser­va­tion, she is us­ing her art to raise aware­ness of the plight of bees — she de­signed the logo for the All-Ire­land Pol­li­na­tor Plan. “It’s great to see my bee ap­pear­ing in parks and gar­dens across Ire­land,” she says.

She hopes that next year’s stamps will draw at­ten­tion to the huge role bees play in Ir­ish agri­cul­ture. Most peo­ple only think of the bum­ble bee and the honey bee, but there are, in fact, “20 types of bum­ble­bee, 77 dif­fer­ent species of soli­tary bee in Ire­land and only one honey bee. Each soli­tary bee can do the work of up to 180 honey bees”.

In the kind of aside you get when you fol­low her on so­cial me­dia, she ex­plains that the Bre­hon laws de­voted pages to bees be­cause honey was recog­nised as so pre­cious. One of the things that makes She­vaun hap­pi­est is when some­one ex­claims ‘I never knew that’ on learn­ing some­thing from her work.

“I love to hear that. I learn ev­ery day and I love it if peo­ple can also learn from my art.

“This all started with my de­sire to learn about those bee­tles and plants my daugh­ters were bring­ing home to me. I think the role of the botan­i­cal artist is to make the con­nec­tion between art and learn­ing.”

She also be­lieves art has a role in con­nect­ing the present with the past. She has been in­volved in pro­mot­ing aware­ness of Ire­land’s first fe­male botanist, Ellen Hutchins (1785-1815), who left an as­ton­ish­ing eight-year epis­to­lary ex­change with fel­low botanist Daw­son Turner.

There is now an an­nual fes­ti­val de­voted to Hutchins in her na­tive Bantry or­gan­ised by Made­line Hutchins, her great great great grand­niece. This year, Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin hosted an ex­hi­bi­tion on her botanis­ing and dis­cov­ery of new species of sea­weeds, lichens, mosses and liv­er­worts, be­fore her life was sadly cut short at just 29 from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. She­vaun was in­vited to paint one of her spec­i­mens from TCD’s Herbar­ium, a sea­weed which Hutchins col­lected in Bantry Bay over 200 years ago.

She­vaun used vel­lum in her live botan­i­cal art demon­stra­tion. Why? “Pa­per is very bland and one di­men­sional; with vel­lum, the paint sits on the sur­face, cre­at­ing a three-di­men­sional ef­fect. There are very few peo­ple us­ing vel­lum to­day and just two vel­lum mak­ers in the whole world now, one in the UK and one in the States.”

By us­ing vel­lum, she feels linked to the early Chris­tian monks who pro­duced manuscripts like the Book of Kells.

“I love con­nect­ing art and his­tory and re­viv­ing some­thing that would have been lost. Each piece of vel­lum is unique and tells us some­thing about the an­i­mal it came from. I love the idea that even the thing that you are paint­ing on be­comes part of the story,” she says.

The bee’s knees: il­lus­tra­tor She­vaun Do­herty at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum, or ‘Dead Zoo’, in Dublin.

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