Artist captures Caverns' native plants

By Victoria Parker-Stevens/Carlsbad Current-Argus

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Photo of Donald DavidsonCARLSBAD CAVERNS -- Art meet science; science meet art -- it's about time. For two weeks in late April, artist and national parks volunteer Donald Davidson created representations of some of the native wildflowers found above the famous underground at Carlsbad Caverns National park. Davidson, who readily admits he's not a scientist, said his pencil and watercolor illustrations -- all done in the field -- are botanically accurate, yet personal, works. He doesn't seek to achieve a photographic level of realism, he said, as a photo cannot emphasize equally all of the essential parts of a particular species, nor remove unnecessary details. Instead, Davidson describes his work as naturalism.

"I want to capture the living form of a plant in its own element," he said, noting wildflowers in illustrations typically look like specimens, rather than living things blown about by the wind. "I'm used to (drawing) dancers who never stop moving." Davidson said he tries to keep his work smooth and flowing, asking himself how the stem flows into the flower and the leaf. His art has been embraced by botanists and others with the National Park Service, he said, who can most readily use it for educational purposes. "They don't have access to work like this done by any other source," Davidson said. Once his plant identifications are confirmed, Davidson's art can also be used to show the presence of particular species in a park, he said, which helps with resource management. The Caverns has more than 1,000 wildflower species, which is an unusually large amount for the size of the park, Davidson said. The variety is also wide, and there are several rare species. "It's such a rich resource and so undertrodden," Davidson said. "One of the purposes of my trip is to increase an awareness of wildflowers. It may take a little patience, but there is so much to see if you just look." Fairly easy-access ways to see wildflowers in the park, he said, are at pullover areas along the park's loop road and along the Old Guano Road Trail, which runs less than four miles one-way from the bat flight amphitheater to White's City. "Spring in the desert is heaven on earth to me," Davidson said, adding even this year's severe drought hasn't impacted his work. "I always find something."

Seeking spring was what got Davidson started back in 1999, when naturalist friends suggested the Washington, D.C., gardener head south to put an end to cabin fever. He contacted a botanist at Big Bend National Park in Texas and found out there were benefits to becoming a volunteer, like housing. Since then, Davidson has visited 14 Western parks, and his work has been placed on the park service Web site, where it is referred to as the traveling artist wildflowers project. While a number of parks are involved with the park service's artists in residence program, Davidson said his work is different because he not only moves from park to park, but focuses on just one subject.

This year's schedule is Davidson's busiest ever. He will be on the road, and away from his home repair business, for three months, during which time he will visit four parks. "I would love to come back for fall blooms," he said of his typical spring journeys, "but I've got to catch up with my bills." Davidson, 49, who lives in Washington with his writer wife Rosie Dempsey, receives some financial support from groups like the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, the National Endowments for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

"I save up each year to pursue this," he said. "The grants help a great deal, but it's really a labor of love." Still, Davidson said he is grateful for the opportunity to do the work. He said his experience is a good example of what to do when there's nothing in a volunteer posting that suits -- ask if a new position can be created. Recently, Davidson has also become more involved with educational programs at parks and nearby schools. In Carlsbad, he held elementary school and college workshops. "I want to help young students figure out how they can translate their skills into capturing a specific floral target," Davidson said, posting questions like "Where does a form begin?" and "Is that circle really a number of items bumping up against each other?" That information can then be translated into elements that distinguish species, he said. Davidson has been adding more detail to his drawings as he learns more about what makes each species unique, he said. He used to finish five illustrations a day, but now, he down to two or three.

"This will probably be my life's work," he said of the vast number of species that await. Sometimes, there are specific species a park wants him to focus on. For example, Guadalupe Mountains National Park asked him to draw trees and grass that visitors are most likely to see. But most of the time, he is free to choose his subjects. "Part of the beauty of the work is just being able to spend time sitting with a flower," he said, adding it's like meditation. "The more you sit and relax and concentrate on something, you begin to see distinct elements." A University of Maryland graduate with a bachelor's degree in studio art, Davidson said he used to be a neo-expressionist. "Now, I'm doing something more typical to the natural spirit," he said. "It doesn't have to be about me anymore, but about allowing the world to speak to me." Davidson's most recent work also incorporates another lifelong interest. "In the last years, the gardener and the artist have finally come together," he said.

Davidson also hopes, through providing his art to the public, that he can help preserve species for future generations. "Those who spend time painting, photographing or writing about nature retain the sense of possession inside of themselves, and that's the biggest part of stewardship," he said. "It makes you want to protect it rather than actually take it. And those who take resources are actually defeating their own needs because it's no longer beautiful when it's been removed from its natural environment." Davidson said while all of the parks have been helpful, the Caverns staff was especially generous in providing logistical support, as well as enthusiasm and open-mindedness. "I feel like I've been made part of the (park) family," he said, adding appreciation for Carlsbad after a successful emergency dental trip. Next year, Davidson plans to return to the Caverns for the entire month of April. He said teachers who may be interested in presentations should contact the park for more information.

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Article By Victoria Parker-Stevens/Carlsbad Current-Argus

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