As a biologist and artist eagerly awaiting the Art of the Plant exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Nature (May 10 to October 14, 2018), I’m reminded again how much the worlds of art and natural history overlap.

Art is constantly inspired by nature and its diversity of forms. One need only visit the Nature Art Collection in the museums’ archives to see how nature inspires great art. And, in turn, great works of art guide and awe scientists.

But there is more uniting the fields of natural history and art than one inspiring the other. They are often combined in one and the same person and fuelled by a singular love of nature.

Framed paintings and photographs hanging on a wall.
The museum’s Nature Art collection contains a diversity of nature-based artwork, including paintings by Allan Brooks and prints by John James Audubon. Image: Cassandra Robillard © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Last summer, I participated in the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz, an event which combined an artists’ retreat with a biological survey of the Dumoine River watershed. (Follow the link to apply for this year’s Art Camp by May 1).

At the Dumoine River event there were several of us participating in both the natural history survey and art.

Biologist Fred Schueler recited poetry on Canadian tree ecology, the museum’s botany curator Jennifer Doubt captured stunning macro photographic images of mosses, and meteorologist Phil Chadwick paused from painting to note and explain the science behind particular cloud formations.

A woman paints near the river, another woman examines photographs on her camera
Artist Angela St Jean paints while blog author and museum botany technical assistant Cassandra Robillard takes stock of her moss and lichen photos after a day of surveying at the 2017 Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Dumoine River Art Camp and Bioblitz. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Indeed, some of the most incredible biological artwork has been created by scientist-artists. Examples include John James Audubon’s prints in The Birds of America (1827-1838), zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s lithographs in Kunstformen der Natur (1904), and in Canada, the paintings and sketches of botanists Faith Fyles and Sylvia Edlund.

A woman collecting plants in the Arctic. On the right several of her colour sketches of Arctic plants.
Botanist Sylvia Edlund made coloured drawings of Arctic plants for her publication Common Arctic Wildflowers of the Northwest Territories. Left to right, clockwise: marsh fleabane (Tehproseris palustris subsp. congesta), alpine milk vetch (Astragalus alpinus), cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus). Image: © Geological Survey of Canada (photograph) / Sylvia Edlund, © Geological Survey of Canada (drawings).

Beyond these practical aspects, what I think also binds natural history and art together is that they are both often experienced more as a way of life than as a traditional job.

A frequent discussion among the artists and naturalists at the Dumoine River event was how difficult it can be to make a living pursuing their passion, and yet how in spite of this, they wouldn’t give up the journey for anything.

And this is a good thing, because the more common ground that’s found between artists and naturalists, the more they’ll inspire others with the wonders of nature!

A botanical illustration of the cones of a red pine tree.
See more botanical art like this red pine (Pinus resinosa) at the Art of the Plant exhibit, May 10 to October 14 in the museum’s Stonewall Gallery. Image: Kathryn Chorney © 2017 Kathryn Chorney.