Painting Native Plant Personalities: Frances Stilwell

On a quiet neighborhood street in northwest Corvallis, I walk up a stone-paved path lined with blooming lavender, humming with bees. Approaching the door to a yellow ranch home, I am welcomed into a similarly creamy yellow interior, whose walls are covered almost ceiling to baseboard with primarily landscape paintings that fill me with gratitude, knowing that they showcase my home in the state of Oregon. 

Today, I am here to talk with Frances Stilwell, author of Oregon’s Botanical Landscape: An Opportunity to Imagine Oregon Before 1800, as well as her good friend and editor, Be D. Herrera. 

Soon enough, the three of us are going down a row of paintings on Stilwell’s interior wall, as she recalls a bit of the story of each creation. When we get to a painting far off from where we sit featuring a blue sky, evergreen tree line, and gold farm field foreground, Stilwell laughs. 

“What was fun about that picture is that I had to do it on the roadside, and there was a wind so that every time a truck drove by it knocked [down] the board that had my paper on it off the easel. It was a Sunday morning, and fortunately traffic was fair. There weren’t many cars driving by, but I was still challenged to get anything done while those trucks were going by,” she recalls of her trip to Eddyville to paint this landscape. 

“In addition to that, I had to go down to ask permission of the landowner to stand on the roadside, to stand on their property, and they were haying down below. So I went down below and said, ‘May I stand on your property to do this painting?’, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’, kind of like lady what are you bothering us about,” Stilwell finishes with another laugh. 

“It’s so wonderful when the process comes back to you,” she later tells me and Herrera. ” It’s just so refreshing.” 

Stilwell first moved to Oregon in 1969 after finishing both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Botany at the University of Cincinnati. In her 50 years of residence here, she has painted many scenes with this kind of delight in the process. While I am grateful to catch pieces of many of these stories, our discussion today focuses on her book, and life events that eventually led to it. 

Oregon’s Botanical Landscape, lovingly called OBL by Stilwell, features 81 images of native plants across this state, accompanied by narratives that tell of their distributions and interesting features. 

I first came to the book when my dad brought home a copy from the Corvallis Public Library, and was quite transfixed after a simple flip through the pages. In my own life, knowing the plants around me gives me a great sense of ease and belonging, and here in my hands was a book that exemplified this. I was instantly curious to know the person behind such a holistic endeavor.

Chronology to Artistry
Stilwell originally hails from Ohio, where she was raised in a family that included many artists. For example, she points out a watercolor painting in the front hallway, created by her aunt. While she never felt pressure to take up art, she did “know that they encouraged me.” Stilwell says, “When I started doing all of this, I was three years old. I believe they just recognized at the start, and then there was a time, when it became obvious that I was one in the family who had the bug.” 

As a young adult, Stilwell’s father became ill with brain cancer, and even through the circumstances of his disease and treatment, her family members still encouraged her to take night classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. These classes taught her skills she could build upon, and perhaps more importantly, gave her the time and place to practice her art without question, developing her own sense of self through it. 

Stilwell’s father’s disease eventually progressed to the point that the family found more advanced treatment needed to be sought. At the Massachusetts General Hospital, he received experimental radiation treatment that took a toll on all involved, leading to a moment Stilwell recounts as foundational to her draw to painting native plants in Oregon.

“When I came home from that horrible ordeal, I put my feet down on the tarmac. I knew I was home because I could smell the smells of Ohio,” she says. “I realized from that that the environment was very important to [giving] me a sense of home. In coming out here to Oregon, I transferred that experience, I recalled that experience.”

After finishing up her two degrees in Botany in Ohio, Stilwell eventually felt pulled to try out her own wings in Oregon, taking her first job out of school at the University of Oregon in 1969. She would stay at an animal behavior lab here for four years, and make a surprisingly profound discovery. 

The lab she worked in was interested in the grooming behavior of mice and voles, and one of Stilwell’s tasks was to take detailed observations of their reactions in an experiment where they were being dunked in water to dry out (“the poor little mice,” she tells me). As she watched the mice, she recognized that there was something repetitive in the way they wiped their faces and head while drying. 

The behavior reminded her of the different strokes used in the game of tennis, which she played, and convinced her to set up slow motion cameras and to analyze the resulting film frame by frame. “It was quite a job to do,” she remembers, but the result was significant: the mice made exactly 20 strokes in two seconds, with three different kinds of strokes that Stilwell could distinguish. These results were eventually published in the science journals Nature and Science, with illustrations in the articles drawn by Stilwell. 

This was the first time anything Stilwell had drawn was published, and the irony of her family background in art was tangible: “I remember thinking as I sat there doing these little cartoon drawings, wouldn’t Aunt Emma be amazed to see how the family talent was being used?” She laughs. “It was not what anybody would have expected. However, it was with some satisfaction that I was able to do that, that I was able to earn my living doing that.”

After her time in the lab came to an end, Stilwell decided to stay in Oregon longer than she had originally expected, moving to Corvallis (where she has lived ever since) for a position that combined both her botany and newfound animal behavior skills in order to study European honeybee pollination of meadowfoam (Limnanthes alba). 

Meadowfoam is a native plant to the Willamette Valley, most often noticed when its small white flowers are in bloom, lining highways. Similar to rapeseed oil, the chemical properties of meadowfoam oil make it less likely to go rancid, even when handled at high temperatures and in the presence of oxygen and other conditions that often cause natural oils to degrade. 

At the time Stilwell studied it, the potential of meadowfoam oil had not yet become economical, due to its low productivity. Stilwell observed honeybees as they pollinated the plant to see if there was a way to make the process more efficient. Her work inspired one of her paintings, which she picks off the wall to show me. 

The painting shows meadowfoam flowers in various stages of blooming, and bees harvesting nectar from the center of flowers at particular stages. The idea was to learn what stage of the flower the bees preferred to pollinate the most, captured in a more beautiful way than a scientific graph ever could. 

Painting this native flower species, and realizing that she was beginning a more permanent life in Corvallis, Stilwell began to take more seriously the lesson she learned back on the tarmac in Ohio—that in order to feel a sense of home, she needed to become more familiar with the landscape around her. 

“It seemed a logical marriage of impulses to become familiar with the plants [by drawing them],” Stilwell says. Prior to this realization, Stilwell had always thought, “Someday, someday, I want to be an artist, I want to practice art.” She laughs, “You’re born an artist, you don’t be an artist.”

Several decades after this realization began, one result is her creation of Oregon’s Botanical Landscape. 

OBL: A Comprehensive Collaboration
The 81 pictures featured in Oregon’s Botanical Landscape were almost all created using pastels. Although they are Stilwell’s medium of choice, “pastels are always difficult to work with because you stand the chance of smudging them,” she says. While Stilwell’s great attention to detail exemplified by her mouse and bee studying days came to use, a more imaginative side of her could readily aid in this effort than in the labs where she previously worked. 

“Sometimes on these paintings I would intentionally mix water with the pastels to give the effect of water colors,” she explains. “That’s a different way of doing things.”

Her mixed use of mediums is all part of one goal for this book: to capture what Stilwell calls the personality of native plants. 

When I asked her how she defines personality for plants, she responds, “Well, how would you say personality for you? You would say family, you would say your associates. What air you breathe, what your needs are. You certainly wouldn’t define it just by a photograph or a line drawing of a person.” The plants, “need to come to life somehow. I have some books that are just black and white drawings, and they are very disappointing to me.” She laments, “Black and white drawings of plants—I think they don’t do the plants justice.”

In Be D. Herrera’s mind, OBL has a far more wide-ranging effect than the conveyance of plant personalities: “Frances took her vision and made people proud again of where they were from without feeling silly,” she says.  “I mean there’s so much going on right now, it’s stunning— people have to care, and they have to have something to care with and about.”

To reach these ends meant taking a holistic approach to the book, and seeking out collaboration.

The Corvallis Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon granted funds to make what Stilwell calls her “grace notes” that accompany each of her images. All include maps from the Oregon Flora Project Atlas (out of Oregon State University) and the US Department of Agriculture database.  

Meanwhile, information from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Jim Omernik and consultant Glenn Griffith was invaluable to defining the Ecoregions of Oregon that separate OBL into its chapters. Further, each chapter begins with a map and geographer’s note from Griffith, a biologist’s note from Victoria Tenbrink, and then finally the paintings and grace notes from Stilwell. 

The book was self-published and printed locally, and with a grant received from the Benton County Cultural Coalition, copies of OBL have a home at all 35 schools and libraries in Benton County. In addition, it is available for sale at Browser’s Books, and soon will be on shelves at the Corvallis Arts Center. 

The end result is both a book and a process that “in tiny ways yanks in and pulls out truth and love,” says Herrera. 

Discovering the Good Things Inside
Returning back to the wall in Stilwell’s living room, we come to one of her favorite paintings, featuring an old growth Ponderosa pine forest in Central Oregon. 

“I felt in doing that picture that I had finally learned to draw,” Stilwell recounts, “because I got these wonderful, sweeping motions for those Ponderosa pine trees.”

When painting the piece, a friend had accompanied Stilwell to make sure no bears disturbed the process. She had gone on a walk around the area Stilwell was working in, and upon her return, Stilwell couldn’t help but to “let out a ‘whoop’ because it felt like I had finally learned how to paint with pastel,” she explains. “The growth process in working on these pictures is really wonderful. It isn’t just something you learn from a book…it was a special moment, a discovery process.”

Stilwell continues, gesturing to the room as a whole, “the pictures that I most treasure in here are the ones that challenge something inside of me that I didn’t know was there. That one with the Ponderosa pines represents a growth step for me… that’s what’s neat about the art process, I think, is that you discover abilities that you didn’t know were there.”

As I eventually retrace my steps along the lavender-edged path out her front door, I can’t help but to think Stilwell just described her art process, and the impact of Oregon’s Botanical Landscape as a whole—in painting the native plants of this state and making them accessible to the public, an opportunity presents itself for anyone to discover the wonders that exist in the botanical landscape they didn’t know were there.

By Ari Blatt