Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Botanical art in full bloom at Philadelphia Flower Show

Spring has sprung, or so it seems with familiar scents filling the air. That's because the 184th  Philadelphia International Flower Show, billed as the oldest and largest indoor flower exhibition in the world, is opening Saturday through March 10, at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Sponsored and managed by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, this year's show theme of "Brilliant!" focuses on the English gardens of Great Britain.

Welcoming the floral brilliancy of the season is internationally recognized, multi-award-winning artist Joan Frain of Exton, Chester Co. Frain combined her love of gardening with her passion for fine art to focus solely on botanical illustration. She is past president and current board member of the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators (PSBI) and chairs its major exhibit, "Her Majesty's Bouquet," which will be located on the main floor of the Convention Center and near the Philadelphia Horticultural Society (PHS) exhibit.

Frain was interviewed the day after "drop-off," when 66 entries of framed, original botanical illustrations by PSBI members – some possibly from the Lehigh Valley and Berks area -- were to be pre-screened prior to judging. She explained that every entry to be juried had to have followed specific criteria.

"It's a small niche in the art world, but it's a very specific form," Frain explained of botanical illustration.

Every entry had to be signed and labeled according to subject matter. With the theme of the flower show focusing on English gardens, artists had to focus on plants grown in Great Britain. Frain said each entry would be checked for nomenclature, or the plant's Latin name, and botanical accuracy regarding color, size and scale.

Serving on this year's judging panel are: Sam Lemheney, director of design for the Philadelphia International Flower Show (he formerly was Walt Disney World's Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival's area manager); Dr. Harold Sweetman, executive director of Jenkins Arboretum in Devon, and Midge Ingersoll, artist affiliated with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.

Frain said entries ranged in size from 9-by-12-inches to 30-by-35-inches, with nearly 90 percent done in the traditionally accepted medium of watercolor. Colored pencils, and pen and ink and graphite are widely used as well. She explained that oils and acrylics are too heavy and opaque as medium and "don't lend to the delicacy" and seemingly transparency of botanical subject matter.

The judging panel likes to see "something of the life cycle" of the plant in the art, whether it be a bud or seed pod, Frain explained. "The major thrust is to have it botanically accurate, but not like the old herbals. It's a bit of both worlds, involving science and accuracy, yet pleasing enough to hang as art."

As chair of the exhibit, Frain also is involved in its layout at the show along with Drew Becker, PHS president. Becker served as executive director of the New York Restoration Project founded by entertainer Bette Midler.

Frain explained that botanical art differs from floral art in the sense that it is always done against a white background and in the absence of any vase or prop.

"There is never, never any fancy background," she said. A botanical artist draws as much as he or she can from a live specimen and takes necessary pictures since the plant will move and die. If an artist chooses to include an insect in the work, it has to be an insect pertinent to the plant itself. "The challenge is to be scientific in design and decoration," she said.

There's a misconception that botanical artists are scientists, Frain said, but rather they are a diverse group of people from all walks of life, ranging from retired doctors to judges and students. Frain, who has been a botanical artist and instructor for more than 30 years, was a graphic design major hired as a staff artist by Longwood Gardens. She enrolled in botany and horticulture courses at the University of Delaware. Her works can be found in various horticultural books and publications, as well as private collections.

There will be PSBI members on hand at the flower show exhibit to present demonstrations, as well as something for children to enjoy. She said she hopes those who view the botanical illustrations "will leave understanding and be pleasantly surprised that it's not all cut and dry, scientific and boring. Rather, they'll appreciate the paintings and the realism, sans background and vase."

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Country Gate Players in Belvidere, Warren Co., N.J., opens its 42nd theater season on Saturday at 8 p.m., with the Tony Award-winning "Avenue Q, The Musical," through March 10. This hilarious, adult-themed spoof of "Sesame Street" is billed as "part flesh (human), part felt (puppets), and all heart." It's the story of Princeton, played by Matthew Christie of Tobyhanna, a bright-eyed college grad who comes to New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. He soon discovers that the only neighborhood in his price range is Avenue Q but still, the neighbors seem nice.

Cast members include: Matt Bigelli of Easton as Brian, Deb Jacoby of Easton as Christmas Eve, Anthony DeSanctis of Bangor as Nicky, Gavin Neese of Whitehall as Rod, Hugh Halsey IV of East Stroudsburg as Trekkie Monster, and Lauren Caldwell of Great Meadows as Kate Monster. Also, Melissa Bigelli of Easton plays Gary Coleman, with Dan Mazelis of Washington and Stephen Krock of Hellertown as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kelcie Kosberg of Washington as a beguiling temptress.

Director is Gina Scurato of Harmony, with musical direction by Tierney Jory of Bangor.

Even though puppets are utilized to tell their story, Country Gate personnel recommend the show for adult audiences and advise parental discretion due to subject matter.

Upcoming productions by Country Gate are: "On Golden Pond," May 4-12; "Miss Saigon," July 20-28; "Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches," Oct. 12-20, and "The Wizard of Oz," Dec. 21-29.

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Civic Theatre of Allentown presents the Lehigh Valley premiere of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "August: Osage County," opening Friday through March 10. The play, written by actor Tracy Letts, is directed by Civic artistic director, William Sanders.

The play, described as black comedy, explores the dysfunctional Weston family who reunite in Oklahoma following the mysterious disappearance of their patriarch.

"Just when you think it can't get more horrifying, it does," sums Sanders.

The cast includes Becky Engborg, Bill Joachim, Kirk Lawrence, Gretchen Furst, Jan Labellarte, John Kuchar, Meggan Gomez, Merce Tonne, Meredith Lipson, Pat Kelly, Sue Sneeringer, Tom Onushco, and Troy Brokenshire.

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Renowned sculptor Karl Stirner, 88, of Easton has a retrospective of his life work on exhibit through April 7, titled "Transformations - Works in Steel," at the Payne Hurd Gallery at Moravian College in Bethlehem. The collection has large and medium-sized steel sculptures and some drawings by Stirner, whose art career began at age 23, as a professional drafter and then a teacher at Tyler School of Art at Temple University and Moore and Swarthmore colleges. He has created more than 400 pieces of art and is known for using natural materials. His work can be found at such venues as the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The City of Easton also dedicated The Karl Stirner Arts Trail in his honor.

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The 17th annual Edwin H. & Leigh W. Schadt String Competition will feature cello finals on Sunday at 2 p.m., at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown. Three finalists will play cello concertos to compete for an $8,000 prize in the Audience Choice Award. Admission is free, and a public reception will follow.

The Schadt String Competition is the annual national solo string competition presented by the Allentown Symphony Association. It was created in 1997, following a bequest to the association from Edwin H. (1910-1994) and Leigh W. (1904-1996), both of Allentown.The competition alternates annually between violin, cello and classical guitar. First prize also includes a solo concerto engagement with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra during the season following each competition.

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The Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra celebrates its 30th Anniversary Season with a "Birthday Bash" on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., at Christ Lutheran Church in Allentown. The program includes G.F. Handel's "Water Music Suite in D Major," W.A. Mozart's "Concerto for Flute and Harp in C" with guest harpist Frances Duffy and Sinfonia's principal flutist Robin Kani, Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade," and Maurice Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin."

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