March 10 - September 4, 2016
Beaty Biodiversity Museum
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC

Cultivating Her Own Garden: The Botanical Work of Brigitte Potter-Mael

Brigitte Potter Mael’s art-making path began with a trip abroad, when, at age 33, she left Germany for an 8-month world travel over-land to the south of India before immigrating to Canada in 1977. This extensive pilgrimage not only changed her view of the world, it also guided her in her long-planned decision to study and practice art. In Montreal, between 1983 and 1988, Brigitte began to identify as an environmentalist and was part of the Anti-Nuclear Movement there. After receiving a BFA from Concordia University, and a residency at the Leighton Colony, where she worked with the botany of forests, Brigitte travelled to the west coast of British Columbia, settling in Victoria in 1990. There she planted a garden and continued collecting botanical specimens and developing her art work, utilising natural materials. Reflecting also on the self as part of nature, she began to work with her own body as a nature-subject, tracing its silhouette with chalk and pigment on various natural grounds and filling it with botanical fragments such as mountain ash berries, cedar bark, and rosehips.

Beginning in 2003, aged 60, Brigitte spent six months a year in the lush setting of Lanzara, Italy, surrounded by gardens, wildflowers, and untamed meadows. Here she began to make watercolour scrolls illustrating the local flora, work that became her first Herbarium, subsequently presented to two renowned Italian botanists, Dr. Paolo De Luca, director of the Federico Secondo University Botanical Garden in Naples, and Dr. Luciano Mauro, director of the Salerno University Medical School’s medicinal garden Il Giardino Della Minerva. From this, her botanical work began in earnest.

Brigitte has never received any formal training in illustrating plants, nor has she studied botany. Plants and their diversity in situ, as well as the persons looking after them, became her official teachers. Wanting to honour the plant life in her native Germany, Brigitte connected with the German botanist Dr. Hermann Muhle working at the Herbarium, Botanical Garden University of Ulm in 2009, who agreed to collaborate on her botany project the Lone Valley Herbarium. In 2014, along with her German botanical illustration work, Brigitte also began working with botanist Linda Jennings, herbarium manager and assistant curator at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s Herbarium at UBC. Linda loaned and entrusted her with a selection of plant specimens from the Beaty Museum’s herbarium collection. Exquisite water-colour illustrations, as well as a series of intaglio-woodcuts of plants from diverse eco-systems in BC, have resulted from this study. Unlike copyists, who imitate the surface impression of objects, Brigitte’s work employs the detailed observational scrutiny of the artist-scientist, contributing to the discourse of scientific literacy.

Brigitte continues to work as gardener, artist, and print-maker; after much exploration and experimentation with various print media, after nearly leaving printmaking behind altogether, she has found a unique medium and technique. Working from wooden plates, but printing them like etchings, Brigitte has created wonderful botanical works in a medium she calls woodcut-intaglio. Brigitte is taking the tradition of her early predecessors, the women who pioneered scientific illustration in the 17th century, into the 21st century with works that combine close observation, beautiful rendering, and love and reverence for nature.

-Lisa MacLean


For further reading and to find out how you can help

South Okanagan-Similkameen Conservation Program

Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program

SeedsCo Community Conservation

Nature Conservancy Canada

Nature Trust of BC

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada COSEWIC