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Capturing the Beauty of Cotton in Pain-Staking Detail

January 9, 2024

Capturing the Beauty of Cotton in Pain-Staking Detail

Susan Tomlinson’s botanical illustrations will be included in a prestigious international exhibit next fall.

Susan Tomlinson is the accidental cotton farmer, in a manner of speaking, but her harvest looks much different from that of other producers

That's because Tomlinson is a botanical artist, and her “harvest” consists of paintings of cotton, the plant that has become the foundation upon which the region's economy is built.

“I've learned all sorts of things about cotton,” said Tomlinson, who teaches in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. “I became interested in it when I started researching the plant and its ancestors in order to create a botanical painting for an exhibition. That eventually turned into a much larger project that has been lots of fun.”

Her efforts were recognized recently when Carnegie Mellon University announced that her painting, “The Evolution of Cotton,” will be included for exhibition by the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation's 17th International Series next fall. The accolade is significant for Tomlinson and for Texas Tech.

The Evolution of Cotton
"The Evolution of Cotton"

“It is a big deal, and I am honored,” she said. “I feel like it is something I can point to and be proud of at the end of the day. But then I try not to think about it because if you think too much about it being accepted or other people liking it, that can just tie you up in knots. I would just rather enjoy the work.”

For Tomlinson, the project has been its own reward in terms of contributions to what she believes is the important field of botanical illustration, which traces its origins to science.

“The very first reasons for having botanical illustrations were medicinal,” she explained. “Physicians needed a reference as far as the parts of a plant that were to be used or the difference between two plants that looked very much alike except one was poisonous and one wasn't. The illustrations needed to be extraordinarily accurate.”

As photography developed, the illustrations became less about science and more about art before undergoing something of a renaissance in the 1960s. There was still an element of scientific documentation involved, but a push was taking place that encouraged artists to break new ground.

Artists were discovering they had superior tools with advances in paints and papers, meaning they could do things they couldn't do before in terms of being edgier and taking risks with their creations.

“There was a pushing of boundaries in terms of making it even more artistic,” Tomlinson said. “We didn't want to do the same things we'd been doing in the 19th century in the 20th and 21st centuries. As a result, there have been some really, really good artists doing contemporary botanical art.”

This explosion of avant-garde work would eventually need a place to be showcased, and the Hunt Institute moved to fill the niche. The Hunt has focused almost exclusively on contemporary botanical illustrations with the mission of being both a resource for scholars and a repository for outstanding work.

The International Series receives submissions every three years from botanical artists around the globe. From those, a small number of artists are selected for inclusion in an exhibit that runs for three years. These artists are asked to submit three pieces of their work, of which only one may be accepted. 

“After that, they will often ask the artist to donate the work to the library so it can be housed there for future scholars to look at,” Tomlinson said. “The exhibition is very highly regarded, and you can only be in it once.”

The piece Tomlinson submitted grew out of an idea from the New York Botanical Garden exhibition featuring plants grown for economic value. At the time, she had submitted several paintings to the American Society of Arts Exhibition and was asked if she was planning to submit any pieces for the New York event.

Arkansas GreenGossyplum hirsutum 'Arkansas Green'

“I said, ‘The only thing we grow here is cotton,'” she said. “I was working on a series of plants, showing species of devil's claw. There are five species of it in Texas, and there is a Native American tribe in Arizona that uses them to weave baskets, but other than that, there is no economic importance. It's a fascinating plant, but it didn't fit.”

Her attention returned to cotton, and after a couple of informative conversations, she found herself at the Texas A&M AgriLife greenhouse, where they have the earliest known ancestor of cotton growing and where Jane Dever and Leslie Wells were helpful to her efforts.

“I found that intriguing,” she said. “I contacted them, and they told me about Texas Tech's Dr. Zhixin Xie in biology, and that he was looking at doing gene studies of the ancestry of cotton.”

The more Tomlinson learned about cotton, the more she wanted to know. As she accumulated knowledge about the plant, she also began painting it, starting with early relatives and then slowly working on subsequent species. She found the earliest known ancestor of cotton looked nothing like what one might think cotton should look.

That is how “Evolution of Cotton” came to be. It features separate species that are consistently different.

“I grow my own subjects now,” she said with a smile. “I can walk in my garden and tell which species is which based on characteristics.”

Along the way, she has submitted a piece to the Royal Horticultural Society Annual Botanical Exhibition, comparable to the Olympic Games because participants must first qualify with superior pieces awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. 

About the same time, the Texas Tech Press heard about her work and contacted her about a book of cotton paintings, which is where her primary focus is these days. It is slow going because the paintings are meticulously painted, requiring tiny brushes and a magnifying glass to ensure every detail is perfect.

“When someone asks how long one painting takes, I say a while because it's from the seed,” she said. “Each painting is extraordinarily time-consuming.”

Susan Tomlinson in front of the plants her her alley. Susan's alley of plants. Susan Tomlinson in her greenhouse

Not bad for someone who was sure she would be an oceanographer despite the keen eye of a grandmother who saw her artistic gifts early on.

“She was a self-taught artist and teacher and when I was 4 or 5, she decided, based on some kind of drawings I was doing, that I had some kind of talent,” Tomlinson recalled. “She told my parents to guide me in that direction, make sure I received private lessons and so on.

“But it's like anything. If your parents say this is what you're good at and to go this way, you go another way. Until I was a high school senior, I was determined to be an oceanographer, but I couldn't do the math. My dad kept saying I was going into art and would become a teacher. I said I wasn't, but here I am.”

Where it's all worked out for the best – for Tomlinson and Texas Tech.

“Dr. Tomlinson's inclusion into Carnegie's Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation bolsters the international research reputation of Texas Tech and the Honors College and places Dr. Tomlinson's creative endeavors alongside that of internationally acclaimed botanical artists,” said Jill Hernandez, dean of the Honors College. “Not only will her designs be showcased in the international exhibition but will become a part of Hunt's permanent gallery – a lasting impression of Susan's excellence and a Texas Tech legacy.”

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