In a changing climate, the work of botanical artists takes on new meaning

Botanical art displayed at the Hill House depict trees and wildlife.
Botanical art displayed at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul depict trees and wildlife that are vulnerable to climate change, including a bird called a northern parula, drawn by Marj Davis.
Megan Burks | MPR News

Railroad titan James J. Hill added a gallery to his sprawling 1891 house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul to showcase his expansive art collection. The room, with its high glass ceiling, still functions as a gallery to show off that collection. But starting Saturday, it will display new works.

The pieces, by 10 Minnesota botanical artists, will be just as classic in style, but their subject matter will be a contemporary one: climate change.

Two people in front of botanicals displayed at the James J. Hill House.
Artist Marj Davis and Minnesota Historical Society curator Brian Szott.
Megan Burks | MPR News

“Normally we exhibit work here that focuses on our permanent collection, which consists of many images of [the Minnesota] landscape,” said Brian Szott, curator at the Minnesota Historical Society.

“So, I thought it was an interesting contemporary bookend to our collection to focus on botanically trained artists who are taking a very scientific approach — in a very quiet in a sort of way — to our changing climate.”

The pieces in “Art from the Edge of the Boreal Forest: Reflecting Biodiversity” focus on the tree species in northern Minnesota that are most vulnerable to climate change and the wildlife species that depend on them. The trees include balsam poplar, the balsam fir and the jack pine.

Winters have warmed about 5 to 6 degrees in northern Minnesota since 1970, and that’s taken a toll on the boreal forest where those trees live.

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“A boreal forest relies heavily on a long, cold winters and short, warm summers with ample rainfall,” Szott said. “When that balance starts to change, the trees and the ecosystem start to break down.”

Already, trees such as red maples that grow farther south are moving into the region.

“That's what's so significant about this exhibition title because it's ‘from the edge of the boreal forest,’ which is that southern part of this great biome that spans most of northern North America. But it's also the boreal forest on the edge of some significant changes,” Szott said.

Artist Marj Davis and her colleagues featured in the exhibit spent 10 years on the project. In that time, she said, she’s noticed the hotter summers and more damaging storms associated with climate change.

“Sometimes when we look at big problems, it's hard to figure out what you can do as an individual,” Davis said. “But this gives me personally a lot of satisfaction.”

The exhibit runs through June 21 and is free with admission to the James J. Hill House.