Botanical art depicts Dalai Lama's garden

Botanical painting
Botanical paintings strive to be an accurate reproduction of a plant's appearance and highlight the various components of the species.
Courtesy Dianne Aigaki

Who knew the Dalia Lama had such a green thumb? Botanical artist Dianne Aigaki says she was surprised at the lush gardens and colorful wildflowers growing in his private garden in India.

After learning that few, if any, artists had documented those flowers, Aigaki requested permission to set up her easel and began creating detailed scientific paintings of the wildflowers. Aigaki spent hours outdoors in the Dalai Lama's garden to capture the beauty of the plants.

Dianne Aigaki painting
It takes many hours of work for Dianne Aigaki to complete a botanical painting.
Courtesy Dianne Aigaki

"When I was painting in the garden I was having really a lot of trouble getting the exact color of the petals," Aigaki said. "I was taking the petals and putting them under a layer of scotch tape on a paper and then painting right next to it, so I could see if I was getting the color matched exactly."

Botanical painters are sticklers for accuracy. Artists must capture the scale, color and structure of a species. The detailed paintings have no background -- the artists paints only the plant, to eliminate distractions.

Botanicals are used by scientists and often include measurements, notes and other information about the plant. Even in the age of digital photography, botanicals are still in demand, Aigaki says.

"Botanical illustrations are considered by most botanists to be more accurate than fine digital photography. But there's something about the human eye, and what it sees and what it knows what other humans would like to see," Aigaki said.

Inspiration from Landscape
The natural landscapes of Tibet and India are the inspiration for Dianne Aigaki's botanical paintings.
Courtesy Dianne Aigaki

Explorers in the 18th century often brought botanical artists along on their voyages to capture the new plant life they discovered. Today, botanical paintings are a way for scientists to trace the history of a plant, and for them to gauge which species are in danger of becoming extinct.

In Aigaki's work, botanicals illustrate the diversity of wildflowers on the Tibetan plateau.

"It's a very rich area in terms of medicinal plants, and medicinal plants are now becoming over-harvested and are absolutely affected by the climate change," Aigaki said. "I saw that this summer -- (there were) way fewer wildflowers growing during the time I was there compared to the previous years."

Aigaki's paintings also have a cultural mission to them. She uses her botanicals to educate people about the plight of Tibetan refugees. About 50 years ago Chinese troops invaded Tibet and forced many Buddhists living in the area to flee into exile in India.

Aigaki and the Dalai Lama's botanical
Dianne Aigaki got permission to paint rare wildflowers growing in the Dalai Lama's private garden. She is standing in front of her botanical painting of one of his favorite flowers from his garden.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

Many botanical artists take plants to their studios and paint indoors, but Dianne Aigaki prefers to work in the field. She's often interrupted while painting in the mountains by people who ride up on horseback. They recognize her as the woman who paints the Dalai Lama's flowers and want to know what he's like. Aigaki has a special way to connect people with the spiritual leader.

"I have all of these little pieces of paper that are two by three inches, and they've got the petal from his garden and my painting next to it," Aigaki said.

"And I take them out and I say, 'Would you like to have a petal from the Dalai Lama's own garden?' And I love giving those petals away. People are of course amazed that they can have something that comes from his garden."

Aigaki wants visitors to her exhibit at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to reflect on the Dalai Lama's love for natural beauty and the role nature plays in their own lives.

New style of botanical
Dianne Aigaki says her new style of botanical painting includes notes, pencil drawings and plant disections.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

"I hope it makes people feel very connected to the Tibetans as an alive and well culture. My story is a boost for people. Lots of people are wondering what they can do to energize their life. So I hope this adds to their thinking about that," Aigaki said.

Although she lives in India, in the same town as the Dalai Lama, Aigaki has a strong connection to Minnesota. Her daughter lives in the Twin Cities and Aigaki received her training at the Minnesota School of Botanical Art in Minneapolis.

Dianne Aigaki's exhibit, "Dream of the Turquoise Bee: The Search for Wildflowers in Tibet," is on display at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska through Jan. 6, 2008.

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