Artist Kay Craig’s studio, like her botanical paintings, is a feast for the eyes. Kay’s stunning illustrations line the walls; vases of flowers and pots of orchids sit as only an artist can place them; even the pencils are beautifully lined up in pretty jars; all while classical music plays in the background. A bank of windows line a wall to the south letting in gentle light and allowing a slight merging with the garden Kay loves – and the plants she paints. Botanical painting is a natural fit for Kay, who has a passion for art and for gardens, plants and for nature.
Kay began this successful second career in the early 1990s after retiring from teaching primary school art lessons. “We sketched a lot of plants,” she said, “and often drew our inspiration from nature”. A friend suggested she try learning botanical illustration so she began under “the wonderful” Jenny Phillips at the Melbourne Botanical Art School of Melbourne for a few years. The class enjoyed themselves so much that they still regularly meet and draw together.
Kay’s work was soon seen in exhibitions and she was selling pictures and receiving commissions (“I like the challenge”) – but also drawing for herself. Now Kay’s reputation is international and she has illustrations in The Outback Chef by Jude Mayall and the botanical monograph Genus Cyclamen (edited by Brian Mathew); and her Hardenbergia painting was chosen to be the frontispiece of the prestigious Cranbourne Collection 2014 calendar (for the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens). She has been asked to draw a sequence of paintings of Michelia for a local nurseryman, and her paintings can be seen on the walls of local restaurants Seasons at Cloudehill in Olinda and Bella Vedere in Coldstream.
As usual, Kay is currently working on more than one painting. A hydrangea flower head has every tint of subtle blue and gentle violet; a colourful tulip picture with pencils; and for Cranbourne Botanic Gardens, native mat rush (Lomandra) in which she has to have exactly the correct species. The latter is one of a series in the Cranbourne Collection which will also include the tree fern (Cyathea australis), austral bracken, blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and purple flag (Patersonia).
Kay’s paintings – generally watercolours – have a wide range of subjects from well-known plants: her roses may be delicate blush or deep burgundy; carmine cyclamen (various species); trout lily (Erythronium – a delicate lily-like bulb); a commission; or fruit or vegetables, elegant, arranged perfectly. Sometimes the leaf behind a flower is delicately drawn in black-and-white. They’re breathtaking.
Over the past four years Kay has begun drawing with coloured pencil at times and these works are popular in America.Sometimes Kay has a little fun and draws, for example, many flowers to make up the shape of a butterfly. These aren’t botanical, exactly, but they are still precise, and beautiful. Drawings of artichokes and Helleborus are particularly lovely.
When Kay does not have a commission she can always venture into her garden to find a specimen to draw: an Arisaema leaf, a tulip flower, a bunch of berries; the colour must be carefully noted before any deterioration occurs. A love of roses is allied with a love of nature and all plants, it seems: most natural history can inspire and Kay sees beauty – and helps us see it – in many places. She lives near the forest, too.
The garden in Kallista is green and verdant, brimming with life, studded with blue hydrangeas. White lilies reach out and roses scent the air. Kay loves native plants and exotics equally. The intimate courtyard-like area outside the studio is full of subtle interest: a table with blue tiles, and chairs; terracotta and ceramic pots with species primulas; handsome green leaves of hostas and interesting perennials.
“The Dandenong Ranges is a paradise for artists to live in,” said Kay “because the soil and the climate are wonderful for gardens.” Her passion for gardening and her artistic sensibility have made Kay’s eclectic one-acre garden – where she has lived for nearly 30 years – unforgettable. Tiles here, a bird table there, many pots, all well-placed – all looked at with a critical eye and moved when it’s not right. Seats, arches or an old toolbox inventively filled with succulents and gravel. Plants like clematis are allowed to grow enthusiastically – but not too much.
Entering the garden feels like arriving at a magical place; reaching a house in the woods, with nature barely kept out – but that is just an impression; it is all kept in check. It’s simply one of the most romantic gardens you could hope to visit and enjoy. “A tapestry garden” she calls it, as the roses and perennials interweave, slightly wild.
And then there’s that sense of fun. Painting an old tree trunk blue is very avant garde for Australia. Spraying Agapanthus flower heads with red paint because – why not? It’s a long way from a row of petunias, and I love it. Using little bright lime green or rich purple pebbles as mulch for small pot plants looks wonderful – here. At the moment one bank is filled with monbretia (Crocosmia), its cheerful orange blooms peeking into the house.
Kay teaches botanical illustration with the local University of the Third Age and loves doing it, she declares in her soft voice. Everyone there draws well, she tells me, showing a generous and kind spirit.
This brings us back to the Dandenong Ranges, where Kay has lived and gardened for 40 years. She clearly loves this area, for its natural environment, its climate, its quiet peacefulness, the people (the “artists, the friendliness, the sense of community”) and being “away from the hustle and bustle” of the city. “For a botanical artist” she repeats, “it’s paradise.”
By Jill Weatherhead
Jill Weatherhead is a garden designer and horticulturist in the Dandenong Ranges, Melbourne and surrounds. www.jillweatherhead.com.au