The head and the heart

Thanks to a burgeoning collection of naturalist artworks, Brenau University connects its students and community to the arts and sciences in new ways

 

Phillip Miller
Plate 47, Panax Quinquefolium
Hand Colored Engraving

More than 30 years ago, Talladega, Alabama, native William Wood donated a collection of his artwork in honor of his parents to a relatively small, private college in Gainesville, Georgia, not far from his studio.

These works, known as the William L. Wood Collection of Sculptured Wildflowers, are masterpieces of realistic detail. Made of paper-thin, oil-painted pieces of brass, copper and tin, they are carefully hand cut, shaped and joined into lifesize specimens that are both astoundingly beautiful and anatomically correct.

But what is potentially most remarkable about the Wood Collection at Brenau University is the trajectory Wood’s donation set the institution toward: a powerful educational movement combining naturalist art and the sciences.

Today, the Brenau University Permanent Art Collection, including the Historic Clothing and Textile Collection, is perhaps best known for its modern and pop art works, including many by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and more. But thanks to a partnership with leading American art dealer Graham Arader, the university’s collection now includes hundreds of pieces of a different nature.

Building a collection

“Brenau has understood and appreciated naturalism for a long time,” says recently retired Brenau President Emeritus Ed Schrader. “But because high-quality, important, natural history and natural science art is quite difficult to come by, we’ve not previously had the opportunity to acquire pieces that advance the quality of our collection. We were not necessarily interested in developing a large quantity for that reason until Mr. Arader came with this opportunity to dramatically improve not only our quantity but the quality of our collection as well.”

Founded in 1971, Arader Galleries is the world’s leading dealer and auction house of rare maps, prints, books and watercolors of the 16th through 19th centuries. For Arader, this interest in naturalism started when he was just a boy.

Brenau Associate Vice President for Development Robert Shippey, left, and art dealer Graham Arader speak during a Brenau alumni event at Arader’s art gallery in New York City. (Barry Williams/ For Brenau University)

“My great-grandfather was the founder of the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is the best flower show in the country,” Arader says. “So I’ve always loved flowers and growing things, and I grew up being part of that world.”

As a young adult, Arader says he “wanted to see how man did against God.”

“God makes the most beautiful things, but man has tried, through art, to create some of the beauty of the natural world,” he says. “So it’s been a passion of mine for over 50 years.”

Part of his mission is not only to celebrate naturalist art but to share it with young people. His reasoning, he says, is that he believes the American higher education system to be the nation’s greatest accomplishment.

“Our 3,900 colleges and universities are the greatest thing the people of the United States have done, ever,” he says. “It’s something we should all be very proud of, and I want to be part of the lives of all the young people learning at those institutions. It’s very exciting for me.”

The Arader Art Fund at Brenau University, as it is coined, allows Brenau to become a leading holder and educator for naturalist art in the Southeast, Schrader says.

“Mr. Arader has a passion for using this art as an educational tool, and that hit Brenau’s sweet spot right down the middle,” he says. “His desire to have students come in contact with the art, to understand the correlation between art and science and how it educates the whole person — that’s something Brenau not only accepts but practices on a daily basis. It’s an amazing marriage of spirit and intention from two different entities.”

The newest naturalist works, both given and promised, to Brenau’s collection include 119 botanical prints, 79 gold and copper engravings of fish dating to the 17th century, 27 floral watercolors by 19th-century artist Edwin Dalton Smith, 122 color-printed lithographs by John James Audubon, 118 hand-colored copperplate engravings by Francois-Nicolas Martinet, and 48 stipple engravings from Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Brenau President Emeritus Ed Schrader looks over a copy of James Audoban’s “Bird of America” with students, from left, Autumn Jordan, Diana Quinones and Qianyu “Crystal” Zhu inside the Rare Books room of the Brenau Trustee Library.

The funding of the pieces is due to a number of people, according to Brenau Associate Vice President for Development Robert Shippey, all of whom share a passion for art that represents and depicts the natural world. Dr. Michael Stubblefield, an international leader in cancer rehabilitation, and his wife, Elyn, provided funding for the purchase of the botanical prints. The donation of the Smith watercolors was made possible by philanthropists Young Sohn and Mark Armenante, who were connected to the university by Arader, as was retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who supported the purchase of the botanical art.

Stubblefield was first connected to the university years ago through another art dealer, Jane Eckert, and artist Eric Forstmann. He and Elyn visited the university for a Forstmann exhibition, where they first met Shippey.

“It was a circuitous route to Brenau,” Stubblefield says. “We buy a lot of art and we certainly love to support these kinds of things, and in this case it was Graham Arader who really made this possible for us.”

At the time of these donations, other natural science artworks in the Brenau Permanent Art Collection included the Wood Collection and a complete four-volume set of Audubon’s Birds of America, which contains 435 full-sized prints, donated by Delano and Caroline Mixon in 1993.

“The Permanent Art Collection at Brenau University is impressive for a school the size of Brenau,” says Brenau President Anne Skleder. “The ability to use art in the classroom as well as for the enjoyment of the community makes these gifts even more special.”

Stubblefield, like Arader, shares a passion for naturalism and is himself a longtime wildlife photographer with a particular interest in birds and an avid collector of prized Audubon prints.

“That is a passion I have and I’m happy for it to be shared,” he says. “These gifts will allow Brenau to create a collection of these fabulous natural history prints, which is really our heritage and something I think is lost on people who aren’t, say, a bird nerd like me.”

Robert Sweet
Plate 58, More’s Navarino Auricula
Hand Colored Engraving

Adding academic components

In order to truly put into practice Arader’s educational intention, the university assigned two professors — one from its Center for the Arts & Design and one from its Ivester College of Health Sciences — to take on the curricular use of these works.

“To be good stewards of some of the best pieces of art means we have to oversee those pieces carefully,” Schrader says. “But we weren’t given the art to keep it locked up and behind a piece of glass where no one can engage with it.”

Didi Cassell, the Brenau science instructor responsible for the planning and compilation of curricular projects using the artwork, says the goal is to build an interdepartmental effort.

“We’ll have a number of different courses use these pieces,” she says. “The natural correlations would be with art and design courses, but we would also like to use them in our biology courses.”

Cassell says one biology class at Brenau makes an annual spring trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where students compile a sketchbook of biological diagrams. She plans to have that course use these works as inspiration for how to do biological sketches, as will an art course focusing on natural sketching taught by Claudia Wilburn, Art & Design Department chair and director of the Center for the Arts & Design.

“Ideally, we would like this art to be in the humanities as well,” Cassell says. “I could see it used in some composition courses in which students can create poetry or some sort of writing associated with these artworks. It’s open to all our faculty to use in whatever way they can interpret.”

The university’s first step is to get all the pieces thoroughly curated to find the threads of similarity among them. Schrader hopes to see curated exhibitions that are timely, interesting and open to not only the university community but to the general public.

For Cassell, the project is a completely new experience.

Unknown Artist
Plate 108, Solidago Alba
Hand Colored Engraving

“In the sciences especially, we tend to get very caught up in strict facts, numbers and data,” she says. “We don’t always have the opportunity to allow our students to think creatively. So incorporating art is going to open up those ideas for students and allow them to see things in other ways, to expose them to the ability to view biological principles as artistic.”

Schrader says this is, really, how scientists are converted to health scientists and caregivers: by developing their spiritual and artistic sides.

“When it comes down to it, science is the art of observation and application,” he says. “So when you take a neophyte health science professional, teach them the methods of observing a piece of natural science art meticulously and carefully, and teach them how the artist faithfully and artistically captured the essence of this living being and its physiology, you engage both the quantitative element of the scientific training and the esoteric appreciation of life. It’s powerful.”

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