Inspiration: Ode to Magnolias

After about 9 months in Michigan, my husband and I are getting ready to pack up and return to Europe. This upcoming transition means a shift for my painting practice. I have finished my latest commissioned projects (which I must wait to share since many are gifts!) and am now packing up. I am categorizing – deciding which materials to take and which to donate here. A necessary pause in production means a refocusing on inspiration and spring in Ann Arbor offers an abundance of this! In this post, I write about my inspiration, a recent visit to a favourite spot – the Nichols Arboretum – and my long-standing obsession with the magnolia tree.

The weather in Ann Arbor over the last month has swung between surprise snowstorms and days as hot as summer. Last Sunday, with a gentle breeze and only slightly overcast, it felt like the perfect spring day. My husband and I laced up our walking shoes, called a friend, and headed to the Nichols Arboretum for a late afternoon walk. The Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum is a haven in the city of Ann Arbor, with trails and an abundance of trees and plants in bloom throughout the year. And now is the time of the magnolia!

Magnolia in the Nichols Arboretum, 2022.

There are two mature, blossoming magnolia trees across the street from our rental house. They are lovely to behold but difficult to photograph close up as the flowers are so high up. I was happy to spot a few smaller magnolia trees at the Arboretum. I took my time photographing the blossoms up close and as a group, playing with the focus in the foreground and background. My husband, who is the better photographer between us, also got some beautiful shots for me.

When I spot a magnolia tree, I am filled with joy. And, for me, this adoration of nature is what mainly fuels my painting practice. While there is something special about all flowers, the magnolia blossom has something gravity-defying about it. The flower petals are large but light and delicate. The flower grows upwards, sitting on thin branches, attached ever so precariously. The flowers remind me of a teacup and saucer and while researching magnolias I found out that, indeed, this type of magnolia is called the Saucer Magnolia! The colour can be a vivid and deep pink, which lightens to an almost white at its tips.   

While magnolia trees are common in the US, I don’t remember noticing them while growing up in Eastern Canada (though they are common in the West). I think my obsession with the tree began in 2020, while living at the Belgian coast. During the height of the pandemic, I was living in the seaside town of De Haan. The town was quiet, and my daily walks were a respite in the midst of a new kind of overwhelm. My walks would take me along the shoreline, where the sound of crashing waves calmed my breathing, and through the trails of the dune forests, which inspired my paintings that season.

Although I preferred to walk on the beach or among the trees, I also enjoyed wandering through the historical neighbourhood with its characteristic white houses. If walking through the neighbourhood, I made sure to pass by one particular intersection where a large magnolia tree was in bloom on the street corner. I noticed the bright blue sky contrasting with the signature terra-cotta roof tiles of the houses and the bright white of their exteriors. The pink of the blossoms was explosive and strong shadows were cast along the street. This scene became my inspiration of my 2020 painting, De Hann in Blossom.

De Haan in Blossom, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm, 2020, sold.

Now, in Ann Arbor, I have a catalogue of photographic inspiration of the Saucer Magnolia. I’ve begun some tentative sketching and watercolour studies for future paintings and look forward to making something larger once I have settled into a new routine. These blossoms fade as quickly as they arrive, so during our last weeks in the U.S. I will be outside enjoying the colours and shapes of these botanical teacups!

Watercolour and pencil crayon sketches of magnolia blossoms.

Thanks for reading!

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