Bell Museum displays naturalist’s art

by Robin Huiras

The realms of art and science intertwine in the newest exhibit at the Bell Museum of Natural History.
“Margaret Mee: Return to the Amazon,” details the life and work of Amazon explorer Margaret Mee. The exhibit couples art depicting the Amazon rainforest and botanical science through the watercolors and drawings of the self-taught naturalist.
“The exhibit focuses on what we want to look for, the biodiversity of the world,” said Don Luce, curator of exhibits at the Bell Museum.
Nina Shepherd, public relations coordinator for the Bell Museum, said planning for the exhibit began three years ago. The English home of the exhibit, the Royal Botanic Gardens, approached the Bell Museum with the offer.
Ruth Stiff, curator of North American Exhibits for the gardens, said the exhibit will be travelling for more than two years in the United States.
“Margaret Mee was a crusader for the conservation of the Amazon; we wanted her life story to be told,” Stiff said.
The public opening of the exhibit Saturday, featured a live performance of Amazonian music by Twin Cities musicians. In addition, Minneapolis actor Heidi Grosch performed the role of Mee in three short interpretive performances, acting out Mee’s explorations and documentation.
“Margaret Mee was such a fascinating woman,” Grosch said. “Her work was about the plants she found, and trying to convey to the public her passion.”
Mee’s passion unveils itself in her art. The technique is unpretentious and scientifically accurate, Luce said. He also extolled the details of the flowers, the three dimensionality and the smoothness of the color transitions.
Mee did not begin her work in the rainforest until 1956 at the age of 46. Often alone and relying upon the help of the indigenous people of the region, Mee made 15 trips into the rainforest until a London car accident took her life in 1988.
“I was never afraid of the Indians,” recounts Mee in a short film featured at the exhibit. “I found them friendly, hospitable and lovable; it was the white men, the gold-diggers, who sometimes frightened me.”
The “white men” working to destroy the rainforest caused Mee to work harder and more frantically to document the diminishing flora. Sketching and painting more than 400 different types of plants, Mee discovered several new species of flowers.
“The three decades Mee spent in the Amazon were the decades of the most profound change and exploration of the Amazon,” Stiff said. She was able to document the change and fight the destruction of the forest.
Mee’s most important contribution to botanical science is the documentation of a rare flowering cactus. The Moonflower blooms once a year and only under certain conditions. The forest must be flooded, and the light of the full moon must shine upon it, said Luce.
At age 79, six months before her death, Mee ventured into the rainforest for the last time. Guided by natives, she canoed to the location of the cactus and by the light of the full moon sketched its blossoms. “I waited for the flower to open, and it moved as it opened,” Mee said. “I felt thrilled.”
This painting, as well as several paintings of species, which haven’t been seen since, are among the 83 in the exhibit. Replicas of a hut and canoe Mee used while exploring, original paints, supplies and gifts from her native guardians complete the exhibit.
“There’s not only variety in the exhibit, but information on the Amazon and how life there demonstrates the diversity and interconnection of life,” Grosch said.
The Bell Museum is the exhibit’s sixth venue, whereupon it will travel to the Field Museum in Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution before exhibition in Japan.
The exhibit is open to the public during regular museum hours through December 13. Grosch’s interpretations of Mee will continue Saturdays and Sundays after Nov. 14. Admission to the Bell Museum is $3 for adults, $2 for children and seniors.