Honolulu Academy of Arts

Photo: ©2000 John Hazeltine

Honolulu, HI




Fruits and Flowers: Botanical Paintings by Geraldine King Tam

March 11 - May 2, 1999

by Jennifer Saville, Curator of Western Art


Geraldine King Tam (b. 1920), a nationally recognized botanical painter and resident of Hawaii, has been preoccupied with the fruits and plants of the islands for almost the past twenty years. Blending an appreciation for scientific objectivity and artistic expression, Tam has painted native and introduced species, creating a body of work that is delicate in touch and exquisite in feel. This exhibition of more than twenty-five watercolor paintings features African tulip tree, breadfruit, golden shower, mango, mountain apple, pua-kenikeni, and starfruit, among other plants. Each work, characterized by the depiction of a branch of the plant in fruit and/or flower, often together with offset detailed renderings of fruits and flowers in cross section, reflects Tam's study of the lushly exotic nature of Hawaii's flora.

Born in Toronto, Canada, Tam did her undergraduate work at the Ontario College of Education of the University of Toronto. She took English as her major field of study and art education as her minor. After spending time as a teacher of English and Latin [Don: Is it correct to upper case the first letters of "English" and "Latin?"], Tam enrolled at Teachers' College, Columbia University, in New York, earning an M.A. in art education. During her studies she met and then married Hawaii-born painter Reuben Tam.

Tam credits her husband's passion for the natural world as well as their thirty summers on Monhegan Island, some fifteen miles off the coast of Maine, for sparking her shift from teaching to botanical painting. As Tam first accompanied her husband on excursions around the island, she collected and pressed various plant samples. Tam quickly progressed from making simple plein-air drawings of plants in a little sketchbook to undertaking serious botanical illustrations. She completed two hundred illustrations of Maine flora, about thirty of which are now in the collection of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, the most prestigious depository of botanical art in the United States.

Tam moved to Kauai with her husband in 1980 and lives in their house where fruit trees, vegetables, and other plants thrive in the backyard garden they planted on their arrival. Since her husband's death in 1991,Tam has continued to care for the garden and watch the growth and cycles of its various occupants. She also observes different plants around the island and receives reports from friends about the fruiting and flowering of the trees and plants they see. The works in this exhibition stem from this careful examination of the flora on Kauai.

Tam depicts her subjects in various states of growth and with all their characteristics: old leaves, young leaves, fresh leaves, ragged ones; seeds, seed pods, and capsules; buds, blossoms, and fruits; roots and branches; habit of growth--up, down, stiff, or drooping--etc. Since most plants do not show all their phases at one time, Tam's art is, in a way, one of assemblage. She puts all the elements together, making a plant look natural and alive, in a way that is artistically pleasing.

To create a painting, Tam collects when possible the component parts of the plant. She takes them to her studio, examines them, and carefully builds a life-size drawing through observation, not caliper measurements and photographs. The completion of any given drawing may take a few years, as Tam waits for fruiting and/or flowering to occur. She also contends with the vagaries of mother nature (Hurricane Iniki in 1992 was an especially trying occurrence) or works plein air when necessary. When intrigued by a blossom, the shape of a fruit, or another detail about a plant, Tam introduces enlarged renderings of them in a corner of her sheet.

As Tam becomes satisfied that a drawing accurately reflects growth patterns and is compositionally sound, she transfers the design to another piece of paper for final development with the addition of watercolor. The watercolors presented here are as notable for their deft touches of color, delicate veils of pigment, freshness of tone, and lively designs as for their botanical accuracy and completeness of image as branches, leaves, fruits, and flowers are across the sheets. Indeed, the plants look natural and alive.

Tam recognizes that many artists are admired for their flower paintings. Indeed, flowers have been popular subjects in Western art since the seventeenth century when floral compositions were accepted as legitimate themes in their own right. Tam comments that artists have used flowers in different ways, as a vehicle for their own individual artistic expression, whether their images are intensively, personally expressive or filled with light and color. Nonetheless, as beautiful and accurate as these paintings may be, they are not botanically accurate and thus represent traditions different from the model of eighteenth-century botanical reportage that Tam follows.

Although initially overwhelmed by the exotic lushness of Hawaii's flora, after almost twenty years on Kauai Tam continues to create fresh and elegant representations of Hawaii flora, harmonizing scientific objectivity and artistic vision. Tam admits with a smile that, as she stays busy at work, she still needs a few more lifetimes to render all that Hawaii has to offer.

From top to bottom: Breadfruit, 'Ulu, Artocarpus altilis, 1989, watercolor on paper; Egg Fruit, Pouteria campechiana, 1990/1995-96, watercolor on paper; Mountain Apple, Ohi ' a ' ai, Syzygium malaccense, 1997, watercolor on paper.


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