Art People: Leonore Alaniz / artisan and printmaker

Last modified: Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Leonore Alaniz says it’s an art form that stretches back for centuries, although Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to produce a written description of the process. That said, when she first began doing serious work in this area about 20 years ago, Alaniz believed she’d stumbled on something unique.

“I thought I had discovered this,” she said with a laugh.

“This” is what’s known as botanical printing: applying water-based ink to a plant, which is then used to print an image directly onto paper or fabric. It’s a method that allows the detail and beauty of plant structure to be exhibited in a unique context, says Alaniz — a “collaboration,” as she puts it, between the natural and artistic worlds.

“I see it as a way of making a mindful observation of a plant, its design and uniqueness, and bringing that to the attention of other people,” she said.

Her work is on display through Feb. 10, 2013, at the Smith College Botanic Garden, in an exhibit featuring dozens of her images and a display of her printing tools and technique. It’s a cornucopia of plant species found in Massachusetts, both native and non-native — sycamore, broadleaf tobacco leaves, marsh and beach grasses, herbs like sage and fennel, even a giant leaf of hogweed, a toxic plant that can blister the skin.

Alaniz, of Leverett, studied weaving and textile design in her native Germany, then moved to California in the 1970s. There she designed fabrics and hand-decorated apparel, including material with nature prints. But it was after moving to New York about 20 years ago, and then to New England, that she became truly taken by the idea of botanical printing.

The accessibility of the process particularly appeals to her.

“People can do it for themselves,” said Alaniz, who leads printing workshops, including some for children. “It’s very engaging, and it’s a way you can really preserve the intricacy of nature.”

After gathering plants, she presses the materials under weights such as books to flatten them and remove excess moisture. Then she carefully inks the samples with a small roller, places them on paper or other printing surface, and puts another piece of paper on top. She gently but firmly rubs the plant through the top sheet of paper; she’ll sometimes press larger samples with her feet.

Alaniz prints on a variety of surfaces: Japanese rice paper, cotton, silk, polyester. She employs different inks, either mixing the colors or using just one. Some prints get additional touches: She took an image of Russian kale originally printed in brown ink and added subtle shades of purple, yellow and red with colored pencils.

Her choices of color and printing surface are “entirely intuitive,” she said. “I try to see what the plant is saying to me, and I look for the form and composition that seems the best way to express that. ... For me, this is a special way to celebrate nature’s beauty.”

Alaniz’s exhibit, in the Lyman Plant House and Conservatory at the Smith College Botanic Garden in Northampton, can be viewed daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., although the garden will be closed from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2 for the holidays.

— Steve Pfarrer


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