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Botanical rarity takes root

John Myers, one of the countrys top plant illustrators, settles near Gaston


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - John Myers of Gaston is one of the few botanical illustrators in the country, and unlike the others -- who mostly started out as artists, then learned to draw plants -- Myers is a biologist who taught himself to draw, said friend and colleague Jim Miller of the New York Botanical Society. Whether playing in the forest, floating the Great Miami River near his Ohio home or riding his bike down Main Street with his pet raccoon on his shoulders, John Myers fell in love with nature early.

“I had a canoe by the time I was 11,” the 57-year-old Gaston resident said last week. “And I got lost in the woods a lot.”

Myers’ interest in the natural world — specifically, plants — bloomed in tandem with a burgeoning talent for art. Over the years he began to use pens and pencils to draw intricate seed pods, leaves and tendrils of specimens ranging from Oplopanax horridum (also known as Devil's club) to Linnaea borealis, which can be found near the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska.

“It’s a gorgeous little shrub,” he said of the latter, also known as Twinflower. Myers describes himself as a nomad who “can live anywhere” as long as he’s able to collect, draw and archive green things.

“We depend on all these little, tiny plants for our survival — we’re just at the top of the food chain,” Myers said.

For the last four years Myers has lived in a cozy, cabin-like downstairs apartment connected to a rural home off Spring Hill Road, surrounding himself with his drafting table; a special microscope called a camera lucida that allows him to see both the specimen and his artwork at the same time; and outdoor gardens, where he spends time each day cultivating his own native species.

Since his beloved border collie, Phinney, died last November at age 14, Myers spends his days mostly alone. He doesn’t mind too much, though — he stays up late, listening to music and drawing.

“Life out here is monastic,” he said.

{img:11475}‘A lot of species

The shaggy-haired Myers, whose resumé includes a long stint as a researcher and staff illustrator for the internationally-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, works with taxonomic botanists, people trained to identify existing plants and name new ones.

He and Jim Miller, now dean and vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden, teamed up for a number of years at the Missouri garden, which Miller calls one of three standout botanical institutions in the world along with New York's and the Royal Botanic Garden in London.

"John is one of a literal handful of the absolute best botanical illustrators in the world," Miller said from his New York office Monday. "He's very good at reinterpreting a plant specimen taken from the field — he breathes life back into a brown, flat, dry specimen and gives it some dimensionality on the page.”

Taxonomists such as Miller “go all over the world to look at a plant, decide what it is and whether it’s new to nature,” Myers said. “These guys are really good. Some of them will spend their whole life studying one genus, and there are a lot of species within a genus.”

Myers uses technical pencils and pens to sketch the plant on tracing paper, painstakingly illustrating the seeds and root systems that separate one type from another.

“A lot of the characteristics on a plant that differentiate a species are very, very small,” he pointed out. “It might be a leaf shape, or even a single hair.”

Since 1981, when he graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio with a degree in zoology and microbiology, Myers has roamed the globe, helping field biologists collect plant samples — and enjoying more than a few adventures along the way.

Climbing a tree once to snip off a sample of its blossoms and leaves, Myers suddenly found large ants swarming over his head and arms.

Another time he was in a car going 55 miles an hour when the driver “slammed on the brakes” because he thought he spied a rare plant by the side of the road.

“That was crazy, but I knew why he did it,” Myers said. “There’s still new stuff around. The worst thing you can do is see a plant and not collect it, but the second worst thing is collecting a plant and not writing down what you know about it.”

A contract with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took him to Kodiak Island, Alaska, where he used a global positioning system to pinpoint the longitude and latitude of each of the 1,977 plants that appear in his field book as of July 2011.

As an illustrator and designer for the Flora of North America Project, an ongoing chronicle of “every plant from Canada to the Mexican border,” Myers is managing the artistic content for those volumes from creation to publication.

Though Myers’ work is almost exclusively done in pencil and ink these days, his watercolor illustrations appeared in seven books between 1995 and 2000 as part of “The Ecotraveler’s Wildlife Guide” series published by Academic Press.

'Mind-boggling' experience

Two years ago Myers accepted a freelance job as artistic director of an Oregon project that will become the first comprehensive update of known Oregon plants in more than 50 years.

Called The Oregon Flora Project and headquartered at Oregon State University, the tome will eventually catalog 4,000 trees, ferns, flowers, shrubs and other plants that grow in the Beaver State, from Malhuer County in the east to Clatsop County in the west. by: COURTESY PHOTO: JOHN MYERS - Born in Ohio, a young John Myers had a pet raccoon, a pet skunk and a love for nature. Myers last year began working on the Oregon Flora Project, headquartered in Corvallis. He uses several types of technical pens and pencils to create his illustrations.

Begun in 1994, the statewide flora project has garnered $1.5 million in grant money and donations. Coordinator Linda Hardison said Myers was just the man for the job.

“John’s experience is just mind-boggling,” Hardison said. “We had applicants who had never drawn a plant before. He’s a great addition to our team.”

Hardison, a Texas native who regards scientific illustrations as “vital contributions to both science and art,” identified Myers as the point person for the veracity and aesthetic appeal of the project.

“It’s on John’s shoulders to gather all the information and get it in order for the full scope of the flora,” she said. “New plants have come in and species have disappeared” over the past half-century, Hardison noted. “Does it really matter if a little yellow flower is no longer on the planet? I think it does.”

Meyers uses a variety of technical pens and pencils to complete his drawings.Go outside

What Myers’ unique and specialized profession hasn’t brought him in wealth — “I’ve been living on $25,000 a year for a long time” he said — it has made up for by contributing a sense of purpose to his life.

While he’s hardly an activist, Myers isn’t shy about saying “natural science has taken it on the chin” in terms of interest and funding. “Universities are cutting their biology departments and adding business departments,” he said. “It’s all about money.”

Miller, his friend and former colleague, agrees with Myers that there's more ground to cover when it comes to new plant species.

"There are still 80,000 to 100,000 plants out there that haven't been named yet," mostly in the tropics, Miller said.

For his part, Myers admits he's disillusioned by the attitudes many people have about the disappearance of entire ecosystems, the ravages of global warming and what he sees as the devolution of the natural environment worldwide.

“Once you cut down a forest, it’ll come back, sure, but it’s never the original thing,” Myers said. “I’d love to see people get a clue before it’s too late — go outside and just look at all the flora and fauna. It’s really all we have.”



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