by Lou Mancinelli
It is a curious drawing, with the twig of a white pine tree that seems to be growing out of a shoe a flapper danced in one night in 1924 to a jazz performance that has as much style to it as a dress. Resting on the leaf of the twig there is a red-haired bird with a black face speckled with white dots. There are also words written on this piece of work: “Fragile; Longevity, 450+ years.”
This is the work of artist and Mt. Airy native Maryfran Cardamon, 56, part of her Native Plants of Pennsylvania series, who has shown her work at galleries like the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS), and Tuscon Museum of Art in Arizona. Most recently, her native plant series on the American Chestnut was exhibited at Carol Schwartz Gallery in Chestnut Hill this spring. Some of those pieces are still available at the gallery.
There is a timeless element in Cardamone’s work that illustrates how nature and its people pass through the cycle of time. “Without the synthesis of green leaves in this world, we would not be alive,” said Cardamone, a mixed-media artist who combines drawings, natural specimens and various other artistic and stylized elements like calligraphy or poetry into one piece of art.
Often she explores concepts between life histories of certain plants and the people who lived where that plant grew: how they used it each day and what it meant in their culture. For her Southwest Plants collection, for example, she teamed up with Santa Fe Botanical Garden in 2011 in New Mexico.
“I strive to be spiritual with my work, with the idea that we’re all connected,” Cardamone said. “It’s really people and our relationships with plants.”
Cardamone grew up in Mt. Airy and spent lots of time exploring the woods of Wissahickon Park, the largest urban park system in the U.S., while also pursuing her love of horseback riding and art. She was a student at Rosemont College when she met American Realist painter Tom Palmore. He was famous around Philadelphia then, in the late ’70s, and is much more renowned now.
Cardamone worked in his studio. After a year and a half, they were dating. The couple moved to New Mexico. Cardamone says Palmore changed her life. He opened her to a world of arts and became a major influence in her own work. She lived in New Mexico for seven years before the relationship ended, and Cardamone moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, although she and Tom remain friends.
Back in Philly, Maryfran founded Cardamone Designs, a successful limited editions clothing design company. She ran this company from 1984 to 1999, which became known for the revival of hippie patchwork designed items. In 1987 she married David Schlessinger.
Around 2000 the family, now with two children, bought an old farmhouse and garden in Penn Valley that desperately needed restoring. Maryfran wanted to learn about the histories of plants and about specimen mounting; some time before, an ANS exhibition of plants gathered during the Lewis and Clark expedition had delighted her. She enrolled in a three-year horticultural program at the Barnes Foundation, finished in 2005 and discovered how her artistic talents would be employed.
“My intention was to reinvent the genre of botanical illustration,” Cardamone said. Her work is at once “about recording a plant as accurately as possible” while at the same time “really changing that genre” of traditional textbook botanical illustration. “It is through the observation of nature that we can gain a true knowledge about who we are.”
She explores connections between nature and culture, while wondering if people have forgotten how essential plant life is to the earth’s existence. On the surface her work can be playful. In “Roller Lily,” for example, a white lily grows from a black roller skate. In “Magnolia” a couple of thin limbs reach from the stem of a magnolia leaf.
She also finds inspiration in medieval herbals and manuscripts, folklore, traditional Chinese medicine and Pop Art. To Cardamone, the anatomy of a plant is part of a larger story that involves its historical, medicinal, ecological, spiritual and mythological aspects.
For more information visit mfcardamone.com.