by Len Lear and Lou Mancinelli
To MF (Maryfran) Cardamone, the anatomy of a plant is part of a larger story that involves its historical, medicinal, ecological, spiritual and mythological aspects. The acclaimed Mt. Airy native is best known for her unconventional botanically influenced illustrations on paper that reinvent the genre of botanical illustration. An opening reception and book signing for her brilliantly illustrated, just-published book, “Botanical Visions: The Art of MF Cardamone,” will take place Friday, April 7, 5 to 8 p.m., at the Carol Schwartz Gallery, 101 Bethlehem Pike. An exhibit of her work will remain at the Schwartz Gallery until May 31.
“Inflecting her observations with jarring juxtapositions, humorous musings and sly irony, she (Cardamone) allows us the pleasure of yet another level of appreciation of plants, from the overlooked and mundane to the most beautiful of flowers.” writes Julie Sasse, PhD, chief curator and the curator of modern, contemporary and Latin American art at the Tucson Museum of Art, in the book’s introduction.
Cardamone, 58, a graduate of Springfield Township High School, discovered her passion for plants when she restored a garden at her 75-year-old farmhouse in Penn Valley. For her artwork, she collects plant specimens. Adding her signature style of incorporating the historical, medicinal, cultural and spiritual life of the plant, she visits the intersection of art and science. Cardamone has partnered with conservation organizations to promote the preservation of plant life on several hemispheres, from the orchids of the Amazon to the forests near the Arctic Circle.
“I want to adhere to the scientific tradition but make it new, fun, beautiful and educational,” the illustrator told us last week. “I want the image and information to inspire a love and appreciation for nature.”
There is a timeless element in Cardamone’s work that illustrates how nature passes 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.” Growing up in Mt. Airy, Cardamone spent lots of time exploring the woods of Wissahickon Park while also pursuing her love of horseback riding and art. She then attended Rosemont College when she met American Realist painter Tom Palmore.
Cardamone worked in his studio. After a year and a half, they were dating. The couple moved to New Mexico. Cardamone told us in an earlier interview that Palmore opened her up to an artistic world 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 remained friends.
Back in Philly, Maryfran founded Cardamone Designs, a successful limited editions clothing design company. She ran the 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 needed restoring. Maryfran wanted to learn about the histories of plants and specimen mounting since an exhibition of plants gathered during the Lewis and Clark expedition had previously 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. She wonders if people have forgotten how essential plant life is to the earth’s existence. On the surface her work can be playful, though. In “Roller Lily,” for example, a white lily grows from a black roller skate.
“Botanical Visions: The Art of MF Cardamone,” published by Pomegranate, a leading publisher of award-winning books and gift products, has100 full-color reproductions. Extended captions provide information about the artist’s inspiration and the relationships between plants and cultural icons within each piece.