Arts / Museums

Fort Worth’s World Class Botanical Research Institute Uses Plant Art to Tell a Striking Story of Species Loss

Artist Dornith Doherty and Renowned Researchers Come Together

BY // 02.26.23

Fort Worth is home to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT), a world renowned facility that catalogs historic specimens alongside newly acquired ones. The BRIT Herbarium contains approximately 1,445,000 plant specimens from around the world, making it one of the largest and most respected herbariums in the entire United States.

There are two new exhibits currently on display inside Fort Worth’s BRIT. First is The Opulence of Orchids, which explores the beauty of these fascinating flowering tropicals through artworks ranging from watercolor paintings and pen to ink drawings and lithographs. Some are contemporary, while other historic pieces date back nearly 500 years.

This Orchids exhibition will be on view in the upper atrium gallery through June 9. Visitors can explore the works during normal BRIT building hours ― Mondays through Fridays from 10 am to 4 pm.

Where Art Meets Science

The other exhibit, which just recently opened, is Illuminations: Past, Present, and Future of Fern Research. This is a collaboration between artist Dornith Doherty, research botanist Dr. Alejandra Vasco, BRIT librarian Ana Niño and Tiana Rehman, who serves as herbarium director at BRIT. The show took two years to produce and all four of the main players took part in an opening night panel discussion.

Illuminations – BRIT Herbarium Director Tiana Rehman, botanist Dr Alejandra Vasco, arist Dorinth Doherty and librarian Ana Niño took part in a panel discussion to open the new Illuminations exhibit.
BRIT Herbarium Director Tiana Rehman, botanist Dr. Alejandra Vasco, artist Dornith Doherty and librarian Ana Niño took part in a panel discussion to open the new Illuminations exhibit. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

The artist was invited behind the scenes and into the vast collections at Fort Worth’s Botanical Research Institute of Texas to find her next muse. She found it in the Howard Arnott Collection of transparency slides.

“I was so in love with their beauty,” Doherty says. “It’s a collection of plant specimens collected in 1956, which had only been stained.”

One of Doherty’s creations is a large-scale work, based upon those transparencies, some of which had begun to deteriorate leading to a bold coloration of red and yellow. It is hung on glass windows utilizing natural light to illuminate them from behind.

Other artworks in the show were made from images of ferns recently discovered in the tropics of Colombia, and captured by Dr. Alejandra Vasco.

“She photographs the biodiversity of ferns in Colombia. Some have not been seen for 80 years due to political unrest,” Doherty says. “I noticed the news headlines in Colombian newspapers that related to biodiversity loss.”

Skeletal leaves and contemporary newspaper headlines clash in Our Plans Continue by Dorinth Doherty. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Skeletal leaves and contemporary newspaper headlines clash in Our Plans Continue by Dornith Doherty. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

Doherty incorporated some of those headlines into artworks which are mashed up with images of the skeletal leaves, with their fossilized appearance, taken from transparency slides. Researchers often use newspapers to dry the leaves and specimens that they bring back ― making their incorporation into this artwork a real snapshot of the cataloging process.

Only on view at the opening were artworks Doherty crafted into animated projections of genomic data from these plants ― their DNA sequencing swirling into colorful ferns. These works speak to the future not only of research but of  the urgency to capture species before they are lost forever.

In these projected works, the “ephemerality of the data” became Doherty’s focus. Taken as a whole, the artist describes the Illuminations exhibit as “the timeline of historical ferns and contemporary ferns.”

A Plant Artist

Dornith Doherty is a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. She also works as a distinguished research professor at the University of North Texas, where she has been on the faculty since 1996. She’s frequently bridged the worlds of art and science on her career.

Doherty’s other recent exhibitions have included Unsettled Natures: Artists Reflect on the Age of Human at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.; Archiving Eden: Exchange at the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto; Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England and the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C.; and Companion Species at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Botanical Research Institute of Texas is currently working to upload and share its vast databases with other research facilities worldwide ― in an effort to collaborate more efficiently and move the science forward more rapidly. Its researchers envision an extended network of digitized material.

These artworks provide a unique view of that ongoing research, spotlighting the past, the present and the future of plant discoveries. Illuminations will also be on view during Fort Worth’s spring gallery night, which is scheduled for  March 25.

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