During her 30 years at Arnold Arboretum, Susan Hardy Brown prepared many thousands of herbarium specimens for staff and researchers. On the occasion of her retirement this month, we spoke with Susan to ask about her curatorial work, her career in the visual arts, and about the history of the Arboretum.
Susan first joined us 30 years ago as a volunteer, and was hired officially the following year for Dr. Peter S. Ashton’s taxonomic verification project, funded by the National Science Foundation. Susan went on to become Curatorial Assistant for both the Herbarium of the Arnold Arboretum and Harvard University Herbaria. Her background in the visual arts proved especially useful for her work, and last year Susan curated “Ex Herbario,” her first public exhibit for the Arnold Arboretum. Using a variety of techniques, she combines ephemera, plant materials, and a vivid color palette resulting in a singularly warm and organic feel.
You started as a volunteer at the Arboretum 30 years ago, what did you start doing? When did you begin mounting herbarium specimens?
I started in 1985 as a volunteer for the big [taxonomic] verification project that Dr. Peter Ashton (Director, 1979-1987) had set up. They had put up a flyer for plant collectors to collect specimens from the [Arboretum] grounds for the Herbarium, because that hadn’t been done since the 1930s. It was important because labels could get mixed up, names change, that sort of thing. Also, I was looking for work as an artist, living locally in Jamaica Plain since 1972, loved the Arboretum, and loved the idea of working outdoors. The verification project went on for six years, and I was hired onto staff after the first year, in 1986. A couple of us, Mima Weissmann and myself were interested in learning how to mount herbarium specimens in the winter when we weren’t out collecting, so that opportunity arose when Amy Eisenberg left [in 1986] and with my volunteer experience and with my art background that became a perfect niche for me.
During the verification project there were so many specimens coming in, and I also worked with volunteers like Mima Weissmann, Mary Harrison, and Sophie Kulik. There was also Dr. Ashton’s wife Mary, Caroline Blake (Hunnewell family), we all had a great time and we all became really close and very loyal, it was like a quilting bee. Everyone contributed a lot.
Your workspace in the lower part of The Hunnewell Building is really cool, you’ve made great use of the room and really personalized it.
I came to really love that space, and it became like an extension of my home and my [South Boston] studio. Now it’s hard to take some of the stuff down, but it’s great to leave things for the Archives now.
What exactly is involved in mounting a herbarium specimen? I assume different types of plants from different hardiness zones and regions require different types of treatment?
They’re mounted on acid-free paper. We used Elmers glue but last year we switched to “jade” archival glue which is stronger but more expensive. Wild plants are dried in the field during collection before they’re sent.
Oh it has, absolutely. It slowly crept in, and with the educational resources I had available I studied watercolor at Radcliffe seminars. But my main medium was encaustic, and eventually when I began to work in my studio space I had more options. I would incorporate ephemera along with plant material into my artwork. Finally I put up my exhibit [Ex Herbario] and my website last year.
Who are some of your artistic influences?
I actually dedicated a few of my exhibit pieces to Jackson Pollock, Agnes Martin, Jasper Johns who also worked with encaustic.
Do you have any plans for new artwork/pursuits?
I have two exhibits this summer. One is an installation called “Bags, Flags, and Tags” in which I pay homage to the plant collectors whose work I have preserved all these years. My work will be included in an another exhibit as well at Roxbury Community College. The theme is Migrations. I have a series I call “Seeds on the Wing.” My most recent painting is still untitled but it addresses my retirement and the road ahead.
Susan Hardy Brown website.
Susan Hardy Brown Arboretum profile page.
Herbarium Mounting Records. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University [pdf].
Melampy, Liz A. “Arboretum Curator’s Art Takes Root: Susan Hardy Brown collages plants and paper found at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum.” Harvard Crimson, September 25, 2012.
Walsh, Colleen. “Seeds of inspiration: Art show offers insight into Arboretum’s collections.” Harvard Gazette, August 27, 2012.
—Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant