I’m Preston Montague, and I describe myself as an artist who designs experiences in the landscape. Horticulture is one of the tools I use to make them happen.
For those that don’t know, can you share a bit of your background?
I developed a passion for the natural world while growing up in the foothills of Virginia and now work as an artist, educator, and landscape designer. I learned to express myself as a child through the visual arts and focused mostly on drawing the landforms, plants, and animals of the Shenandoah Valley. I was introduced to gardening in my 20’s while pursuing a degree in painting. At the time my gardening friends were interior designers, punks, and Quakers. They taught me that a gardener aught to have a sense of taste, a suspicion of convention, and an interest in social responsibility. Since those formative gardening years I’ve attained degrees in horticulture and landscape architecture, and have begun a career in landscape design. Though the latter takes up a lot of my bandwidth, I also make time to teach botanical illustration and environmental awareness. I like to think that so many of our ills and woes come from a lack of meaningful, physical contact with nature. Encouraging contact with nature, particularly through the exploration of art, design, and gardening, helps me understand myself and has turned me into a proselytizer for the outdoors. I recognize nature’s ability to moderate the dangerous gift of digital life, and I advocate for an equal investment in one’s visceral contact with the biotic world.
One of my most treasured gardening memories has to be my first designed landscape. When I was six, I had a place under a dogwood tree where I played with Star Wars figures. I transformed that little space into an alien planet by digging craters in the blood‐red soil and transplanting cedar seedlings from the surrounding forest along their edges. I often dragged the hose to the spot and filled the craters with water, making frothy lakes that somewhat resembled Yoda’s home planet. During these intergalactic episodes, snacks were inevitably dropped and left to compost as well as leaves brought in to bury characters that had died. I haven’t visited the spot in twenty years, but I’m sure there’s a handsome cedar growing there that benefited from the enrichment of soil and a child’s imagination. Perhaps Chewbacca is still there too half‐embedded in that tree.
What about the first time you were captivated by a piece of Art or a color?
I’m really bad at convention. As an approach to life it has never really worked for me. I remember being very suspicious of convention early on when I learned that boys weren’t supposed to like pink. I remember making a big deal about pink being my favorite color one time at a birthday party. I explained the many outstanding qualities of the color to the other boys, but they weren’t convinced. I’d like to think I was fighting the good fight for critical thinking, but I was probably just enjoying being contrary.
You first became a painter and then, later, turned to horticulture. In what way was this progression beneficial, how do you feel the former help shape the latter?
I was raised a painter. Though I was technically gifted, I didn’t feel like my early work said anything more than, “hey, isn’t this pretty.” When I left school I was deeply self-conscious about that and hesitated to paint for fear of only being able to produce beautiful one-liners.
Looking back, I realize that I was always depicting the gorgeousness of the landscape or some natural phenomena from a distance. Horticulture forced me to zoom in and understand not only the large processes of nature, but the minute ones as well. With new insight into the machinations of nature, I felt like my work had more to add to the conversation. Horticulture gave my artwork a much bigger vocabulary. Conversely, art training informed my landscape design and this reciprocal relationship between art and horticulture caused both to grow and bloom.
In creating a space of your own, in what order of importance do you place the following design principles from a visual standpoint. Color, shape, texture, space, form, scale/proportion. What is the foremost important principle to you in descending order to the least?
- Shape, form, scale/proportion
When painting, what subjects catch your eye most?
Light has a funny way of creating relationships between things. It zooms in from the sky at… well, the speed of light I suppose. The photons crash into things without any artistic sensibility and we create meaning from the interplay of forms, colors, and textures that then bounce against our retinas. It’s extraordinary our ability as humans to abstract this phenomenon into stories and elicit a desired response. As a visual artist, I’m most interested in light as a subject.
When painting a landscape, what must it possess or what qualities are necessary for it to become your subject?
With any painting, landscape or otherwise, the subject(s) must inspire an emotional response in me. Additionally, communicating that feeling must also be appropriate through painting. If painting is the wrong language, I just take a photograph or log the experience in my journal.
You have an incredible talent for botanical Illustration and I love looking at the work you create. What is the Old North Alphabet and what prompted you to create this series?
Thank you, James. The Old North Alphabet is a series of 26 botanical illustrations featuring plants historically native to North Carolina that have traditionally been used for food or medicine (view here). Loosely shaped into the first letter of their common name, each plant exhibits its seasonality as well as associated animals and insects. I draw the plants from life, usually scouting them out with friends first and then camping by them for a weekend. Spending that sort of time with a plant in the wild yields surprise encounters with wildlife that often find their way into the illustrations.
The Old North Alphabet is part of a larger initiative designed to foster environmental awareness and natural science literacy through art and storytelling. The project emerged out of a budding interest in ethnobotany, which is the study of relationships between humans and plants. As an aspiring landscape architect primarily interested in how plants shape places and experiences, ethnobotany (particularly the folklore of plants) provides me some insight into how plants have historically impacted our imaginations. Evoking the imagination is my primary goal in landscape design, and is a priority largely inspired by my background as an artist.
Drawing and painting in plein air come with its own set of variables, so when you find a particular plant that you do want to sit and sketch, do you have a process, routine or formula that that you have found over time works best for you? Certain materials that you prefer to work with?
Many of the plants I draw require stable, mature environments to thrive in and simply aren’t found in the urban and suburban places I choose to live. Because of this circumstance, I usually have to travel long distances and into rather tough terrain to find specimens. Hiking into these environments and setting up a studio can be very challenging, so I choose colored pencils as a medium because of their portability and resistance to rain and humidity.
Before I embark on my journey I do loads of research on the plant as well as some preliminary sketches from photographs to become familiar with the plant’s structure and habits. Rarely do I find a specimen exhibiting a range of seasonal characteristics, so I try and catch them at some sort of peak (flowering, fall color, etc.) and work the composition around that moment. Drawing the specimen en plein air can be like a performance. You have to be in the “now” and ready to react to all sorts of surprises as nature rarely allows for an entire day without some sort of weather-related interruption. Often I’ll bring a stack of photographs gathered from books and the Internet to help guide my drawing. But, I rely on the plant in situ to provide me with the story.
There are many images in my head in my head when you talk about these surprise encounters you have had while working on your illustrations. Can you share a favorite memorable experience you like to revisit in your mind from time to time?
When I first began the project, I envisioned it as a very strict, academic study of plant structures. But, as I began drawing the plants from life I realized that each specimen had layers upon layers of structures that related to one another and to the environment in which they grew. Isolating a plant from its surrounding environment soon began to feel artificial, fundamentalist, and less engaging. So, I began considering the addition of companion plants, or even the visualization of invisible forces like wind and time. But, as I was sitting beside a mountain stream drawing Yellowroot and considering how to relate my subjects to their surrounding environment, a chance encounter happened.
After four hours of quiet drawing I had become essentially invisible and at one with the forest and the stream. The clouds broke and the pounding sunlight summoned a swarm of metallic-green damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) to the scene. With complete disregard to my presence they began to chase one another in dizzying patterns, the males stopping occasionally to slowly flap their wings in a contrived manner that resembled bicep-flexing. At one point a damselfly alighted on my drawing, had a “gun show” moment, then turned to me as if to say, “C’mon dude, wake up. There’s more to life than just plants.” A few moments passed and the clouds returned, swallowing the sun and shutting down the disco that had suddenly erupted around me. In that moment I realized that I was doing a disservice to the project’s narrative by illustrating plants in a vacuum. The point of the project is not the subjugation of plants with an interesting stories. Instead, this is a project about the evolving relationship between people and plants.
In regards to ethnobotany, can you share with us a plant that has interesting folklore and a surprising story to tell?
The project involves a great deal of storytelling, and one of my favorite stories is about the mysterious indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). Indian pipes emerge from the forest floor as translucent, scaly fingers with a characteristic bend that resembles Native American peace pipes. Often confused with fungi, these plants are actually related to azaleas. Indian pipes are parasitic and get their food not from sunlight as most plants do, but from the roots of Beech trees. This strategy limits their range to that of their host, but allows them to grow in dark, understory conditions that other plants might not be able to survive. Because they feed on surplus nutrients from the Beech, indian pipes do not need to grow branches and leaves, further separating them from their more familiar relatives. The part of the plant you see is actually the flower, and has historically been harvested as an ointment for eye infections. The Cherokee believed them to grow in a place where a quarrel happened and a peace pipe smoked before a resolution over the disagreement was made. Wild, right?!
Gardens public or private, what inspires you?
I am most inspired now by landscapes where man’s intervention is reduced to suggestion and whose experiences are too powerful, too complicated, and too nuanced to have been designed in CAD. Nature, take the wheel (or in this case, the mouse). My favorite garden is a 10,000‐acre granite bowl in the southern mountains of North Carolina called Panthertown Valley. The generous precipitation and temperate climate of the area makes plant life in the valley explode with the diversity of a tropical rainforest. The terrain is equally diverse, leaping from squishy lowland bogs to soaring granite cliffs in a matter of yards. Panthertown is a nature mirrorball. The diversity of Panthertown’s terrain yields a wide range of experiences, and has a rhythm between them quick enough to compete with the highstimulus circus of digital life. Because of these factors, I consider Panthertown on par with the greatest of the world’s botanical gardens. Though considered by most to be “wild,” Panthertown is a garden. It is just as planned and cultivated as any other environment in North Carolina (the world, for that matter). But, the only traces of man are the odd trail marker and footbridge. Otherwise, the garden is left to evolve on its own and exhibit the great, ever‐solving math equation I believe nature to be.
You are left alone on an island and can choose one plant and one piece of art to keep with you, what would you choose?
I’d be content to spend my time on a deserted island whistling and growing strawberries.
My dream project is my career: working to improve public health through art, environmental education, and landscape design.
Do you have specific sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?
I like to express myself creatively in the outdoors. The truths there seem somehow truthier, and nature’s indifference to my little version of reality gives me the freedom to just “be.” That’s a powerful state, and from “being” I find the encouragement and inspiration to risk self‐expression.
Hmm… an enduring legacy, let’s see… I’d like to say, “…help people live healthier lives through education and increased activity outdoors.” Honestly though, all my work may simply be motivated by an inner ten-year-old trying to encourage people to love nature more so they’ll come poke around the forests and creeks with me.
Leave us with a quote you admire often..
I have a running list of quotes in my journal that I could share, but perhaps the most important one to me at the moment is a popular meme making rounds on the Internet that reads, “Old ways won’t open new doors.” I’ve scrawled this on the inside of my front door recently so that I read it every time I leave the house. I haven’t heard any feedback on it from guests yet, but the UPS man said it made me look crazy. “Crazy for change,” I told him.
Thank you Preston for your time and openness during this interview, it was a pleasure to learn more about you, your motivations and your passions. Thanks for inspiring the rest of us.. – James