A Botanical Journey—sXc with Courtney Roth, moderated by Kai Söderström

As I began to pay closer attention to the creative processes of some of my favorite artists, I noticed that the best botanical artists out there routinely draw from life.
— CR
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We were excited to host local illustrator and tattoo artist Courtney Roth in for our March sketchXchange. Courtney has always been treading the line between creativity and logic, the right and the left brain, and has seen no reason to indulge just one of those seemingly opposite paths in life. While imagining and creating have always been an integral part of her life, so too was the desire to understand. 

Courtney started her plant journal in early 2017. Since then she has documented her journey by pushing herself to explore nature, hone in on her drawing skills and create a place where she could share the work. We are excited to see these journals up close and talk about her work as a tattoo artists ( @courtneyrothtattoos ) as well.  I asked Courtney a few questions about her work and process, check it out~

Photos by Rowan Bradley. See more here!

YPE You started a new project from your botanical journal called the Plant People Project. How often do you get people asking you to draw different plants? Have you got anything sent to you before announcing the project?

CR Oh gosh, almost every day! Since the beginning, I’ve been overwhelmed with requests to draw different plants. I love seeing people inspired by my work and interacting with folks over common botanical interests, so I want to accommodate requests as much as I can. In the beginning, I would try to honor all the requests that I could, targeting hikes to finding native plants and scouring local plant shops and florists for the non-natives. I’d even send my husband out on his daily runs with a list of plants to look for. It got to a point where I just didn’t have the time to hunt down all the plants people were interested in seeing, and in many cases, especially international requests, I didn’t have access to the plants at all. I hadn’t made any kind of address public until now, so I haven’t gotten anything sent to me specifically, but I’ve worked with other botanical artists that I’ve met through this nature journal project to locate live plants to use. I’m so excited to see where it takes us! I’m hoping to keep submissions open over the course of a year to get a good sampling of species in different stages of growth over all four seasons and, hopefully, across many different ecosystems worldwide.

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YPE  Why did you start drawing botanicals in your journal and what inspired you to set up the IG the way that you did it?

CR I've been focusing on the natural sciences as a direction for my art for most of my life, but a few years ago I began to get serious about making a career out of my love for creating. As I began to pay closer attention to the creative processes of some of my favorite artists, I noticed that the best botanical artists out there routinely draw from life. You just see so much more dimension and detail when you're drawing from life, and I love to experience the way my subjects feel, smell, and maybe even taste. All of this informs the spirit of the plant and how I want to interpret it. I also had a personal goal to get more familiar with the native flora around me and the plant allies that I enjoyed in my teas and tinctures, so keeping a live journal (early 00's pun very much intended) was a natural way to do that. I had seen some other artists dabble in the side by side format (check out Vancouver, BC talent @leo.mortem ) and my photography style evolved as an extension of that. 

Folks seem to enjoy the research component of my botanical journal just as much as the art itself, which stemmed from my compulsive desire to learn as much as I can about our natural world while it’s still here. I have not always been a full-time artist: I spent a few years in a Ph.D. program, and while academia was not my ultimate calling, I learned a lot about how to conduct research. I love learning, and I love that the folks who follow my art do too. The fact that it marries my two greatest loves, art and science, is really what makes this botanical journal project exciting for me.

YPE Is there a favorite plant you have draw?

So many! Some of my all-time favorites are western hemlock (those tiny cones! Swoon!), salmonberries, and, of course, roses, particularly of the English garden variety. I also love documenting plants in various stages of growth. I enjoy it all, really. More than anything I love the variety that keeping a nature journal affords my art. The landscape is constantly changing and evolving throughout the year, and as a person who's pretty easily bored, I enjoy the diversity of plant life we enjoy here in Portland across our seasons. This is part of the idea behind the Plant People Project as well: to begin incorporating more different types of plants that may be tough to get a hold of locally.

YPE What came first, the plant journal or tattooing?

CR The plant journal, but not by too large of a margin. I had always focused on natural science in my work, but for a few years I was more inspired by the avian world (I'm sure I'll talk your ears off about my time working at a raptor center at the SketchXChange event). I’ve been focusing on drawing flora form life for a few years now but only began sharing my plant journal on Instagram when I was on the cusp of getting my tattooing license. Before tattooing, I worked in styles and media that were much more gestural and freeform, but once I got serious about tattooing I began focusing on cleaning up my linework and working primarily with ink. The plant journal project evolved out of those goals. I hadn’t been big on sharing my work on social media before then, but I knew that if I wanted to make a real career out of tattooing, I had to get used to it. It was scary at first, but needless to say, I’m humbled and honored by the reception that it’s gotten, the friends I’ve made through it, and all that I’ve learned along the way.

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YPE Are you looking to focus more in botanicals in your tattooing or would you tattoo anything?

CR I only accept tattoo projects that fall within the realm of the natural sciences. Botanicals are my bread and butter, but I'm finding that tattooing presents a very unique opportunity to engage people with art in a way that's unlike any other medium. When you tattoo an image on someone, the story that goes along with that tattoo is going to be a conversation piece for that person for the rest of their life. As an avid, lifelong conservationist, I’m very excited by the idea that my tattoo pieces can provide a platform for discussing our natural world. Like so many, I’m floored by what’s happening to our planet and how easys it is for most people to live their lives without really engaging with the species we share it with and the natural cycles that it follows. Focusing on flora that people identify with in one way or another is a great way to enhance that connection to our natural world and get people talking about it. 

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Back in the fall, after the Eagle Creek Fire, I turned to art and research as a way to deal with my own mourning over the loss of so much of our unique natural space. I created a series of five tattoo pieces that illustrated the stages of forest recovery after a devastating fire and response was overwhelming; people snapped them up within minutes of posting. So many people loved the story the pieces told together, and together we raised $1,150 for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a nonprofit dedicated to gorge conservation. This really opened my eyes to how engaged people want to be with the flora and fauna around us and how powerful tattooing is as a medium to facilitate conversations about our natural spaces. This project is my favorite thing I’ve done as a tattooer to date, and I’m hoping to clear some time in my schedule in the coming months to create more like it.

Since then, I’ve also had clients who have been inspired by this project and have worked with me to create pieces that tell stories about other ecosystems as well. For example, I do many pieces themed around various ecosystems within the PNW, and have a Bob Marshall Wilderness tribute piece coming up that I’m very stoked on. These projects that raise awareness and incite conversation about the natural world are the direction I want to take my work going forward, and I’m humbled to be able to impact real-world conversations in this way.

YPE Why do you make?

CR Short answer: I have to. Long answer: I’ve been making my entire life, for as long as I can remember. While most kids were playing sports, I was drawing. However, I did not grow up in a creative community and listened to the whole “you can’t make a career out of art” thing early in my adult life (it’s a lie!), but found that all I ever wanted to do was create. I’d sketch whenever coworkers weren’t looking, draw under the desk in meetings, and constantly try to engineer my time so that I could spend as much of it making as possible. It’s meditation for me. It forces my active mind to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of me. Now, I can use that process that feeds my soul to create meaningful pieces for others that contribute to collective conversations about our natural world, something I’ve always been passionate about. Making allows you to have complete autonomy over what you do and why you do it, which is an absolute dream. I am infinitely grateful to be on the creative path that I’m on and for the supportive community that makes it possible. 

About the moderator, Kai Söderström

Kai Söderström is a local Portland tattoo artist and visual artist of many mediums. Her true loves are clean lines, vibrant, unique colours, and bold black ink.  She's a survivor and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and trauma, and aims to use tattooing as a way to heal and empower others to reclaim their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls from oppressive modern day systems. She is also an advocate for accessible arts programming for kids of all ages and deeply believes the power of art can change and save lives. She has a passion for nature, and the inherent magic within it, as well as a particular fascination with the divinity inside of us all. You can find more of her work at www.knowfolly.com.