The prolific illustrator and botanist Kate Furbish, whose work will be celebrated later this year at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, is to have a local school named after her. Following a recent decision by the Brunswick school board, the town’s new elementary school, which is expected to open within the next three years, will be named in honor of Furbish, who died in 1931. She was a Brunswick resident for all but one of her ninety-seven years on earth.
School board member Sarah Singer said it was a unanimous vote to choose the Furbish name. “Kate Furbish is somebody who, as soon as you learn about her and you live in Brunswick, you think How can I not know this person? She said the name is a good fit because the new K-2 school will have a botany-heavy curriculum, and because it gels with the school department tradition of naming schools after creative people.
“I think it is an entirely appropriate honor,” said Kat Stefko, “because Kate Furbish devoted her life to building a corpus of educational materials about Maine’s plants that continue to be useful for the botanical world. She deserves to be a household name.” Stefko is director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives at the Bowdoin College library, which holds more than 1,300 of Furbish’s botanical portraits as well as her personal papers. Furbish learned about plants from her father, a Brunswick hardware store owner, by attending scientific lectures in Boston, and through correspondence with the country’s leading botanists, including the legendary Asa Gray. She was also a talented artist, at one point traveling to Paris to study painting.
In her thirties, Furbish combined these two interests, said Stefko, and spent the next four decades traveling throughout Maine documenting native plants, completing her scientifically accurate watercolors, and building an herbarium of more than 4,000 plant samples. “She traveled by rail and coach, and was known to hitch a ride with the mail wagon, such as when she explored the northern reaches of Aroostook County,” Stefko said.
Furbish traveled the length and breadth of the state, including many of the islands, collecting samples and making detailed pencil sketches of plants, to which she would later add watercolors. She worked on her images over many years, and aimed to depict the full life cycle of the plants, from bud to seed. In 1908, Furbish presented her fourteen-volume collection, titled Maine Flora, to Bowdoin College, where it now resides in Special Collections & Archives.
“Furbish placed her work at Bowdoin College because she knew her images, which were then the most accurate resource available for identifying the plants of Maine, would benefit the students and faculty,” said Stefko. “What she probably didn’t anticipate is the many researchers who come from across the country to see her work. While many are botanists, perhaps even more are artists, who are drawn to the work’s exquisite beauty.”
A New Art Exhibition
Furbish’s artistic talents are being showcased at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in October 2018, along with those of photographer Edwin Hale Lincoln, a contemporary of Furbish’s who was also devoted to studying the wild flowers of New England. “We’ll be showing thirty of Kate Furbish’s watercolors together with thirty of Lincoln’s photographs, platinum prints with a level of sharpness and tonality not found in most photographs of the day,” said Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The exhibition, which will run from October 4, 2018, to February 10, 2019, is a collaboration between the museum, Special Collections & Archives, the New York Public Library, and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.
This will be the first time the museum has exhibited any of Furbish’s work in more than twenty years, said Goodyear. “It will be an opportunity to contextualize her life and think more broadly about the emergence of botany as a popular pursuit in the nineteenth century.” In Maine, the century saw the birth of organizations such as the Portland Society of Natural History in 1843 and the Josselyn Botanical Society, co founded by Furbish in 1895.
Goodyear hopes the exhibition will prompt important questions about the relationship between art and science. The exhibition is being timed to coincide with the opening of Bowdoin’s Roux Center for the Environment, a new building on campus designed to foster collaboration and creativity in the teaching and study of the environment.