Unlocking the history behind Hunt Library’s 15th International Exhibition

Credit: Rosemary Haynes/ Credit: Rosemary Haynes/ Credit: Rosemary Haynes/ Credit: Rosemary Haynes/

Most students on campus could guess that the Hunt Library was funded through a donation of someone who’s last name was Hunt. Lesser known among the student body is the history behind the Hunt family and most importantly, Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt. Throughout her lifetime residing on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, Rachel acquired an array of artifacts reflecting her fascination with the botanical world. By the 1950’s, the collection was well known in the academic world, and Rachel came to publish the Catalogue of Botanical Books in the Collection of Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt.

In an attempt to preserve this legacy close to its home, the Hunt family generously donated Rachel’s collection to Carnegie Tech, accompanied by a building to house both the collection and a library. For those who are unaware of the mysterious fifth floor of Hunt library, currently known as the Hunt Botanical Institute, this is where Rachel Hunt’s botanical collection can be found.

Since 1964, the institute has been working to preserve and foster further growth of the botanical arts by displaying an international exhibit. The exhibit brings together the botanical community from across the world, including the Botanical Society, which hosts a conference at the institute during the international exhibition. Currently, the 15th International Exhibition is on display.

When the exhibition first began, the world of botanical art existed with many more restraints than it does now. In 1964, the institute only accepted art that had been published. Considering the fact that many fine artists do not seek out having their art published in scientific journals or texts, this excluded a lot of talent from the series. As perspectives have become more accepting of the notion that botanical art is equally as artistic as other forms of fine art, the institute has grown to accept submissions from a wide array of artists.

The selection process is conducted by Curator of Art and Senior Research Scholar, Lugene Bruno and Assistant Curator of Art, Carrie Roy. It’s an extensive process that takes place over a two-year period, and its outcome reflects one of the most diverse and talented collection of botanical art ever. According to the Hunt Institute’s website, “Collectively, the catalogues are the most comprehensive record available of 20th–21st-century botanical artists and illustrators — the number of individuals represented now totals 1,129.”

The selection process begins with open submission of works from anyone. Some of the artists have never been heard of by the curators, while others have been, and others come recommended. Some of the art also comes from artists that Bruno and Roy have watched evolve throughout their careers, who are then asked to submit their art to be featured in the international exhibit. Roy mentioned that because an artist can only be featured in the international exhibit once, it’s important to pick the artists that they think are most ready, to avoid having someone display their work before the peak of their career.

Each artist digitally submits what they believe to be their top three pieces. Bruno and Roy select artists that will be featured in the exhibit and narrow it down from the three pieces they’ve submitted to the one that they would be most interested in seeing for the exhibit. Once it’s been decided which pieces are best for the exhibit, the artists send in the physical piece for a final approval. In preparing for the exhibit, all of the photography of the art and graphic design for the series is done in house, which takes a lot of attention to detail to achieve a quality outcome.

This year’s exhibition includes art from 15 different countries, including the U.S., England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China, Japan, and South Korea. As in previous years, the submissions are heavily from the U.S. and Western Europe, but there has been a growing presence of submissions from countries in Asia as well.

The most common medium for the art is watercolor, though many artists also use colored pencils, ink, powder pastels, or powder graphite. This year, there is a lot more work featuring colored pencils.

What inspires Bruno most about the international exhibit is searching for artists that are pushing the boundaries of what is botanical art, while still showing appreciation and understanding for what the purpose of botanical art is. For example, though it is traditional for the background of the art to be white, Bruno pointed out that several pieces in this year’s international exhibit use a combination of artistic mediums, but didn’t follow the rules surrounding background. One piece resembled a photograph, with shadowing on the white background. Another implemented a desert landscape as a background, something not commonly seen in botanical art.

When asked what her favorite piece in the exhibit this year was, Roy explained that given the complexity of emotions expressed in each piece, depending on the day, one piece will stand out more than another, but she could never pick an absolute favorite. This really speaks to the beauty of botanical art, as it’s humanity’s attempt to capture the pure beauty of the organic world, something that we can relate to more deeply than the material world around us.