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Garden Stories: Waiwai Hove, Botanical Illustrator Extraordinaire

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I recently got to know of Waiwai Hove, a highly talented and botanical illustrator, to say the very least. We exchanged emails over a duration of two months before we got to meet, and the newly minted UNESCO World Heritage Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) provided the perfect backdrop to catch up. Waiwai works from there on certain days, as she has been commissioned to paint 30 of their heritage trees, which you will read more about in the interview. Waiwai is also the illustrator of SBG’s 2015 calendar,  which sold out – a first time occurrence, her colleague told me.

I had a delightful time with her, we strolled through part of the gardens as we conversed on various topics,  such as her work with SBG, intricacies of botanical illustration, her twin boys, and plants – naturally! We encountered a few animals, which she was quick to spot, and I had trouble detecting even when she had pointed at them. She has such a keen eye for details, but I suppose you would say that it’s expected given her profession!

We also dropped by the “Orchids of Singapore Botanic Gardens and Their Heritage” exhibition, where I got to view Aranda Lee Kwan Yew, before sitting down for a drink and a good chat. Waiwai showed me her portfolio, which I found absolutely incredible. Her work is outstanding – while it is beautiful, it is also scientifically accurate, and it’s no wonder that she obtained the highest marks ever scored in the Society of Botanical Artists diploma course she completed. My time with this gentle woman passed quickly, and soon it was time to pick up her twins from school, but we agreed that we should catch up again soon, and hopefully view her home studio and plants.

I hope you enjoy this interview, it’s been awhile!

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Image courtesy of Waiwai Hove

1. As a child, you loved plants and your father was an artist. What made you decide on becoming a botanical artist professionally, and what is it about botanical art that you love?

I’ve always loved plants and knew I could draw. Because of my father’s profession, there were always art supplies lying around in the house. So it was easy for my siblings and I to try out different mediums from a very young age.

When I started my airline career in Hong Kong, I was exposed to art from all over the world. Among them was botanical art which I was always drawn to probably because of its elegance and the plant subjects. I started experimenting in watercolour mainly out of convenience. The supplies were not too expensive and I could carry them in my suitcase when I travelled. It was also easier to set up in my small Hong Kong flat. Plants was an obvious choice of subject to paint and it was convenient to go down to the florist on my days off to pick up a simple flower to paint. When I realized I was improving with every new piece, it just made me want to push further and I realized botanical art really suited me since I’ve always had an eye for minute detail and it was actually pleasurable to study the plant subject for hours.

However this was only considered a hobby amongst other things I liked to do, like ceramic work, sewing, cake decorating, all things crafty. When we moved to Singapore and I no longer had a career, I decided to take up the distance learning course, to finally get some professional advice from experts. A full time career as an illustrator was not at all in the picture.

Towards the end of the course, when I was confident that perhaps I do have a talent in this, my plan was to approach the botanic gardens after I graduate to see if there was any possibility of painting for them. But life is full of surprises, I was introduced to their staff and subsequently the current director by my doctor before I even graduated. And the rest is history. So you can say that there was no plan to make this a full time job on my part when I started my botanical art journey, it all just happened. Who would have thought that one can be a full time botanical painter in Singapore. And to paint for a botanic gardens is really every botanical artist’s dream.

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Images courtesy of Waiwai Hove

 2. What’s the most challenging thing about botanical art?
I always as much as possible paint from live plants. So keeping the subjects alive as I paint is a big challenge. It’s always a race against time. The second is the composition. The painting has to be interesting, balanced and aesthetically pleasant but without compromising on scientific accuracy.3. Are there particular types of plants you love painting most?
Growing up in the tropics I used to take for granted local flora and longed to see plants from temperate countries, irises, tulips, apple blossoms, roses etc. But after being away for so long and having returned back to the familiar, I developed a new found love for them. Their colours are so much more striking, interesting  and varied. So, for now I would like to concentrate on painting tropical plants. Also because so few local plants have been painted the botanical way except from the colonial time (e.g the Farquhar collection). They deserve so much to be noticed by a wider audience, both local and foreign. And i do believe that people would notice a subject more when its portrayed in a painting. But since I’m a plant lover, I will be equally pleased if I had to paint a peony or a persimmon 🙂

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Image courtesy of Waiwai Hove

4. Can you tell me a little about the heritage trees that the Singapore Botanic Garden have commissioned you to paint?

I’ve been commissioned to paint 30 heritage trees within the gardens. I’ve so far completed 2/3 of it. Some of which have been made into this year’s calendar and also published in their heritage tree trail guide book, Tall Tales.
As tropical plants’ flowering and fruiting time is quite unpredictable, this project is taking longer than usual to complete. However the process is quite exciting and I’m so honored to have this chance to be part of this project. Many of the trees are quite rare in Singapore, some of which I’ve never seen outside of the gardens before. When a garden staff notices a heritage tree is in fruit or flower, they would contact me and arrangements would be made for a climber or a crane to harvest the specimens for me. Once I receive them, the clock starts ticking as I have to bring them back to my home immediately and start sketching and painting straight away.

5. What’s your garden like? What kinds of plants do you grow at home?
My garden is mixed bag. I have miscellaneous plants obtain for different purposes and reasons. As I mentioned I paint from live plants, very often the only way is to purchase the plant itself and grow them in a my garden so I have a constant supply of it, and won’t have to steal from a neighbor. There are also ‘rescue’ plants and adopted plants. But the whole garden could do with a bit more care. Somethings sadly gotta give when one has to manage 2 young kids, the household and a career. Someday I hope I can dedicate more time to it and perhaps even have a little vegetable patch.

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Image courtesy of Waiwai Hove

6. You teach botanical drawing and painting, how regularly do you hold these classes? Also, how do people sign up?
My classes are all private classes so it is up to the student how often they would like them to be. It’s usually weekly or every 2 weeks to allow them to have time to practice or complete an assignment. Interested parties can email me (waiwai.hove[at]gmail.com) for course details.

Thank you Waiwai! To find out more about Waiwai, please visit her website at waiwaihove.com.

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