MINDY LIGHTHIPEStemming from her childhood fascination with observing insects, Mindy Lighthipe has forged a career that’s equal parts art and life science. Lighthipe, a botanical illustrator by training, has exhibited her art in juried and solo exhibitions since 1998. Her work depicts the natural history of—and symbiosis between—plants and animals.
“This aspect of the art form does not always reach the masses,” said Lighthipe, 54, an adjunct professor of fine arts at University of Florida (UF). Preserving the practice of botanical illustration is but one goal of her life’s work. Conservation is another aim. “The more general public I can get to be as excited as I am about nature, the better chances we have at protecting fragile ecosystems,” she added.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in studio arts and a master’s in art education, both from Kean University in Union, New Jersey, Lighthipe completed training at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where she later taught more than 20 courses. Since 2012, she has led a botanical drawing workshop to train K-12 teachers in classroom instruction called Plant Camp.
According to Katie Walters, education coordinator at UF’s Florida Invasive Plant Education Initiative, “drawing improves observational skills,” which are crucial for science.
“Mindy encourages people to look closer,” said Walters. “That leaf has so much more going on than first meets the eye.”
To limit the potential confusion a scientist might encounter when trying to reference an unfamiliar plant, the backgrounds of botanical illustrations are almost always white. But Lighthipe’s appreciation for color shines through her work.
“Mindy takes time to know her subjects beyond simply ‘painting the light’ which happens to be falling on them,” said Paul Wales of the science-art shop Atlas Screen Printing in Gainesville, Florida, which sells some of Lighthipe’s work. “She is a good technical illustrator, but her strongest suit is her love of color and ability to channel her enthusiasm through her brush.”
“My art aims to be scientifically represented with just an over-the-top addition of color and enthusiasm,” explained Lighthipe. Scientific illustrations, she noted, can be dry and technical; her aim is to create images with mass appeal.
Lighthipe’s appreciation for insects is another distinguishing feature of her work. Many of her pieces feature entomological specimens. “I love the complex colors, textures and patterns that occur,” she said. In researching some of her illustrations, Lighthipe has spent countless hours tending to and observing plants. “This is really satisfying for me as I am fascinated by the process,” she said. “I want to make sure I have enough research and access to specimens in order to make the story come to life.”
Botanical illustrators do more than simply draw what they see. With a single image, they might depict “all the components of a life cycle,” focusing on elements of interest. A skilled illustrator, said Lighthipe, can “highlight a specific feature as well as minimize other features,” to assist researchers in identifying new species.
Curiosity has been a boon for Lighthipe’s career. “When I discover something new, I want to learn as much as I can about it,” she said. “I love what I do and feel super lucky to be able to do it.”