Painter Heidi Jung's From the Garden Captures the Secret Life of Plants

Heidi Jung's studio looks out on the garden that she replicates in her work.EXPAND
Heidi Jung's studio looks out on the garden that she replicates in her work.
Bree Davies

Heidi Jung stands at the front window of her modest, blond-brick home situated in Denver's Northside. She points at a tiny house across the street, where a giant roll-off dumpster takes up the entire driveway. "That was my Aunt Stella's house," the painter says. "They're just gutting it, not tearing it down, thank God. But you know what? Live and let live."

"Live and let live" is also a great way to describe the artist's work.  An observer of nature and sentient beings, Jung creates paintings that depict living things in all phases of life; like the neighborhood in which she resides, the subjects of her pieces are often caught in the twilight of a life cycle. Her new exhibition, From the Garden, which opens this Thursday, August 11, at the Denver Botanic Gardens, examines the imperfections of living things in brutal detail.

"I started with plants that were on their way out instead of in their prime," Jung says of her subjects for this new show. "The idea of these pieces was [to capture] plants that were dying instead of being in their pretty, colorful, perfect state." Jung's stark interpretations of everything from bees and ants to dandelions and beets show the aging and wilting of objects in the living world. Roots, dirt and the imperfections of organic material are exposed in her renderings.

"Beat to the Punch," 2016, sumi ink, pastel and charcoal on panel.EXPAND
"Beat to the Punch," 2016, sumi ink, pastel and charcoal on panel.
Bree Davies

Each painting is a process; Jung applies Sumi ink to Mylar and lets the sheets dry for weeks. She then goes back and washes out the pieces, sands them and removes some of the ink in layers, creating beautiful, sterile, almost X-ray-like portraits of plants from her own garden. With a studio right in her own back yard, Jung is able to observe the full life cycles of her subjects — for example, the purslane that began growing wild in her yard, which Jung let take over one of her plant boxes, watching as it propagated. The succulent-like greens eventually showed up in one of her paintings. 

Raised in the area around Lookout Mountain, Jung wasn't able to have a garden of her own growing up. But almost two decades ago, she purchased her grandmother's home in northwest Denver — a place where the artist would eventually find time to cultivate the future subjects of her paintings. "Deer eat everything in the mountains, so when I moved down here, my grandma had already had a flower bed, and I decided to grow vegetables in it," says Jung. Through a process of trial and error, Jung has been growing plants for the better part of a decade. 

"Dandelion," 2016, sumi ink and charcoal on panel.EXPAND
"Dandelion," 2016, sumi ink and charcoal on panel.
Bree Davies

Jung's senior thesis show at Metropolitan State University focused on insects. Years later, she saw a natural transition from insects to botanics — and her garden gave her plenty of material to study. “When I paint something, I like to try to become an expert at it,” says Jung.

In a world of digital realism, Jung's handmade work stands out. For this first major showing at the Denver Botanic Gardens, the crispness and clarity of her painted versions of living, edible organisms couldn't be a more perfect fit.

From the Garden: Works by Heidi Jung sprouts at 5:30 p.m. this Thursday, August 11, in the Gates Garden Court Gallery at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where Jung’s works will be on view through November 6. In lieu of an artist talk at the opening, Jung has collaborated with musician, producer and videographer Gabriel Otto to create a video component that will play on a loop throughout the reception, incorporating more of her vegetation illustrations. For more information on the exhibit, call 720-865-3501 or visit the Gardens website. For more on Jung's work, visit the artist's website

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