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The natural: Baltimore artist dips into Mother Nature's well

A favorite of collectors, homeowners and now, a museum, Meg Page is known for her detailed paintings

By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

11:40 AM EDT, October 10, 2013

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During a dark time in her life, Baltimore artist Meg Page sought solace by a pond and took the time to look into the eyes of nature.

"There was this frog, and the specks of gold in his eyes were so spectacular that my heart lifted in the moment," she said.

Also in that moment, nature changed from being her comforter to being her muse, and almost 20 years ago, the career of one of the country's great naturalist illustrators was launched.

"It's all right here for us, this beauty. This richness that can get lost. There was something of the divine in the eye of that animal," said Page.

Page's work is on display in Middleburg, Va., at the National Sporting Library and Museum through February, along with the work of artist Robin Hill, famous for his birds. Located about an hour from Baltimore, the museum was founded to celebrate the literature, sport and culture of horse and field sports.

The show is a departure of sorts. Page most often works on commissions for homeowners and collectors, painting anything from the family dog to the family pig, using her gifts as a naturalist to give the animals a new life.

"The subject matter is so flexible," she said. "I see the wall as its own canvas and the room as the structure around it. Perhaps it is five paintings or one big one. I use my client's home as an inspiration and I am happy to work that way."

She wants the "Oh, wow!" moment that only such collaboration can produce.

Page, who calls herself "just a Towson girl," studied at Cleveland Institute of Art and started her career as a photographer. A divorce of her choosing drove her to the pond that day, and the 53-year-old said she found what her spirit needed to recover.

When she began to draw and paint the things she found in nature, Page used the camera to record her subjects in their environment and her gift for photographic composition to organize the elements on her canvas.

Illustrators in this tradition record more than the likeness of a bat or a fox or a shell, a flower or a feather. The record of where the subjects were seen or found and a date is there on the canvas, too, as well as any species information and the Latin names. Written in the faintest calligraphy that seems to disappear from across the room, it never intrudes. But it is a record.

"There is more attention to the subject and a real sense of observation," Page says of the detail of her work. The feathers on a quail and the fluff on its chicks. The skeleton under the skin of a bat's wings. The bend in the blade of marsh grass.

She has a studio at Gentle Farm, the retreat in Pennsylvania she shares with husband David Ashton of Ashton Design, well known for its work on Dodger Stadium, Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. And there is plenty of nature there to tempt her.

But Page spends most of her days at her airy two-bedroom apartment on University Parkway in Baltimore, where two French doors open up to a spacious balcony, furnished for entertaining, though this meticulous artist loves her solitude.

A table is piled high with her research. Old books, magazines and drawings she consults to get the details right. Especially the eyes of her creatures. The eyes, she said, are the most difficult feature to capture because that is where life resides.

She works from her photos. But she will also dig up a sunflower at Gentle Farm and bring it back to the studio in a galvanized bucket. It is a race against time, she says, because the flowers do die.

In this case, the sunflower lives on in the bucket and the bucket lives on in the painting, so tall that it is in two parts.

And speaking of dead: She also works from taxidermy. The portrait of the fox that is the centerpiece of the Middleburg show was undamaged road kill before it was preserved. And the turtle in the show? It almost was road kill.

The portrait of the pig that she did for Charlie and Sherry Fenwick, of Baltimore steeplechase fame, was from family photos, because by the time she was able to get to the commission, the pig, a rescue named Charlotte, had died.

"All of them have a story," she said. "And sometimes the story is better than the painting."

In the painting, which is enormous, you can see the hairs on Charlotte's hide and the sleepy look in her eye.

Her commissions take many forms — a flower from your garden, a bird in the woods that evokes special memories, the turkey feather found on a walk — and can cost upward of several thousand dollars. But the New York Graphic Society came calling, and posters of her botanical prints can be purchased for about $25.

The compact kitchen in her Baltimore apartment is decorated with drawings of eggplants and strawberries, peas and grapes. In the living room, a white peony sits on an easel, the traditional display for a cherished botanical.

Page has a national reputation for resurrecting the art of naturalist paintings, with its minute attention to detail. She says she wants to preserve her foxes, frogs and turtles for the future, just as her predecessors did before the innovation of photography.

"The journey," as she calls her research for each painting, "is hugely inspiring. It makes you paint them with more feeling. You want to show them in a special way."

The fox is the centerpiece of the gallery show and it is full of life on Page's canvas, galloping across a rock wall and about to leap a split-rail fence. Hard to believe that it was quite dead and very stuffed.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

@susanreimer/twitter.com

If you go

'Contemporary Artists: Naturalists Meg Page and Robin Hill' Through Feb. 23 at the National Sporting Library and Museum, 102 The Plains Road, Middleburg, Va., 540-687-6543. Free admission. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Closed on federal holidays and during bad weather.