Donna Hepner said she generally avoids nature whenever she can.
But when the opportunity arose to take an outdoor art class, she took it.
On a recent afternoon, she sat in a garden and sketched reflections of a tree in a pond, with ink, pencils, and charcoal. As she made marks on the paper, her work took on life.
"When you create art outdoors you need to be relaxed and open," said Hepner, 41, of Joppa. "If you try to control nature, it doesn't work well."
Hepner was one of several students who participated in art classes offered by the Maryland Institute College of Art at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton.
Started last fall at the 22-acre topiary garden, created in 1929 by Harvey S. Ladew, the non-credit program costs $275 and includes drawing throughout the site's 27 sections - herb, water lily, pink, yellow, white, Victorian, rose, and iris gardens.
The idea for the program at Ladew stemmed from the college's desire to connect the school with the community, link the arts and sciences, and help preserve nature through art, said David Gracyalny, the dean of continuing studies at MICA.
"Ladew offers students a chance to take a unique look at Ladew through drawing, painting, or photography," he said. "But it also has interesting possibilities for linking art with fields such as horticulture and botany. Students can do things like creating detailed illustrations for analysis of botanics."
In recent years, MICA has offered a sculpture class in a Montgomery County garden, he said. During the class, students make sculptures, using items in the park, which they then leave there, he said.
"We want students to understand and develop a desire to preserve nature through art," he said. "With opportunities such as working in Ladew Gardens, they learn about the issue of sustainability without impacting the environment in a negative way."
During the inaugural year, a single class was offered, called Introduction to Drawing using Botanicals. Made up of five, three-hour, Sunday sessions, the classes cover the fundamentals of beginning drawing, including contour and form. Students create still life drawings using clippings from live plants from the garden.
This year, a second class was added called Pattern Through Nature. Designed for experienced artists, students draw, paint, or work with mixed media to depict patterns throughout the garden.
During this class, the art students gain a new perspective of nature, through patterns, said Carolyn Case, an adjunct professor at MICA who teaches the classes at Ladew.
"When you draw using patterns, you take a lot of risks," said Case, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from California State University at Long Beach in 1994 and a master of fine arts from Mount Royal Graduate School in 1998. "When you work outdoors, you can see nature as a construct. Then you build your own aesthetic depiction from what you see."
The class takes creating still life art to a new level, she said.
For example, in one session of the class, the students drew mirror images of things they saw in the garden.
Natalie Fenwick, who taught art at Anne Arundel Community College, found the mirror image assignment challenging. Although she often paints outdoors at the beach and at various Howard County locations, painting in the garden created new obstacles, she said.
"When I work outdoors on my art, I look for ways to simplify what I'm doing," said Fenwick, 65, of Columbia. "Working with patterns made me think."
In the second session, rain forced the students to work indoors.
Only this time, Case suggested that they draw a landscape, as they looked at it from indoors through the panes of a large window. To help her students look beyond the window, Case used some Van Gogh drawings and paintings, she said.
"Van Gogh had a really good way of repeating patterns," Case said. "He used patterns to create simplified landscapes. I'm trying to get my students to look at the patterns in nature, and to create their own personal aesthetic from it. I want them to find the mini-world within the world."
Working outdoors can be difficult, Hepner said.
"Being outdoors takes you away from the security of your familiar surroundings," she said. "You don't have the nice comfy chair. And the sounds and smells are different. Nature can be distracting."
However, it's worth the challenge, said Michael Ichniowski, a pediatrician from Lutherville. When the weather cooperates, he said that working outdoors helps hone his art skills.
"It's very hard to sit in one place and draw it," said Ichniowski, 54, who began creating art as a boy. "I'm not rapid at it at all. The big challenge of creating art is that you have to take what the eyes see, and convert it to a flat piece of paper."
Sometimes what the artist sees changes, said Hepner said.
She started out drawing a tree. But the longer she sat and looked at it, the more she got into making the scene her own, she said.
"As I continued to work, my drawings became dark ... a bit Van Gogh-ish," she said. "I started playing around with a fan brush and making swirls and swatches with ink."
The outdoor classes are offered because they add complexity to works of art that depict nature, said Case, who creates abstract landscapes.
"Sometimes we don't realize how intricate something is until we see it up close," Case said.
"A leaf seems simple until you look at the detail up close," she said. "It's nice to sometimes have the subtleties of the real thing in front of you."
For more information on the noncredit courses call 410-225-2219 or visit www.mica.edu to register.