When sculptor Trailer McQuilkin starts on a new project, he has a few big goals in mind, top among them: Make people aware of our spectacular native wildflowers here in the United States and fool botanists into thinking his works of art are the real thing. On both counts, he seems to be succeeding.
McQuilkin was first introduced to the world of sculpture while a student at Louisiana State University. Less enamored with classes than he was with New Orleans’s French Quarter, he soon found himself in a short-term job for a local artist who was making abstract flower pieces. When the gig ended, McQuilkin made his way to the local hardware store, picked up some tools, and began creating metal sculptures of wildflowers, which he describes as “nature’s jewelry.”
He initially worked by referencing photos, but when he saw some of the flowers he’d sculpted in person, he realized his works were “way off.” Before long, he was working with live specimens.
That means he has to obtain the plants he wants to sculpt, many of which are rare or endangered and native to the South. Often guided by botanists committed to protecting these species, McQuilkin has travelled far and wide to find flowers. He’s trekked to the top of snow-capped mountains, climbed down deep gorges, trudged through marshes, and floated down rivers, and he’s timed all these trips precisely to the flowers’ season.
After delicately collecting the plant — along with surrounding leaves, pinecones, and other “litter” from its microhabitat — he carefully packs it up and returns home. He has, after all, only a brief window in which to capture the plant in bloom. Once back in his studio in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, he puts down his head and gets to work, transforming copper and paint into a lifelike rendering of the specimen at hand. Each sculpture takes months.
“It’s always a challenge,” he says. “When you start, you have this plant … And then, you’ve got some copper … and it’s like, Okay, here I go.”
More Online: See more of Trailer McQuilkin’s work at trailermcquilkin.com
Even when he’s done, his process isn’t over: McQuilkin returns most of the plants to the exact place he found them. When he doesn’t, he’ll bring plants to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for cell propagation. And if he isn’t happy with his sculpture — if, as he says, “I couldn’t accomplish what I was trying to capture” — he’s been known to repeat the whole process again the next year.
“Basically, I’m chasing Mother Nature,” he says.
It may be painstaking, but it pays off. McQuilkin’s works allow those who might never glimpse a rare wildflower in person to experience the plant nonetheless. They tempt admirers to touch the soft-appearing leaves, to smell the fragrant-seeming flowers. And, he hopes, they may “encourage people to stop and notice how beautiful our native wildflowers are in this country.”
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