The world of gardening and art often overlap; I often find gardeners who also like drawing, photography, or who partake in other crafty pastimes. One of my long-time volunteers, Margaret Zbikowski, is no exception. Margaret began volunteering in February 2006, just as the winter rains were hitting. She recalls “it was February and knee deep in mud; the blackberries were the target and I began to wonder if I was able to do this hillside gardening”.
Aside from tugging at the stubborn blackberries, Margaret applied her librarian skills to organize the island’s staff library; but her childhood love of drawing plants found her a special niche on the island.
Raised in rural Michigan, Margaret’s mother would name plants to her when she was very small. The large lot next to their home was planted as a Victory garden and was a haven for the three-year-old Margaret, where she would sit and watch the plants. Impressively, as a three-year-old, Margaret remembers smelling her neighbors mint bush, “This all was a marvelous world to me”.
At age ten, she would roam on the family’s ‘back 40’, drawing trees,
plants, mosses and leaves. “No-one in my family said anything about my drawing, so I continued happily. At school it was harder, as someone told I could draw and everyone wanted a portrait right there, right now. I always gave these drawings to the fools. That’s why I prefer PLANTS.”
Margaret has never had any formal training, other than taking lessons at the local town Museum of Art for the summer months, which was considered ‘appropriate’ for all young ladies. Apparently, only students seemed to notice who had talent. Margaret did ask to be sent to an art school in Chicago, but sadly, the answer was ‘No’.
But, natural talent can never be discouraged and Margaret continued to draw, and expanded into designing and making knit sweaters. Her San Francisco apartment is a treasure trove of her passions – books, paintings, orchids, and her drawing notebooks of Alcatraz plants.
Leafing through her notebooks, many of the drawings catch my eye. I wonder how she can capture the essence of the plants with such few pencils and with such simple looking drawings? On average, Margaret takes about 20 minutes to do a drawing, but has worked on one a lot more when she is not quite satisfied.
Amazingly, penitentiary inmates were privileged to be allowed ‘landscape drawing’ and must have spent hours gazing at the plants, not to mention the City and freedom, lying just beyond.
One inmate, George Hecht, was sentenced on kidnapping charges and was sent to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas and was later transferred to Alcatraz for an escape attempt. Hecht spent 1944 to 1952 on Alcatraz and his work detail was for the inside garden by the incinerator on the West Side. An article in the Washington Post dated July 1949 tells of a local San Francisco artist who went to teach evening classes on Alcatraz to help with the creative program. George must have benefitted from this program as he produced many paintings during his time on the Rock. In fact, five paintings from Alcatraz were exhibited in Paris, France in May 1951. Amazingly, after George passed away, his children found in his attic his paintings from his time on Alcatraz. His years on Alcatraz were not his happiest and yet he held onto his art that he had created during his time there.
I do wish more visitors would come armed with paper, pencils and an extra 20 minutes to sit in the gardens, take in the moment and sketch a few plants.