Artist Betsy Farr harmonizes faith and flora

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In a tiny basement workroom in Manassas, botanical artist Margaret Elizabeth “Betsy” Farr blends the flora of Northern Virginia with images of saints from across the globe to create unique religious imagery. Surrounded by 19th-century Catholic lithographs while listening to choral work, such as Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, Farr paints with watercolor on 140-pound Fabriano cotton paper, frequently including metal leaf.

Her works, including portraits of St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), are among 11 paintings currently displayed at Trinity House Café in Leesburg.

Farr, raised Methodist, became Catholic with others in her family after a miracle. She describes her Catholic faith as a gift that has transformed her life and her art.

“I see God’s hand in everything I see and do,” said Farr, who attends St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge with her husband of 48 years, Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute. “Becoming Catholic was the defining moment of my life, and has shaped everything that has come after. The good and the difficult, it’s all a gift.”

Art has been part of her family for as long as she can remember. Her grandfather, the minister of a large Methodist church in Ohio, kept a reproduction of the Sistine Madonna above his fireplace, which captivated her during childhood. Her father, an engineer, was no stranger to drawing and her mother was also a skilled sketch artist.

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Margaret Farr’s painting, “Baltimore Oriole and Norton Grapes,” is among those currently on display at Strathmore in Bethesda through March 31. COURTESY

“By fourth grade, my favorite volume of the Compton’s Encyclopedia was ‘R’— for ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Raphael,’ ” she recalled. “I was comfortable early on with a pencil in my hand, and felt a real compulsion — almost a painful one, in fact — to create my perception of beauty on a piece of paper.” 

Her attraction to art transformed into a career when she and her husband, then a foreign service officer, were stationed in Athens, Greece, during the 1980s. Drawn to the beautiful plant life in Athens, she began capturing images of flora that she saw around her.

“I began to keep a record of the incredible wildflowers that grew like weeds on ‘our’ mountain overlooking the city,” she said.

Her botanical artwork continued to blossom after she returned to the United States, where her paintings of Athenian flowers were displayed at a gallery in McLean. Her work has been showcased over the years by the American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA). She is also a member of the Botanical Artists of the National Capital Region (BASNCR), which meets quarterly at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Currently, three of her botanical paintings are on display at Strathmore in Bethesda through March 31. 

Her botanical artwork took on new meaning in 1993 when she and her husband decided to become Catholic. Their three daughters attended the Catholic school at St. James Church in Falls Church. One day, she received a surprise visit at home from the Legion of Mary.

“After a pleasant chat, they left me a handful of miraculous medals. On leaving, one of the ladies said, ‘Honey, if you pray with this, you will get whatever you ask for!’” she recounted. “Keep in mind that I had never set foot in a Catholic Church. I put the medal on a chain on my neck, and prayed every day for a miracle for my sister’s 2-year-old, whose kidneys were failing due to undiagnosed strep.”

About three weeks later, the little boy who doctors expected would require a transplant as a teen was in remission, which Farr described as “an utter mystery to his doctors.” After receiving the news that her nephew was healed, she promptly called the church and told them that she wanted to become Catholic. She and her family entered into full communion with the Catholic Church the following Easter.

“Suddenly, all of that treasury from Volume ‘R’ was mine by right … the crucifixes, madonnas and saints, the sacraments and musical settings of the Mass — all of it,” she said. “I was and am really in love with every part of it all, and immediately these exciting new ideas and relationships found their way into my art.”

The subjects of Farr’s religious paintings usually blend a portrait of a saint with flora and sometimes fauna found around her Northern Virginia home across the seasons. One of Farr’s favorite themes is “Regina Caeli Laetare,” in which she depicts Our Lady surrounded by Easter blossoms.

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Farr’s painting “St. Margaret of Scotland” depicts the saintly queen surrounded by heather, thistles and broom and is on display at Trinity House Café in Leesburg. 

“I have surrounded St. Edith Stein with striplings of thorn from a wild rose, and St. Margaret of Scotland with thistles, heather and broom. St. Therese is a dear and special subject, as I love to do roses,” she said. “In the course of doing every ‘portrait,’ I get to dwell on the beauty of the subject and to try to come to understand her a bit more.” 

Farr spends on average about 100 hours per painting. She enjoys listening to music and talk radio, sometimes TED talks, to provide her with inspiration as works come and go from her basement studio. “The better the music, the better I paint,” she said.

Her Catholic faith has infused new life into her botanical art.

“I really believe that being surrounded by beautiful holy images while worshipping at church — or in the home — is, as it has been throughout the ages, a bonding mechanism between the worshipper and the deity,” she said.

Her work is also on display at the Catholic Information Center in Washington. Two of her paintings have been hung at her parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church.

Farr describes her religious art as “a charmed vocation on a personal level.”

“After we converted, I began to see the portrayal of nature in a far deeper way, and in fact, as a means of praise and thanksgiving,” she said. “Catholicism introduced an overtly sacramental way of looking at all things, and mindsets and even time-honored forms for representing one’s thoughts.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

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