From Journalist To Botanical Artist

From Journalist To Botanical Artist

Silver Spring's Susannah Zak Figura talks branching out into a new career

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Susannah Zak Figura draws inspiration from her daily walks along Silver Spring’s Sligo Creek. Opposite: Artwork by Figura includes a traditional botanical of a sunflower and a stylized image of a golden hummingbird.

She sits on a rock at the edge of Sligo Creek, holding a hard-backed Hand Book artist journal, its thick paper designed to absorb light watercolor washes. Her right hand grips a fine Pigma Micron pen that yields wondrous things: a lively buttercup, a leaf with its veins and epidermis finely detailed. Botanical art is often described as the melding of science and aesthetics. Susannah Zak Figura strives to capture the engineering miracle of nature.

Figura, 50, of Silver Spring, is an artist and a teacher at the Brookside Gardens School of Botanical Art and Illustration, where, not too long ago, she herself was a student. Her apprenticeship was the first stage of a metamorphosis from her work as a journalist.

Following the birth of her first son, Luca, 16 years ago, Figura returned to her full-time career, where she soon found that her body resided in the Washington, D.C., offices of Government Executive, a publication for federal managers and executives—but her mind did not. “When I was away from Luca, I felt I was missing so much,” she says.

She tried a shorter schedule. “You can’t do the job half time,” Figura says. “You have to work with your sources.” Her husband, Andrew, was working as an economist for the Federal Reserve. After a hard look at family economics, Figura decided to stay home. A second son, Alec, now 13, joined the family.

llustration by Susannah Zak Figura

When the boys were little, Figura spent hours doing arts and crafts and found herself drawing a lot of plants and flowers. Luca and Alec attended the Acorn Hill preschool across the street from their house. Connecting to that school, she says, “helped pull me away” from the world of politics and policy. During a summer of 2006 visit to Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Regional Park, Figura noticed a display from the botanical art school, which she’d never heard of.

Figura grew up with an appreciation of gardens. Her father, Albin Joseph Zak Jr., who died in 2010, was a petroleum engineer who traveled the world but was most at home on his farm in Waterville, Vermont. He spent 20 years transforming the rugged landscape there into what Figura calls a “horticultural masterpiece,” with spring bulbs, perennial beds, vegetable gardens and orchards. Figura applied lessons learned from her dad in her own garden in Silver Spring, and her summer visits to Vermont always ended with a truckload of green gifts for replanting at home.

Figura began taking classes at the botanical school in 2008 and, at the urging of one of her instructors, started to teach last year. She now teaches beginning drawing, and beginning and intermediate botanical painting. Each class runs about four weeks and typically consists of five students. Janice Browne, 63, a retired information technology professional who has taken two classes with Figura, says, “Susannah has a talent for figuring out the kind of support, encouragement and mentoring her students need.” When Browne mentioned that she had taken art classes at Montgomery College, Figura asked to see her work and was generous in her praise. “It gave me confidence,” Browne says. “She made me feel special.”


llustration by Susannah Zak Figura

Art, Figura says, creates a bond with the outside world, unlike her career as a journalist. “My sketching makes me feel more connected to my life,” she says. “When you draw, you slow down and you really pay attention.” Figura has sold 18 pieces, both directly and through gallery shows, ranging from $95 for small archival prints to $1,500 for a large botanical watercolor painting.

As Figura’s confidence has grown, she has begun to experiment with more conceptual art. “Botanical art can feel very rigid,” she says, “so a lot of people drawn to it are scientific or technical types. I need to feel freer.”

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