Elsie Mistie Sterling was born in Chicago and attended the Chicago Art Institute. She married Richard Sterling in 1928 and the family fortune was wiped out in the Great Depression. They bought two knapsacks; a 50 pound one for him and a 12 pound one for her and set out hoping to earn their living by Elsie’s portraits, sign painting, and restoration of ancestral paintings.
As they traveled, Elsie sketched the flowers found along the way and later added water-color, colored pencil, and ink to create the paintings you see here. Elsie returned to the plants when they were in seed so we get to see the flowers throughout their life cycle. There are over 400 botanical paintings in the Arts & Science Center collection and they give us a glimpse into the plants found in Arkansas in the early 1940s.
Elsie was an original member of the Council of Ozarks Artists and Craftsmen, Inc. a member organization that pioneered and promoted arts and crafts through fairs such as the Prairie Grove Clothesline Fair which began in 1951 and the War Eagle Fair which began in 1954. These fairs provided the underpinning for the crafts that are now ubiquitous throughout the Ozarks.
Lenore Shoults, Ph.D. Curator
A VALUABLE CONTRIBUTION TO THE SCIENTIFIC RECORD
Elsie Mistie Sterling left a gift for modern day botanists and natural historians. Her illustrations, technically accurate and detailed enough to allow for positive identification, provide a valuable contribution to the scientific record of the flora of Arkansas. She took pains to include the parts and features important for proper identification and generally included the date and location where the plants were found. In these respects, her botanical portraits are nearly as valuable to the scientist as pressed and dried herbarium specimens.
While many of her subjects are common and widespread species, a review of her work shows that she also got off the beaten path and into some interesting (and today rare) habitats. She explored the tallgrass prairies around Rogers, bluffs and rock outcrops along the upper White River, and the botanically spectacular shale glades and barrens of the Ouachita Mountains near Arkadelphia. These habitats support rare and unique plants, and are themselves considered to be of conservation concern. The prairies around Rogers, for example, which once occupied tens of thousands of acres, are almost entirely gone today, making her record of the flora she found in them especially important. Her illustrations are like a time machine, allowing us to go back and see what these areas were like nearly 75 years ago.
Working from pre-1940s botanical references considered poor by today’s standards, Sterling was not always able to completely or correctly identify the species that she documented, but her illustrations are so accurate that botanists today can vet them as thoroughly as they would actual specimens in a museum, annotating the identifications and updating names. For example, an illustration from Rogers she labeled “Anoda hastata” is clearly Winecups or Fringed Poppy-mallow (Callirhoe digitata), a native grassland species, uncommon today. Other declining species she drew from these grasslands around Rogers include American Feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium), Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), and Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta).
Her documentation of the flora around Arkadelphia is equally important and interesting. A mint she illustrated in 1942 and identified as “Calaminth” is today known as Arkansas Calamint or Glade Savory (Clinopodium arkansanum), a species of seasonally wet shale glades and barrens in the Ouachita Mountains. This was perhaps found at the same site where she collected and illustrated several other uncommon glade species like Long-flower Cornsalad (Valerianella longiflora) and Engelmann’s Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus var. engelmannii). And her Wild Hyacinth illustration from this area is not the common and widespread Camassia scilloides, but is without question a rare species known almost exclusively from the shale glades of the Ouachita Mountains. This species is closely related to the Midwestern Prairie Hyacinth (Camassia angusta), but is presently being studied by botanists who believe it represents a distinct and undescribed species that is new-to-science and of great conservation concern.
But Sterling’s contributions to the scientific record extend beyond rare native species and unique habitats. Her 1948 drawing of Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) from Pleasant Hill, Arkansas is the first and only documentation of this non-native species from the state. It is invasive to our north and while long expected in the state, was not previously known (to the modern scientific community anyway) to occur in Arkansas. Now, thanks to Ms. Sterling, we know to look for it around Pleasant Hill between early June, when she found it in flower, and July when she found it in fruit.
Theo Witsell Ecologist & Botanist, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Curator, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Herbarium (ANHC)
This online exhibition is generously sponsored by Relyance Bank.