I was still trying to paint the wood end walls of my new hoop house one morning when the poppies burst into bloom in my yard. It was summer and our art gallery was so busy I only had an hour or so at dawn to work on the painting project. I headed out the door that day with my paint roller and only got as far as the big rectangle garden.
The newly opened shirley poppies stopped me in my tracks. Their fragile translucence in the dawn light mesmerized me. Any thoughts of painting the hoop house walls dissolved unnoticed in the soft dawn light as I immersed myself in the poppies.
I think about six weeks passed before I resumed work on the hoop house. In the meantime I began painting large canvases blazing with poppies. As far as I was concerned, the bigger the better when painting them. This series of paintings were five and six feet long by about four feet high, so I could really play with the luminous colors of those incredible flowers.
The following summer I was still passionately painting flowers and had a much more definite idea of what I wanted to grow for my paintings. I planted more shirley poppies and deadheaded them vigorously to prolong the blooming period. The hoop house was inspiring me to try other flowers in the garden as well.
Before my startled husband could protest, I was creating new gardens. Dump truckloads of manure were brought to the yard followed by more tilling. After three years of expansion I had added enough flower gardens to mostly fill our two lots, all laid out to catch the dawn light when the flowers are at their most magical.
I had no idea where this was to lead me as I grew increasingly large quantities of poppies. I ended up with so many I could no longer deadhead the plants. I took thousands of photos each summer so I could revisit the garden any time I needed, including during the deep cold of a Montana winter.
The flowers taught me how they best showed their incredible energies in the early dawn light. I became friends with the bees, which were taking their own harvest in the flowers. This could make my pictorial harvest difficult as I would sometimes find four or five bees at once in a flower I fancied. The solution was to blow on the bees, who became irritated and flew off to more welcoming flowers. I had enough time to shoot one or two photos before more bees arrived.
I wore out two or three Nikon 990 cameras in the course of all this and then switched to a Canon dslr. This proved to be a double challenge in that I was not familiar with slr photography and nor with the myriad digital controls on the camera.
Fortunately Gerry Mooney, one of our artists in the gallery, was willing to teach a photography workshop at the Diamond J Ranch when we offered to sponsor him. I took the workshop myself and found my photo quality dramatically improved.
I continued painting huge florals without wavering in my enthusiasm for the shirley poppies. I particularly love the ones with either a white picotee edge, or a white center blending outward to colored edges. These paintings were popular in the gallery and began shipping all over the country.
As the body of work grew, Poppyfire Press published my first book, Flowers of the Dawn; Paintings and Poetry by Lexi Sundell. It is a limited edition fine art book hand bound in calfskin with handmade paper fly leafs. And still the poppies bloomed and I continued painting.
Quarto in London, England contacted me to do a second book, which will be published in August 2007. This has been an even more massive undertaking than the first book. In a few days I hope to have all the work completed for it.
It is now the deep quiet of winter and my gardens sleep in the cold snow. I remember that first summer when I had the hoop house installed and smile at the unexpected direction the gardens have led me.