Illustrator Keeps Artistic Vision Despite Eye Injury After nearly four decades of illustrating plants for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Alice Tangerini is still trying to perfect the art. But an eye injury has made her job more difficult, so she's had to make accommodations such as wearing an eye patch to allow her to focus better and using a computer to draw.
NPR logo

Illustrator Keeps Artistic Vision Despite Eye Injury

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/112515247/112630898" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Illustrator Keeps Artistic Vision Despite Eye Injury

Illustrator Keeps Artistic Vision Despite Eye Injury

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/112515247/112630898" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

However you may be insured, your health can affect the way you do your job. Consider the woman who works for Warren Wagner.

Dr. WARREN WAGNER (Botanist): We think that she's just about the best illustrator in the United States - botanical illustrator.

INSKEEP: He's talking about Alice Tangerini, an artist at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. She also curates the Smithsonian's five million plant specimens. Her work takes patience, skill and good eyes. After 37 years at work, she still has the patience and skill, but her eyes are a problem.

NPR's Ted Robbins tells us how she's adapting.

TED ROBBINS: With one hand, Alice Tangerini focuses her microscope. With the other hand, she makes quick pencil sketches of what she sees: magnified hairs on the tiny grain-sized flowers of the sandpaper tree from Guyana.

Ms. ALICE TANGERINI (Illustrator): So I kind of suggest the hairs, because later on, I'm going to have to enlarge it just to see the structure of the hairs.

ROBBINS: Before sketching, she rehydrated the flowers and used surgical tools to dissect them. The flowers and the dried brown leaves and stems of the sandpaper tree were collected in the field and sewn to sheets of paper more than a decade ago. It's Tangerini's job to transform them into precise, lifelike drawings for botanical journals.

After days of sketching at the microscope and her drafting table, she's ready to ink the lines, which create a permanent drawing. She holds a brush in one hand and uses the other to steady herself.

Ms. TANGERINI: So, I have to hold my breath, or else I end up making little nuances in the line that I don't want. So all of this is like a breath exercise.

ROBBINS: Hours can go by, she says, drawing the long, smooth lines which capture the nature of a leaf or a branch. After nearly four decades on the job, Alice Tangerini is still trying to get it just right.

Ms. TANGERINI: Every drawing is that attempt to reach perfection, the attempt to really make that one line that you say, that's exactly the way I wanted to make that line.

ROBBINS: Her skill and knowledge may get her closer to the perfect line, but her body is taking her farther away. When she began this job, this slender, dark-haired woman said she had perfect vision. Everyone's vision deteriorates with age, of course, but four and a half years ago, Alice Tangerini had an injury to her right eye.

Ms. TANGERINI: And what went wrong was just - they don't have a diagnosis for it. They just say it's bad luck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TANGERINI: You just work so many years then one eye gave out.

ROBBINS: She had surgery, but it left her with double vision in the eye.

Ms. TANGERINI: And in this field, you can't have any distortion. You can't put up with it.

ROBBINS: So Alice Tangerini faced a potential career-ending obstacle. Her boss, botanist Warren Wagner, tried to help. He suggested she use only her good eye.

Dr. WAGNER: In fact, I gave her my son's pirate patch so she can cover one eye and so that she can still focus in and see things clearly. So she's figured out ways to go past her disabilities with her eyes and still do first-rate art.

ROBBINS: It works. But wearing an eye patch and using only one eye for eight, sometimes 10 hours a day is tiring. So little by little, Alice Tangerini is being forced to do something she never wanted to do.

(Soundbite of writing on a tablet)

ROBBINS: She recently began using a large graphics tablet, a monitor she can draw directly on and the program Photoshop, which makes the small drawings larger. It's especially useful for techniques like stippling, using dots to create a shadow effect.

Ms. TANGERINI: It's a little bit of an eye relief for me to be able to enlarge the drawings on a monitor to where I don't have to really strain my eye.

ROBBINS: Architects and engineers went digital long ago. Until recently, Alice Tangerini resisted the technology partly because she admired the centuries-old traditions of scientific illustration, mostly because she just enjoys the feel of pen on paper. But if it helps her do what she loves longer, she'll use whatever tools are necessary.

Ms. TANGERINI: As long as my eyes hold out, as long as I can still use my good eye, I will, and still have a mind to do it. I will still be drawing here.

ROBBINS: That's great for the scientist she works with. The Smithsonian's botanists have asked her not to retire because they consider Alice Tangerini irreplaceable.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: As long as your eyes hold out, you can find photos of Alice Tangerini's work in a slideshow at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.