By Holli Cederholm
Rebekah Lowell considers herself a “multi-passionate” artist. Her portfolio includes fine art paintings of landscapes, whimsical fabric patterns, Maine Migratory Waterfowl Stamps, and illustrations for children’s books — which she also authors. The common thread is the world around her. “I’m never bored with nature,” says Lowell. If anything, nature provides an “over-abundance of inspiration.” While out for a walk, Lowell often stops to take a closer look at a lichen or moss, photographing or sketching a specimen to use as source material for her artwork. She jokes that this habit makes it hard for her to get from point A to B at a regular pace. “I think I’ll always be a student of nature,” she says. “It’s been a good companion my whole life.”
Her nature sketching practice took root during her childhood in Biddeford, Maine, where she now lives with, and homeschools, her two daughters, Ariah, 14, and Elektrah, 16.
Lowell went on to attain formal training as an artist and holds a BFA in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and a MFA in children’s literature and illustration from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. She is also working towards a certificate in natural science illustration, also from RISD, to add another dimension to the workshops she teaches, and she aspires to add online courses to connect kids with nature to her creative offerings.
Lowell, who was herself homeschooled, became immersed in both the art and science of nature at a young age, and credits her parents and their love of organic gardening to awakening her appreciation of plants and animals. Her dad taught her about the wildlife in the area. “We’ll still sit in the driveway together at their house and just watch the birds, like go into the cedar trees at night to hunker down,” says Lowell.
She started keeping a nature journal as a child: She would sketch a plant, like iris or clover, and then compare it to a field guide. This, says Lowell, is how she processed the world: “see, draw, learn, repeat.” From her mother, she learned about the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly. Together, they observed a yellow, white and black striped caterpillar form a chrysalis and then, two weeks later, eclose as an adult butterfly with brilliant orange and black wings.
The artist renders all four life stages of the monarch, including their tiny eggs, in the winning design for the 2023 Common Country Fair Poster. In reflecting on the design, Lowell says she wanted her artwork to be universal but also specific. Common milkweed, native to Maine and known to many gardeners and farmers, also features prominently in Lowell’s design. The host plant for monarchs, milkweed is a critical food source for the caterpillars. Through her graceful and lifelike depiction of the monarch lifecycle, Lowell works to share the message that monarchs need all the help they can get.
In 2014, Lowell started rescuing monarchs from a local hayfield — collecting them ahead of the tractor — and raising them to winged butterfly in a screenhouse in her backyard. Since then, she has raised and released over a thousand monarch butterflies gathered from within a mile radius of her home.
Lowell scouts for monarch eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves in the summer, starting around June 20. When she finds an egg, she snips the leaf it is on and places the milkweed on a glass tray, egg side up, with the stem tucked into a wet paper towel. As the season progresses, Lowell also keeps an eye out for caterpillars, collecting and transferring them to milkweed stalks held in mason jars used as vases in her screenhouse (which is constructed of metal pipes and bug netting). Keeping the monarchs outside is important, says Lowell, “so, they have those natural rhythms and they feel the habitat.”
She provides the caterpillars with fresh swamp milkweed and common milkweed from her garden daily. Between collecting eggs and caterpillars, harvesting milkweed and feeding the larvae, and keeping their “habitat” clean, Lowell averages six hours a day on monarch duty. Accordingly, she stays close to home, working from her studio, from July through October, when the last of the adults of the season will emerge. Lowell keeps fastidious records of collection dates for eggs and caterpillars, as well as eclosion and release dates, and notes that her latest release was October 31.
She acknowledges that rescuing monarchs is not the long-term solution to protecting these endangered butterflies. Instead, she hopes her artwork will raise awareness about the importance of milkweed and inspire others to leave it — and to plant it in their own yards and gardens. She recommends not mowing hayfields until November, when the butterflies will be in, or have completed, their migration to Mexico. This sentiment, she says, can be applied across the ecosystem: native plants are critical food sources and habitat for pollinators.
Lowell, a survivor of domestic abuse, finds renewal in the story of the monarch. She is inspired that a “tiny little egg that you probably wouldn’t even know is on the underside of a milkweed leaf” can become a butterfly that flies 3,000 miles — and she wants her artwork to share a message of hope and resiliency. Lowell says, “I just feel like life can be hard sometimes, and one of the things that can pull us through is looking to nature and seeing how nature has healed itself from something.” She adds, “If nature can do it, so can we.”
Speaking of hope and resiliency, Lowell submitted several iterations of her poster design before it was chosen by MOFGA staff and Common Ground Country Fair steering committee members to represent the Fair for 2023. “You could say that I worked on it for three years,” says Lowell.
The original design she submitted was a stalk of milkweed and two butterflies drawn in pencil the color of terracotta and then layered with watercolor paint followed by acrylic gouache, which is opaque and adds a dimension of saturation. Each time MOFGA returned the artwork to Lowell she added more elements of the monarch’s lifecycle to make the piece feel more interactive: a dangling chrysalis one year, a larvae-nibbled leaf another. For inspiration, she drew from her own photos of milkweed and monarchs, as well as her memory. “It took some time,” says Lowell. And it reinforced a lesson in resilience. “I think that’s a good message to people — don’t give up,” she adds.
Monarchs play a prominent role in Lowell’s other artwork as well. Her next children’s book is a fictional account of raising butterflies. And in the coming months she will be releasing a fabric collection, called Emerge, with Paintbrush Studios Fabric. In one pattern, a kaleidoscope of butterflies flutters among a backdrop of Lowell’s words: “I emerge / crawl and nibble / milkweed. / I molt and grow / on the leaves until / I spin a silk anchor / to grasp while I / change, upside down, / into a quiet cloak / my chrysalis. / Outside I look / still, but / inside I’m / lacing together / into something / new. I emerge / free.”
The Common Ground Country Fair is scheduled for September 22, 23 and 24, 2023. Merchandise, from T-shirts to aprons, will feature Lowell’s design. In the meantime, the 2023 Fair poster is available at MOFGA’s Online Country Store. To see more of Lowell’s artwork, visit her website at rebekahlowell.com.
This article was published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.