EST. 2009

April 12, 2017

Those Cultivars

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF ICONS. From the symbols that fill our interfaces, to the logos that influence our purchases, icons serve to guide, communicate, inform and inspire our behavior. In Peter H. Karlen's 2008 journal The Aesthetics Of Trademarks, he cites that the average person encounters more than 1,000 trademarks per day. Just imagine how much that figure has multiplied since.

As a graphic representation of a thing, an icon tends to work better as a simplified version of the thing it represents. Colors are flattened, forms are converted into shape, and details are generally minimized. Think of a heart icon in comparison to an actual human heart. Think of a smiley face versus an actual human face.

Simplification also works for icons representing an idea. With the aid of cultural cues and tactics, icons can influence our brains to associate symbols with unrelated concepts. A swoosh can signal running shoes. Scales indicate justice.

While the abundance of symbols reflects a certain level of cultural advancement, one downside of living in an icon-driven culture is that it oversimplifies how we picture things. A mention of "apple" in 2017 likely brings to mind a logo for electronic devices, or the image of a red, cardioid shape. It's rare to think about the actual apple fruit looking short and squat, or slim and elongated, with patchy or streaky skin in a spectrum of colors. These details are seen as a novelty.

And yet, details are plentiful for anyone who takes notice. Working with the USDA between 1904 and 1914, illustrator Ellen Isham Schutt produced a few dozen apple paintings that now form part of the Pomological Watercolor Collection. Depicting both subtle and stark differences between a wide range of apple cultivars, the watercolors demonstrate Schutt's careful, almost tedious observation of an ordinary subject.

Apple cultivars from the Pomological Watercolor Collection:

Looking through the collection instantly broadens one's visual perception of an apple, adding forms, shades and patterns beyond a basic red cardioid. It's no doubt enriching, so how then can we develop a keener sense of observation in our icon-driven lives? Taking inspiration from Schutt, the answer must be in nature: its fruits, its flaws, and the novelty of it all. Away from a thousand trademarks per day, a thousand details await.

Images of the Liveland Raspberry variety, the Tom Blake Hard Times variety, the Chenango variety, and the Spotless variety of apples by Ellen Isham Schutt. Images from