With this year’s A Longwood Christmas season, we have had so much fun not only celebrating all things retro—but also sharing the immense creativity and talents of the many, many makers behind this spectacular display. One of those makers is Senior Horticulturist Alex Correia, who hand-painted the four larger-than-life botanical murals located in and just outside of our Visitor Center, welcoming guests to the display as they first enter our Gardens. Here at Longwood, Correia typically works in the Idea Garden, a dynamic space that showcases artful botanical combinations and inspiring approaches to gardening and design. With that, it’s no surprise that she created such beautiful and dynamic pieces of art for the display. Follow along as Correia shares the inspiration behind her murals, her process creating them, and the incredibly detailed, gorgeous results—that are, in a word, inspiring.
With a background in environmental science and a long-time interest in art, when planning her botanical murals, Correia was first inspired by vintage botanical illustrations and Christmas cards with wintery flowers and foliage. As the project progressed, she found herself also inspired by the plants themselves, previous Conservatory displays, and Longwood’s own history. Naturally, as her work at Longwood involves new ideas and solutions in horticulture, Correia came up with a creative way to welcome guests to the display, all while “responding to the space we were working in,” she shares. “As the walls of the Visitor Center are a very flat space, we always need something nearly two-dimensional in place. So, we thought to do something truly two-dimensional.” Although two-dimensional, the color, texture, and details of the murals pop off the wall, and are complemented by three-dimensional wreaths arranged by Longwood Horticulturists Kieran Avis, Juliana Davis, and Faith Redcay, all handcrafted using such materials as ribbon, dried and preserved leaves, pinecones, berries, and more.
Each of the arches in and near the Visitor Center feature an interior panel built by in-house carpenters, led by Senior Carpenter Joe Cornette. Special panels are used every A Longwood Christmas season, painted each year to complement the decorations. This year, the panels behind the wreaths were painted red to highlight the color palette. The additional panels built specifically for the hand-painted murals are made of Masonite—a dense and sturdy material made of compressed wood fibers that works as a smooth surface to paint on—that was then nailed to plywood. Cornette built the panels so they could be disassembled for easy transport from Correia’s workshop to the Visitor Center.
At Correia’s request, Senior Painter David Landgrebe painted these additional panels a neutral color that would complement the Visitor Center’s lighting and give the look and feel of old paper—calling back to her original inspiration to emulate vintage Christmas cards. The panels were prepped with a textured paint application, adding a bit more dimension to the canvases.
One of the four murals depicts a tall pink amaryllis (Hippeastrum ‘Gervase’) amongst paperwhite narcissus flowers (Narcissus papyraceus). Correia was inspired by paperwhite narcissus on display in the East Conservatory during last year’s A Longwood Christmas display. She paired the white flowers with a striking representation of the amaryllis, which was on display in our Gardens in 2019.
Another one of Correia’s hand-painted murals is of the branches, shiny green leaves, seed pods, and white blooms of the southern magnolia tree. Magnolia grandiflora, a gorgeous evergreen tree, is a common plant used in outdoor landscapes during the winter months.
As a horticulturist, Correia wanted to look to Longwood’s own unique cultivars, such as Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’—a yellow-berried holly—to find inspiration for one of the murals in the Visitor Center. Longwood originally received this holly in the early 1970s as an open-pollinated seed from Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. One of the plants grown from the seed turned out to have yellow fruit and Longwood selected this plant in 1976 for its fruit color and superior cold tolerance. Notice how, in Correia’s completed mural, she perfectly captured the striking yellow berries.
“Working with the scale of the Visitor Center arches was a challenge,” says Correia. The subject in the murals both had to fill the space, but also create an interesting composition that pairs well with the wreaths on display and the Visitor Center's atmosphere. To hand-paint the image of Ilex × attenuata ‘Longwood Gold’—and to hand-paint several other murals—Correia used a projector to blow up images that she wanted to paint onto the panel. With the image projected, she would trace a rough sketch of the botanicals onto the panel, arranging the composition how she envisioned.
For the fourth botanical mural, Correia wanted to look back into Longwood’s past at the historic varieties of plants that we have had on display through the years. Correia took inspiration from varieties of poinsettias that Longwood displayed in our Conservatory in the 1960s, when poinsettias were grown to look a bit wilder, with long, leggy stems. Now, plant breeding has preferred smaller, denser plants, which can be seen on display today.
The resulting murals are not only strikingly beautiful, but also a thoughtful way to showcase unique Longwood cultivars and Longwood displays from years past—and we are so inspired by each and every detail of Correia’s work.
Editor’s Note: Want to explore your own creativity with Longwood? With our hands-on class and workshop experiences in all areas from creative arts to floral design, you can develop new skills, create something beautiful to bring home, and have fun while you learn. One such class is our upcoming Flower of the Month: Amaryllis class where you can create a floral arrangement using the same beautiful flower featured on one of the handmade murals. Registration is open now.