Kevin Nicolay was one of the founders of the NPA in 1984. He was a noted plantsman, teacher and botanical artist, who introduced hundreds of plants to American gardens. The NPA holds an annual Kevin Nicolay Memorial Lecture in his honor.
Nicolay imported seeds and cuttings of rare and unusual plants from gardens in England, Europe and New Zealand, and shared the most promising ones with nurseries to preserve little-known cultivars and to encourage the wider use of unusual plants in gardens here.
“We are just waking up to the fact that the Pacific Northwest is a horticultural paradise,” he once said in an interview. “We have all this opportunity to create beautiful gardens here, but we won’t develop a true regional gardening style or tradition until we really get to know our plants and learn how to grow them well.”
In addition to his adventurous use of unusual plants, Nicolay was one of the better contemporary American botanical illustrators of his time. He was a self-taught artist, who developed his famed technique from studying medieval flower paintings.
Although many Northwest illustrators chose to draw native plants, Nicolay favored older cultivars that had fallen out of favor and sentimental favorites that would remind people of their childhoods.
His minutely-detailed drawings and watercolors appeared in museums and art galleries, and were a regular feature in the pages of Horticulture magazine. He taught occasional classes at the Center for Urban Horticulture and returned to New York annually to teach classes at the New York Botanical Gardens. Nicolay gave a few of his black and white illustrations to the NPA, and they are still in use today, gracing the covers of NPA brochures.
Many of the plants Nicolay drew were taken from his own garden on Queen Anne Hill, which featured masses of old rambler roses, rare perennials and small flowering shrubs. The late Rosemary Verey, the famous British gardener and writer, called it “the best small garden I’ve seen in America.” She dedicated her book, “The American Man’s Garden”, to him.
Kevin Nicolay was an Ohio native who also lived in New York, London and Victoria before settling in Seattle in 1983. His extraordinary life was cut short in 1990, when he died of complications from AIDS. He was 33.