Art in Bloom

Imagine a work of art that’s come to life…in flowers.  The colors, textures, lines, and emotional energy of the painting or sculpture are all interpreted in the floral design, displayed next to the artwork itself.

Warning by Jimmy Ernst, 1960

A spot-on floral translation of the painting Warning by Jimmy Ernst, 1960                                 Photo by Laura Blanchard

That was the challenge for 45 national floral designers and 15 garden clubs during the first weekend in April at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts – and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

This floral designer showed unbelievable mastery over her material.

This floral designer showed unbelievable mastery over her material.

With the inaugural PAFA in Bloom event, a breath of fresh air blew into the 138-year old Historic Landmark Building.  Sixty diverse floral designs, from the diminutive to the dominating, were placed carefully throughout the building, and an echo was sounded between paint and bloom.  (Or in some cases, marble.)

Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii

One of my favorite floral designs, depicting Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii by Randolph Rogers c.1853 – Marble

So, how does one go about tackling a floral interpretation?  This was the question I asked myself months before the exhibit.  It was my first time doing something like this and I was more than a little intimidated by the scope of the project.  First I had to study the work of art, which in my case was a portrait of the poet Walt Whitman done by Thomas Eakins in 1887.  

My lovely sister-in-law Juliet and I took a trip to PAFA to get an idea of how large a space I'd have to fill and see Walt close up.

My lovely sister-in-law Juliet and I took a trip to PAFA to get an idea of how large a space I’d have to fill and see Walt close up.  Here, she shows how large the pedestal will be.

I started thinking about colors: brown, sage, slate; white, grey; peach. I decided I wanted the container to represent his body, and the design to be symbolic of the painting’s content rather than a recreation.  There were some very specific rules about what materials we could and could not use, with the emphasis on using fresh material as opposed to wood and fabrics like wool which could harbor damaging insects.  You could still use those items, if you fumigated and/or dry-cleaned them, but I didn’t really want to add any steps to the process, and wanted to keep my design as simple as possible.  To me, the energy of the painting is male, vital, and merry; and with that white collar my mind went instantly to calla lilies; a perfect representation of Walt’s joie de vivre.  His gnarled quality might be echoed by a branch of some kind.  The greys and whites of his beard could be items like spanish moss, dusty miller, and I loved the idea of using a big air plant – Tillandsia xerographica – as a focal point.

I ended up picking out my Calla lilies personally at Del Val Wholesale, with the help of Carol Taylor. These were locally grown and the most deliciously huge callas you will ever find!!

I ended up picking out my Calla lilies personally at Del Val Wholesale, with the help of Carol Taylor. These were locally grown and the most deliciously huge callas you will ever find!!

Picking up materials from DV Flora was an exciting part of the process, because I got to see behind-the-scenes of the largest wholesale floral operation in our area, and meet some of the friendly and helpful staff who were topnotch to work with. Thanks, DV! After gathering all my materials, I did a mock design first; borrowing the perfect container from my friend Jane (her basement is a designer’s dream come true)! I was really happy with the outcome, but could I replicate my design on the spot, at PAFA, on the day of the installation? I was incredibly nervous about that part, but luckily I had a huge help from my sister-in-law Juliet (who is a talented architect.)  This short video shot by Juliet shows the scene at PAFA the morning of the preview party.  There was also a cameraman from FOX news there, to add to the excitement!  

Then it was time to place the design upstairs on the pedestal.  We wheeled Walt’s floral counterpart up to see if it stacked up next to the real Walt.

Making some last minute tweaks to my design...having trouble 'walking away'...photo by Juliet

Making some last minute tweaks to my design…having trouble ‘walking away’…photo by Juliet

In the end, I was pleased with our efficiency in getting in and out of PAFA, because my design really only had a few materials in it (I had created the base of galax and some spanish moss the day before.)  Thank you Juliet for rocking this day with me!  

Getting friendly with Walt

Getting friendly with Walt

Then, it was on to the Preview Party, a gala affair attended by those in support of PAFA in Bloom.  It was so exciting to see all the fresh faced designers and my floral friends Peicha, Valerie and Jane in one place..and to watch people looking at my design!  Here are some photos from the evening:

Jane takes a closer look at an intriguing design

Jane takes a closer look at an intriguing design

Peicha is in the house! With Naima, quite a masterpiece herself.

Peicha is in the house! With Naima, quite a masterpiece herself.

Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos as interpreted by Peicha Chang of falls flowers

Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos as interpreted by Peicha Chang of falls flowers.  Simply sensual!

Valerie's magnificent "hand-tied" bouquet

Valerie McLaughlin’s magnificent “hand-tied” bouquet.  Thanks Valerie, for making me aware of this event!

Take a look at Death on the Pale Horse, a Benjamin West painting, which at 176 x 301 inches is one of the largest oil paintings in PAFA’s collection.  The floral designer who interpreted this one was a genius in my opinion…

Benjamin West's Death on The Pale Horse 1817

Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse 1817

This floral translation of Death on The Pale Horse knocked our socks off!

This floral translation of Death on the Pale Horse was astounding.

It was intimidating to be in the same room with the works of so many great artists, and then great floral designers as well, but it was an experience I will never forget. Thanks to Schaffer Designs for including me and for organizing this very successful event, and for maintaining my design over the course of the exhibit…I hope this will be the first of many!

Walt and my design

After the show, I got some great feedback from George Hubner, right here in Swarthmore:  “I saw the PAFA in Bloom exhibit this afternoon, and your arrangement stood out in particular among the 60 others! I didn’t go around paying any attention to the names of the arrangers, but I noted yours. I have noticed that in the US when someone makes a flower arrangement, the more flowers they can cram in the better. Why use just three flowers then you can stuff in 30 in the bowl instead. The Japanese will use three to great effect, but in the US more is preferred (or as Mae West is supposed to have said “too much is not enough”).  Your arrangement stood out for your use of only three flowers. It looks like a Sogetsu to me. And it seems to me that your using calla lilies was referencing Whitman’s calamus poems too. There must have been thousands of flowers used in the arrangements!  The masses were impressive, but your arrangement was simplicity itself and refreshing to see in the middle of all the other over-the-top arrangements.”  Thanks, George!

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Getting Ready for Art in Bloom

Oh, this is exciting!

I am one of 45 floral designers from around the country creating a work of floral art that will interpret a painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the Historic Landmark Building in Philadelphia, PA. I’ve been working on a mock draft of my design (can’t show you now,) and will be installing the real thing tomorrow morning!

The pedestals that will hold our designs are in place! Photo courtesy of Bill Shaffer Designs

The pedestals that will hold our designs are in place! Photo courtesy of Bill Schaffer Designs

The painting I will be interpreting is a portrait of the poet Walt Whitman done by Thomas Eakins in 1887. I’m trying to capture the emotional content in the painting, as well as echo the color palette and some of the lines, using materials that are symbolic. I think of Walt as a very visceral, life-loving person, so I’m using some calla lilies to represent his almost perverse love of nature; they also mimic the white of his collar perfectly. Materials like Artemisia, Tillandsia xerographica, and fresh spanish moss will represent his beard.

The painting I'm interpreting florally is a portrait of the poet Walt Whitman!

The painting I’m interpreting florally is a portrait of the poet Walt Whitman!

The show opens to the public on Friday, April 4th and goes until Sunday, April 6th. A Big Thanks to Bill Schaffer designs for organizing the event and giving me this opportunity, and to my friend Valerie who forwarded the application info along to me – she is also in the show. So is the ultra talented Peicha Chang of falls flowers! If you’re in the area, come check it out!

I’ll leave you with some Walt Whitman:

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.


52. The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

from ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass

 

lilies and lavender

A little while back, I visited a very unique flower farm in Doylestown, PA called Lilies and Lavender. The head honcho, Kate Sparks, gave my friend Jane and I a tour of her four acre sustainable farm.

Kate Sparks, the cowgirl of cut flowers, amongst the zinnias

Here, Kate and her team grow many types of cut flowers using only organic fertilizers and the least harmful pesticides. Black plastic mulch is used to prevent weeds from growing. I saw many bees buzzing and birds flying, and it seemed to me a very happy place where the circle of life remains unbroken.

Snapdragons growing like gangbusters in the hoop house

Kitchen scraps are fed to worms, creating worm compost that is used to add organic matter to the growing medium

Delicious dark purple calla lily has a happy home

The acreage is long and narrow, but goes on and on. Each time we passed one section, I thought we’d reached the end, only to find there was more around the corner. While the farm is not weeded in a pristine way, each group of plants is clearly thriving under the Kate’s green thumb. She has more energy and works harder than most human beings, you can tell, and I think it comes from the fact that she’s doing something that she loves.

Calendula – an herb for healing but also a beautiful cut flower!

Cerinthe is one of the more unusual selections you”ll find here – I love it.

Bouquet of goodness from L&L contains huge dill flower heads!

Lilies and Lavender sells their flowers at both the Doylestown and Rittenhouse farmers markets, at their farm stand out front, and to select local florists. That’s us, we’re the lucky local designers today!

Melissa, Kate, Jane and Christine after our tour of Lilies and Lavender farm

Jane Godshalk, my wonderful teacher from Longwood Gardens and mentor extraordinaire, took some beautiful bouquets home to create rectangular table centerpieces for an upcoming event. Inspired by Kate’s commitment to sustainability, Jane wanted to keep this design as eco-friendly as possible. She used Excelsior, the non-toxic, biodegradable wood packaging product as the mechanic for stabilizing the stems, wetted down with a fair amount of water. Sure beats using the non-biodegradable, formaldehyde-laden floral foam!

Jane packs the containers with excelsior, then adds water. She begins her design with hosta greens from her own garden

VOILA – Jane Godshalk’s designs using locally grown flowers from Lilies and Lavender

Thanks, Kate Sparks! I know I only scratched the surface of your operation here, but that’s because I already desperately want to come back. PS You could be a jeans model.

Shucks, here’s one more lavender/bee shot for Kate:

union league wedding

Last week’s wedding was a big affair – 200+ guests at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia, with “garden-style” flowers by Nancy Saam and our team.  Jane, Pat, Nancy, Chip and I prepped the day before.

Pat creates large centerpieces using spirea, peony and viburnum – gorgeous

Jane and I made some designs on 3-tiered silver trays.  First, we cut the Oasis down to size and secured it onto the trays with prongs (held with floral clay.)

Then we added greens like fatsia leaf, euphorbia, hosta, galax leaf, and then flowers like Tuberose.

Finished tray is dripping with flowers like calla lilies, pink garden roses, astilbe, and viburnum. Moss is packed into the holes to complete.  Oh and ‘Green Trick’ Dianthus!

Then Jane and I made a long design for the placecard table, using lots of greens like lemon leaf, huge hosta leaves, and solomon’s seal.  We also added hydrangea and ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies, from – you guessed it! – A Peony Garden. This design will be finished on site.

Now, the day of the wedding!  The truck arrives, packed to the gills.  Everyone lends a hand unpacking.  It’s many, many trips up the small freight elevator and into the various rooms we’ll be working – the ceremony room, placecard table, cocktail area, and finally the reception area.

I spend most of my day in Lincoln Hall, where the reception is to be held.  We are creating an arbor of sorts out of birch. The structure is in place, and we begin by adding a layer of leafy branches.

Birch Structure is nailed together and strengthened with zip ties where branches meet, and c-clamps on the tables.

Cages filled with floral foam are zip-tied to the branches in the front, and we begin to fill them with viburnum.

Here Nancy shows us where she’d like to see more viburnum added.

Brenda does the lion’s share of the work on this structure, and I am her assistant, handing her branches, mopping up spills, sweeping up leaves as we go.  She has had 18 years of experience in the floral industry.  She spends most of the day on a ladder, and if I may be honest, totally kicks ass!  Unfortunately we were working so hard and moving so quickly most of the day that I never got a good picture of her!!

Brenda adds peonies and stock to our flower bower of power!

As Brenda puts the finishing touches on the arbor, I’m called away to do some cocktail area arrangements and to finish the long placecard table design that Jane and I began.  I replace a few wilted peonies, add viburnum, kiwi vine, and curly willow, plus a little astilbe for good measure.  Then the design is hung with votives.  This is all done with such astonishing speed, I think I forget to breathe at this point in the day.

Back in Lincoln Hall, things have reached a fevered pitch.  All the last minute touches are attended to – the candles lit, the tables set, our work buckets tucked away.

inside the birch / peony arbor – bridal table

Diane lighting candles – so Downton Abbey don’t you think??

One of Pat’s centerpieces in place

Our silver trays are also centerpieces

But the piece de resistance is the bridal table…fit for a royal party of elves and fairies…or Philadelphians.

Completed Arbor

All it needs are the newlyweds, and happy lords and ladies of the evening to sit under it, and fill the hall with their love and laughter.  When I got home to celebrate Julie’s birthday, I showed my dad a picture of this.  His response: “I guess we know Thanksgiving is going to be a lot more expensive this year!”  Dad, you’re right.  I think we need to create something like this arbor for our annual family gathering!  You’re on construction detail.  Thanks for all the great ideas, Nancy Saam!

day three part two – advanced floral design I at longwood

After our lunch break, we came back to a lecture on the History of Floral Design.  This is too big a topic to blog all at once, but it’s fascinating to think of borrowing from the past and really knowing the era you’re trying to reflect.  Our parallel designs are inspired by the Egyptian period, our garlands a toast to the Greeks and Romans, our Roundy Moundies mirror the tightly massed, garden-inspired designs of the Victorian era.   And now that I’ve been studying floral design, I’ve been noticing floral arrangements in movies and television – and just like everyone else, I’m in love with the PBS Masterpiece Classic Downton Abbey.  In the scene pictured, we are in a late Edwardian time period, but the flowers behind poor Edith Crawley (who has just not been proposed to, alas) are Victorian in style – packed to the gills with flowers, softened with greens, spherical and opulent. I think a whole blog entry at a later date on the flowers of D.A. is in order, don’t you?

Edith Crawley from Downton Abbey with Victorian style arrangements behind her - when more was more

Sigh.  In today’s class we created an arrangement from the Art Nouveau period, which lasted from the 1880’s to around 1920 and slightly beyond, and was defined by it’s sinuous whiplash curves and highly stylized yet organic look. Look at Hector Guimard’s subway station designs he did for the Paris Metro – (transportation built to accommodate the many visitors for the Paris World Fair in 1900.)

Guimard's Art Nouveau Metro entrance courtesy of lartnouveau.com

Alphonse Mucha turned advertising into miniature Art Nouveau romantic masterpieces.

poster by Alphonse Mucha 1896

So how do you translate the stylized, curvy look of Art Nouveau into floral design?  I think choosing flowers that already have that look is a start – like the calla lily.  Calla lilies, with their sensuous curves and lines, could just be the perfect representation of the Art Nouveau period.  They probably also work with the Art Deco period too.  Then there’s the overall shape of the design itself.  In today’s class, we’re creating Jane’s very favorite design, the Cascade Design.

Modern cascading bouquet from Jane's slideshow

The Cascade or Waterfall design is characterized by a steep flow of materials in an extended cascade.  Alternating layers of flowers and foliage of delicate textures creates depth and a flowing effect.  Non-floral, reflective materials like metallic thread are often used to capture the splashing light of a waterfall.

the cascade starts with a lot of greens for layering

Jane begins with a tall vase containing floral foam held in by a chicken wire cage (lashed on with waterproof tape.) One side of the floral foam is a little chunkier to accommodate for more hanging plant material.  She creates a base of greens to cover some of the foam at the top, using Apidistra leaf pinned in on themselves to create a bullkier look for the front, and the ever useful Galax leaf at the back.  Then the fun begins – using long flowing greens like Springeri Fern (prickly!) and Italian ruscus to start the cascade effect.  She also scores some Apidistra so it seems like it has many long thin leaves.   The cascade should go “out and down.” The key here is layering.

jane adds line flowers, focal flowers, and lightens with a string of roses

Jane then adds the line flowers – Calla lilies in this case – which she coaxes into a bendier shape and wires the end of each stem to help it stick in easier.  Callas don’t need too much water.  She adds focal flowers, like mums and carnations, and then some lisianthus.  Don’t forget, not all the stems need to point down, because “Water falls down, then splashes up,” she says, quoting a favorite designer of hers, Gregor Lersch.  Gregor Lersh is amazing! More on him later.

string wire through rose's calyx

To create a string of roses, just thread wire through the rose head’s base (calyx) – the first one will have the wire closed off as seen above.  Then just add more and more and more rose heads and you can adjust where they sit by sliding them up and down, and they’ll stay there pretty well.  Wrap the end of the wire around a floral pick, and boom, insert it right into the foam at the top.  The silver of the wire adds the splashing light effect and lightens the density of the design.  Lighten further with other lacy plant material like Genista, and voila! Cascade design is done.

Jim's design uses anthurium as a focal flower, and because he used a glass container, he filled it with fishtail fern - a lovely effect!!

another student's cascade design - pure flowing movement!

My cascade design also used Anthurium as a focal flower – some of the ‘Obaki’ left over from our Abstract design class.  I chose the smaller white Calla lilies and bound them together with bindwire to achieve length (since they can survive out of water for a while.) Purple lisianthus was pushed into the greenery, and I accented with some light purple Genista and strings of roses on silver wire on both sides.

My cascade design on the mantel

another shot of my cascade

To water this beast, use a thin spouted watering can to get the floral foam at the center.  Mist the rest.  Mine lasted about a week, with Obaki drooping and roses withering, but that just “added to the cascading effect,” or so my family told me – I think they were just being nice.  I LOVED this assignment, and so did most everyone else in the class.  I will certainly repeat the Cascade again, and would love to see a Cascade or Waterfall design on the set of Downton Abbey in Season 3…wouldn’t you?

the Valentine’s day haze of 2012

I close my eyes and see…flowers.  Soft pink tulips tinged with veins of green, the cheery pom-poms of chartreuse snowball viburnums, light lavender sweet peas so papery thin, luscious flesh-colored stock that exudes a sweet-spicy scent, a stab of bright blue-purple delphinium, and roses upon roses…roses the color of a wild sunset or a rosy tangerine, roses the color of peaches edged with soft green, lipstick red roses, and Deja Vu roses standing at attention on their 3-ft long stems, a clear concise yellow that says, Hello You.

check out the scabiosa seedpod amidst the garden roses, tulips, viburnum, and rice flower

peachy green roses, astrantia, calla lily, viburnum, seeded eucalyptus mmm

Yesterday turned out to be one of my favorite days of all time, and I’m not much into Valentine’s Day.  Well that was BF…Before Flowers.  I went into the shop on Monday to help prep the roses (oh yeah, like 700 of them!) and to get some bouquet-making lessons from my beautiful boss lady Peicha.  I left with a price list to study and a sour ball of nervousness percolating in my stomach.  Would I be able to arrange quickly and confidently and add up prices in my head at the same time?  Would I choose the right “color stories?”  Would the stress of a lot of retail interaction be too much for me?  (The needy masses hungry for brilliant arrangements queuing up to watch me fail.)

wake up and smell the roses!

Valentine’s Day 2012 arrived with the Tarot Card of Death in an email. I don’t know why I subject myself to these emails that are supposed to tell me how my day will go.  Like somehow getting the Knave of Wands randomly generated  by a computer means I’ll have an adventurous day.  But the Death Card…uh oh…how is that interpreted at 7am? Maybe I’ll impale myself with a rose and die…or get in a car accident on that Big Road called City Ave…or simply die of shame.  I dressed in what my brother calls my ‘riding boots’ and a bright red blazer (Anthro of course) and hoped that this geranium red would give me some kind of confidence.

smooches from emily!


When I arrived the ladies were in full swing, in fact Peicha had been there since the crack of the ass of dawn, making the pre-ordered bouquets and arrangements (in vases.) She was feeling ‘ahead of the game.’  Dear Emily, an ever-bubbling font of positivity, set our mood to Happy.  Go Team Falls Flowers! Give me an R…O…S…E!  We set into motion together, taking orders from customers, creating bouquets, answering the phone, tying ribbons around the pink tissue that gets wrapped around all the bouquets, and saying “Here you go.  These are your flowers, your Valentine will be so pleased.”

flesh pink stock, rice flower, beigey garden rose, viburnum, lisianthus

Earlier in the day, I took a phone order from a gent who was on business out West.  He and his family live right down the street from Falls Flowers.  He was scared he wasn’t going to get his order in on time, and wanted 4 arrangements (in vases): 2 for his little girls, one for his wife, and one for his mom.  AW.  Peicha let me choose all the flowers for these, and I had a ball doing it.

3 vday arrangements for lucky ladies down the block


grandma's arrangement: tangerine roses, hot pink hyacinth, brunia, waxflower, hypericum berry, frilly orange tulips

And at the end of the day, after all the madness and yes, making a few mistakes here and there and having to use a calculator as I chose blooms, I got to deliver the 4 completed arrangements with Peicha’s husband Mark, who god love him was out all day delivering our product all over tarnation.  The door opens, and a little girl holding a Hello Kitty doll answers.  There we are, with flowers popping out of our heads, what must we look like to her? Her face lights up.  Delivery for Lila! I say.  Mom/Wife comes to the door to see what the ruckus is.  HER face lights up.  We enter, placing the arrangements around the room, and Grandmom/Mom sees the goods and HER face lights up.   I say that Dave/Daddy wanted all of his Valentines to have a very special day and that’s why we made each of you your own special arrangement.  Shock and awe.  This guy just racked up points that will last him all year.  As we’re leaving, little Lila says, “Hello Kitty says Goodbye!” And that’s the end of Valentine’s Day.

me with RED ROSES mixed with waxflower bouquet...POW! photo courtesy FF and emily

Or is it?  After spending the day in nonstop motion, working in tandem with 2 very talented and delightful creatures, and using my head heart and hands, I feel fulfilled on so many levels.  But a little sad, because where is MY Valentine?  Who loves ME enough to give me flowers? When I get home (well my parent’s house because that’s where I’m staying right now) my 2-yr old niece is there for dinner.  She is all smiles, sitting in her big girl chair and gobbling up her dinner.  We jokingly eat each leaf of the salad separately pretending to be Peter Rabbit.  Fun.  And after dinner, a very special surprise for Auntie Ann.  My very own Valentine with dragonflies, frogs, caterpillars and lady bugs made especially for me by niece.  She gives me big hugs and giggly Eskimo kisses to top it all off.  L…O…V…E!