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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a peony garden

I was never very good at keeping secrets.  So, for those of you that wanted A Peony Garden, in Glen Mills, PA to remain a secret, I’m terribly sorry.  This place is just too amazing not to share with everyone!

A Peony Garden is four acres of heaven on earth during the month of May, planted with 250 different cultivars of tree, garden, and intersectional peonies of all colors shapes and sizes.  Peony fans can buy peony plants, but the bulk of the business done here is cut flowers, and that’s what I’m interested in.  Prices vary throughout the season between $1 and $1.50 per stem, which in the floral world is absolutely unbeatable. And you can feel good about buying from a local grower – you’re not flying peonies from halfway around the world, there’s no excessive packaging – just bring your own bucket!  How sustainable is that!

Picking peonies with Valerie, Jane and volunteer Sandy Papa

Freelance floral designer Valerie McLaughlin stops to smell the peonies

But beware that you don’t succumb to peony mania, like we did.  There’s just something about all those fragrant blooms, and their silken petals worn like party dresses, that makes you simply swoon.  You will want more, more, more!!

Eleanor Tickner, head gardener

The woman behind it all, Eleanor Tickner, has her own secrets to growing peonies, which she downplays.  “Sunshine, of course.  And you go out and talk to them, you pray over them.”  Eleanor and her husband Bill have been growing peonies here for around 15 years.   It’s a family affair – her two daughters sometimes help out, and the Great Danes are not guard dogs but more like the official greeters of the place.

Riddler greets my Dad

Eleanor with head of the PR department, Great Dane Riddler

Eleanor began growing as a way to keep busy after retirement, because as she says, “you don’t stop working and all of a sudden eat bon bons and chase dust bunnies.” Accustomed to working hard and seeing results, Eleanor wanted to do something exciting with the four acres of sunny land, which she says is “just enough to get me in trouble.”   She chose to plant peonies, because they don’t need a lot of water (they only have well water on their property,) and because they’re “satisfying to the soul.”  Peonies reminded Eleanor of her adopted grandmother from next door, who grew a row of peonies she believed kept the evil spirits away.   After spending an hour at A Peony Garden, I begin to think that myth is true, because I just feel so darned good.

Eleanor swears that growing peonies is just a hobby, but from the glint in her eye, and the fact that she’s out in her garden until dusk every day, I believe she’s passed into the realm of obsession.  While she has no horticulture degree, she’s the President and co-founder of the Mid Atlantic Peony Society, and serves on the Board of Directors at The American Peony Society. She’s also written articles on peonies – for Philly News, and for The Hardy Plant Society, to name a few.  She’s referred to as a “promoter” of peonies, by Don Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Nursery in Missouri, one of the top growers of peonies in the country.  Holllingsworth, along with Adelman Peony Gardens in Oregon, and Hidden Springs Flower Farm in Minnesota, are the main sources for her plants.

It’s clear that Eleanor has more than just a love for peonies; she’s adopted a scientific approach to growing them, evaluating cultivars for reliability, consistent bloom, and the ability to grow without staking.  She is always willing to share her knowledge with others, and her humility is unparalleled.  “As far as I’m concerned, every person is replaceable on this earth.  But my job needs to be done, so that’s what I’m doing out here – educating.”

Eleanor gives a tour to the Scattered Seeds Garden Club

Through the American Peony Society, she judges plants worthy of the APS Award of Landscape Merit, and grows a few of these recipients on her property, such as ‘Do Tell,’ a pink anemone form peony, and one of my favorites of the day.

‘Do Tell’ peony – I mean, amazing, right??

If you’re a peony lover looking to grow some reliable favorites for cutting, Eleanor recommends varieties like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ a huge fragrant double variety whose frilly white petals are edged with red flares.

‘Festiva Maxima’ has been around for 150 years

If you like big pink peonies, try growing ‘President Taft’ or ‘Walter Faxon;’ but for a glorious red peony Eleanor suggests ‘The Mackinac Grand’ (pronounced mackin-AW,) whose brilliant fiery red hues could literally stop traffic.

‘The Mackinac Grand’ – also an APS Award of Landscape Merit winner

There are many unnamed varieties here too, gotten ‘over the garden gate’ or at an end of season sale. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have this much land available to play in – and that’s what I do – play,” says Eleanor.  If you go for cut flowers, bring a bucket and expect to spend some time combing the gardens for your favorites.  Either Eleanor or her volunteer, Sandy, will walk you through the fields and cut the blooms you desire.  She doesn’t let the public cut her peonies, spritzing alcohol on the pruners between each plant to stop any diseases from spreading.

Sandy Papa, volunteer, cuts ‘The Mackinac Grand’ for me to bring home

Jane Godshalk hides behind a peony bloom

Jane counting peonies.

For floral fanatics, Eleanor shares her special recipe for prolonging a peony’s vase life:  1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (to fight bacterial growth) and 1 tablespoon sugar (food for bloom) to one quart of water.  It really works!  The blooms at A Peony Garden should last through Memorial Day Weekend, so hurry to get a glimpse of these old fashioned beauties, and be sure to take some home with you.  Thanks to my Dad and stepmom Julie for sharing their secret peony source with me!

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders