Story & Photos by Susan Timmons
As passions go, gardening and art are at the top of my list. It’s pure joy to combine my love for flowers, plants, and indeed all nature, with my love for painting, sculpture, and other visual arts. I can’t pass by a blossom or interesting stick, shell, rock, or sloughed-off bark without taking pleasure in its shape, color, texture, or some other compelling characteristic.
Even as a small girl, I had a penchant for bringing newly discovered natural treasures home to savor their wonders for a while longer. This early pleasure gave rise to a lifetime of combining favorite finds in simple, unpretentious groupings with a flower and an interesting branch, or perhaps several of each, to enjoy the arrangement of the whole while featuring each special element.
This innate predilection, combined with an art degree and travel to Japan (where I felt a kinship with the Ikebana style of flower arranging), fueled my interest in floral arts and lured me to several Fine Arts & Flowers exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and a similar exhibition, named Art in Bloom, at the Taubman Museum in Roanoke in March 2017. There I reveled in the magic of the unique art form created from pairing museum masterworks with floral arts that interpret them to create works of art that transcend both.
Pairing Masterworks with Floral Arts
These exhibitions reflect a trend in recent decades in the U.S. toward floral design with an objective of story-telling, education, and enlightenment—a purpose deeper and more complex than merely presenting elegant, beautiful arrangements that conform to classical principles of design and current aesthetic norms. The arrangements are NOT a floral copy of the masterwork.
They engage, expand, and enrich the artistic experience, and the result is a new creation that is greater than the individual effect of either. This synergy not only enhances and enlivens the selected masterworks, but also has a practical effect of drawing large crowds and increasing knowledge and appreciation of the featured artworks, as well as offering floral artists a perfect venue for displaying their artistry.
According to Victoria Jane Ream, in her 1997 book, Art in Bloom, the concept of this art form was first conceived by Charles (Chuck) Thomas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with the first Art in Bloom exhibition in 1976. It was a raving success, and the concept quickly spread to museums across the U.S. in cities such as San Francisco, Birmingham, Denver, Detroit, Rochester, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Houston, New Orleans, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Hartford, Baltimore, and Richmond.
Today, these exhibitions, called by a variety of names, are a well-established practice. They continue to grow in popularity, expanding the museums’ visitor base and financial coffers through popular related events, such as galas and lectures.
Richmond’s VMFA organized its first museum-wide exhibition of Fine Arts & Flowers in 1987. This year the VMFA promises yet another spectacular biennial museum-wide FA&F exhibition of floral designs inspired by masterworks in their collection with 84 exhibitors from across the state. Floral designs will be created by members of the Garden Club of Virginia, Virginia Federation of Garden Clubs, and other garden clubs in Virginia.
The 2018 exhibition will be Wednesday, October 24 through Sunday, October 28 and is free and open to the public Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The VMFA is promoting special events that kick off on October 24 and include renowned guest speakers, several luncheons, a luncheon-fashion show featuring designs by VCU students, workshops, docent guided exhibition tours, curator talks, and a variety of family activities. For a complete schedule and advance purchase of tickets (recommended), visit www.VMFA.museum/FAF or call 804-340-1405.
According to the VMFA website, “Proceeds from Fine Arts & Flowers events will benefit the inaugural tour of VMFA on the Road, the museum’s new artmobile for the 21st century. Through interactive learning experiences with staff educators, virtual-reality tours of VMFA exhibitions, and a traveling gallery of original artworks, VMFA on the Road will bring the museum experience directly to citizens in all areas of the Commonwealth.” This traveling gallery will, of course, enrich our own community here in Lynchburg.
Lynchburg has been well represented in previous VMFA Fine Arts & Flowers exhibitions by local Garden Club of Virginia member clubs, Hillside Garden Club and Lynchburg Garden Club. And the tradition continues this year. Imagine my excitement last December when I was invited to submit an entry into the 2018 FA&F exhibition, partnering with my fellow Hillside member and friend, Carter Paxton!
The next steps were an opportunity to prioritize masterwork preferences from a pre-selected list sent by exhibition chairs, assignment, and instructions to guide us through a polished process, including informative meetings at the VMFA and regular related communications. Our assignment is a 19th-century painting, A Boar Hunt in Poland, by the French artist Carle Vernet. Carter and I then started considering possibilities for our creation. Where to begin?
At our first meeting in Richmond, Carter and I not only received a private docent-led visit and discussion of our artwork, but we also were schooled by experienced, knowledgeable, energetic, and enthusiastic exhibition chairs on guidelines and factors to consider in our design toward a goal of enhancing and enlivening the masterworks, including:
• The subject matter of the work of art
• The aspects of culture and the historical time period of the work of art. Floral designers are not limited to only using design elements and materials that match the culture and historical period.
• The inspiration, mood, and meaning of the artist in creating the work of art
• Color – hue, value, and intensity
• Composition, line, shape, and pattern
• Positive and negative space
• Shape and form
• The effects of light
• Medium and materials
• Scale of the work of art
• How the viewer connects and reacts to the work of art
Well-organized exhibition chairs gave us logistical details pertaining to display pedestals, arrangement size constraints, lighting, and the required written description to explain how we created our floral art to be shared with visitors. They also shared information on floral and container requirements, set-up day, and daily watering/refreshing. Since the flower arrangements must be in top shape for the entire five-day duration of the exhibition, we were urged to use cut flowers with long vase life that perform well in dry museum conditions and offered examples of flowers to avoid for various reasons, such as short vase life, expense, or seasonal availability.
Carter and I analyzed our painting and researched our artist and his oeuvre, as well as the historical context and Romantic period in which this artwork was painted. We next considered our approach, style, and design; and we agreed to keep it simple and symbolic, with a focus on emphasizing the structural elements and color palette of the painting as well as the energetic action and mood.
We next decided on a container —a repurposed wooden box that evokes a feeling of the woodlands setting—and tested the liner for leakage (an absolute no-no at the VMFA); and we found a replacement liner after discovering the original wasn’t reliable. Then we hashed out details of our basic design and debated materials to use, selecting a couple of swirling fantail willow sticks (I had to include sticks, of course) to interpret the high-spirited horses, a rough pinecone to represent the boar, and spikey white spider mums to conjure up images of snarling dogs. Then we tackled challenges and decisions that weren’t so easy.
The requirement that all plant material be sourced from professional florists for protection of artworks from bugs, diseases, molds, etc. is completely understandable; and Strange’s Florist in Richmond is the official source for most floral material, although other professional sources may be approved. However, for garden club arrangers whose comfort zone traditionally is plant material from our own gardens or scoured from surrounding countryside, this is both constraining and challenging. (Happily, a concession is made for us to use our own favorite sticks if well-seasoned and sprayed.)
A key to our design is the concept of power and control in this violent sporting scene as symbolized by the Polish nobleman’s lush red velvet coat. But what red flowers will be best? We love velvety roses and are most comfortable working with roses, but their growth habits (straight stems, upward facing blooms, etc.) don’t lend themselves to our design. Shall we use gladiolas? Will florist-provided gladiolas hold for five days? If not, how many additional glad stems must we provide to replace wilted flowers during the exhibition period? Ordering deadline for Strange’s Florist is September 8. The jury’s still out.
We’re still considering technical and mechanical details and have decided on frogs (pin holders) and a wire cage in deep water rather than floral foam for anchoring our flowers to give them a better shot at lasting five days. And we did a five-day water test on the dried fantail willow sticks to be sure the submerged stems wouldn’t turn soggy and fall over. How will we cover our wire and still leave a watering hole and finger hole for testing water level? Will it all come together as envisioned? We’ll give it all a trial run before wiring and gluing elements in place. And we’ll remain flexible to changing course as other challenges present themselves.
We continue to research this painting’s place in history since we learned that Verner, although French and painting in Rome, produced the artwork in 1831, right in the middle of the Polish rebellion of 1830-32. This cosmopolitan artist had supreme skill and control in balancing technique and narrative. Could he, as a master lithographer and political wit as well as master equestrian and horse painter, be making a political statement about this uprising as well as a statement about an exotic, intense, and grisly sporting scene? After all, the 19th-century Romantic period in art history featured fine arts subjectively interwoven with philosophical and political ideas and events of their time. These artists embraced emotionalism and rebellion against social conventions in addition to energetically expressing love of the natural world.
Food for Thought
As we know, creating a work of art using flowers and other plant material is a bit tricky. A painting, once the artist applies paint, is a permanent addition to the artist’s oeuvre; and with quality materials and care, the artwork can be preserved for millennia.
But flowers and the art works created by arranging them are ephemeral. So floral artists offer fleeting beauty for perhaps a day, or up to a week or even longer for some hearty varieties. Floral artists aren’t looking to amass a body of artworks for posterity. They revel in the process and delight in the product for a fleeting time; living in and for the moment. Then that moment passes, and they create again, as would sand artists awaiting the next big wave to wash away their creation.
This very characteristic of floral design is precisely what makes it such a complex and appealing challenge. We know that appreciating the beauty of botanic forms and their place in the order of life has inspired and informed the practice of floral artistry of devout spiritualists, royals, nature lovers, and aesthetes dating as far back as 2,500 BC in Egypt; and the art form was revered in ancient India and China before gaining global following. Purposes throughout history have ranged from pure decoration to celebration of the gifts of nature to a spiritual or religious discipline, and much more as cultures have evolved and flower arranging has become a common language of artistic expression worldwide.
And now we have yet a new purpose of expressing the essence or spirit of a work of art, integrating perceptions and feelings into the arrangements that educate members of the public to have more discerning eyes and open minds when they view the artworks, seeking to understand finer points of symbolic interpretation, and encouraging others to see the artwork as well as botanical materials in an entirely new light.
Why not consider such an exhibition in Lynchburg? The Maier Museum at Randolph College comes quickly to mind as an ideal location. I’d love to see how floral artists interpret the spirit of works of art in the Maier’s permanent collection.
Meet the Gardener
Susan Timmons served in the 1970s as Virginia’s first Environmental Impact Statement Coordinator, then Assistant Administrator and Acting Administrator of Virginia’s Council on the Environment and editor of The State of Virginia’s Environment. During that time she also served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Environmental Professionals and received the National Wildlife Federation’s Award for Environmental Communications. More recently, she worked in higher education and nonprofit management and, in retirement, she serves as a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Hill City Master Gardeners Association with a series of talks on “Gardens of the World.”