For one week each spring, the de Young Museum is brought to life — literally. At the annual Bouquets to Art exhibition, now in its 31st year, more than 100 floral designers create arrangements inspired by works in the museum’s permanent collections. The resulting botanical wonderland proves that when it comes to making old works new, a little flower power goes a long way.
Each arrangement at Bouquets to Art is paired with a specific work, but other than that, the arrangements are so varied that they defy any sort of easy categorization. Some are small — the size of a standard bouquet — and some are larger than even the tallest patron. Some use props and nonplant materials as part of their configurations, while others are solely plant-based. Floral arrangement is often thought of as the stuff of wedding bouquets or fancy dinner parties, but at Bouquets to Art, the arrangements take center stage as works of art — not as accessories.
The myriad interpretive styles underscore this fact. Many of the floral designers have opted for a more literal, interpretive approach and have reproduced entire works or portions of artworks in floral form. Other arrangements are looser in interpretation and are tied to their paired works more abstractly. Interacting with all of the arrangements — literal and abstract alike — is a delight in two parts. First, there’s an appreciation of the beauty of the floral designs themselves. Second, there’s the process of sense-making that accompanies this appreciation and forces the viewer to relate the floral arrangements to the original works. In doing so, patrons are swept up in a process of active looking that is as enriching as it is engaging.
In Gallery 23, an arrangement by Amy Romano Vassar and assistant Brianna Moniz puzzled more than a few viewers, many of whom murmured at the arrangement’s use of newspapers. A stack of newspapers about 3 feet tall formed a pedestal of sorts, upon which a bundle of flowers and greenery perched. At first glance, it wasn’t obvious why the newspapers were incorporated so prominently. After closer inspection, however, it became clear. The arrangement corresponds to two 1858 works by Thomas Waterman Wood — “Moses, the Baltimore News Vendor” and “Market Woman.” Moses, the news vendor, is painted in a three-quarters stance. In his front hand, he tips his hat to us. In his far hand, he holds a stack of newspapers — the key to understanding Vassar and Moniz’s choice of arrangement.
The pleasure of Vassar and Moniz’s arrangement lies in the creative repurposing of one small detail, but there is great wonder to be had at arrangements that recall their paired works in broader, more residual ways. One such arrangement, designed by Katharina Stuart of Katharina Stuart Floral Art and Design, was inspired by a Mayan limestone monument from 761 B.C. The monument depicts Queen Ix Mutal Ahaw and other Mayan iconography, such as serpents, headdresses and agricultural motifs. Stuart’s arrangement is suspended from a metal stand, an 11-tiered cascade of shapes wrapped in yarn, carpeted by baby’s breath or wrapped in velvety soft leaves. The tiers are shaped like hollow squares and circles — imagine geometric doughnuts — and are dotted with lily pads and succulents. Stuart’s colors of choice, which are soft whites and muted gray-greens, mirror the parchment-colored limestone. Her arrangement, just like a monument’s carvings, is strongly patterned and favors geometric forms. Nothing about the work is literally representative of the monument, and yet the two works are clearly connected — a fact that simply takes a little longer than usual to realize.
This realization, and many others like it, are part of what makes Bouquets to Art so enjoyable and accessible for viewers. The arrangements may have only lasted for one week, but they remind us of a lesson more enduring: that engaging with art in any form — be it sculpture, painting or the humble bouquet — is a source of lifelong pleasure.
Sarah Adler covers visual art. Contact her at Sarah E. Adler at [email protected]