Bethany Rose Puttkemery's enchanting and ephemeral art leaps from the pages of a fairy tale
Her installations of living flowers are fleeting — which makes them that much more powerful
In Greek mythology, Hyacinthus was a handsome young man who'd caught the eye of both Apollo and Zephyrus, the West Wind. One day, Zephyrus, spotted the Sun god teaching the Spartan prince how to throw a discus and became jealous. He blew a gust at the pair, which sent the discus off course and caused it to strike Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. From where his blood spilled on the ground, the hyacinth flower grew.
Every creation fable about flowers is gruesome, says artist Bethany Rose Puttkemery — "I think it's because flowers represent life and death." They symbolize both the height of vitality and our inevitable passage from it. Head designer at Wild North Flowers and an installation artist whose plant-based works you'll find in galleries, Puttkemery has made flowers her chosen medium. It's her desire to turn everyday spaces — the overlooked nooks and unremarkable corners — into environments that "leap from the pages of a fairy tale." She's learned to render those fantasies in daisies, roses and peonies (and plenty of chicken wire and hot glue, too). Collaborating with artist Julia Monson, for example, she's completing a short film based on the story of Hyacinthus. A major set piece is a leafless tree shot in late autumn that Puttkemery redressed; now, magically, it drips with roses.
She recently finished a similar enchantment — which you can visit from now until September — on an old maple standing outside Wellington, Ont.'s Drake Devonshire Inn. The tree died last year. Rather than removing it, curator Mia Nielsen says, they decided to bring in an artist to give it another life. Puttkemery made planters from sheet aluminum and affixed them to the trunk. Inside, she planted carnations, juncus grass and petunias, which spill from their containers and cascade toward the ground. At the top, too high for anyone to water, she built a spiky flower head from peach-coloured plastic siding. It makes the whole installation appear like a giant dahlia or chrysanthemum grown out of the dusty parking lot.
For Puttkemery, flowers possess a special power because they're touchstones for memory. Her mother's always been a gardener, she says, and when she thinks of roses she remembers the wall around her mom's rose garden that she'd use as a balancing beam as a kid. "After I came in from playing, I'd bring my mom a little arrangement of flowers — dandelions or something like that." It's a bit of a paradox that our familiarity doesn't diminish the magic. She handles flowers everyday; still, she says, she's amazed by each one.
A question she hears often is: "Are they actually alive?" Puttkemery and her collaborator and partner Lee D'Angelo have found that plants and plant materials are particularly potent at transforming the white cube of the gallery. Installed at Toronto's Xpace Cultural Centre in 2017, Fountain is an interpretation of the Star tarot card featuring a sculptural form — molded from Puttkemery's body and rigged to circulate water — posed in a wellspring made from pampas grass and reindeer moss. Viewers were shocked, she says, to find that oasis growing and bubbling away there. At the Toronto gallery Redd Flagg, the pair created a plaster cave sprouted over by tropical plants — succulents and orchids and palms, and a fig tree, too.
D'Angelo, who's also a tattoo artist, brought their tattoo table into the mouth of the cave and tattooed people from that safe and calm space throughout the month it was installed. For CUE's Margin of Eras 2016 exhibit at Super Wonder Gallery, Puttkemery built a floor-to-ceiling column from foraged plant materials around a shrine where gallery-goers were asked to drop off symbolic objects representing arts and culture operating on the margins.
Because of the nature of her chosen medium, her artwork is fleeting. She finds that powerful. "You're creating these moments that are going to disappear," she says. The fairy tales Puttkemery creates are transportive and forceful, but they're also temporary, which makes the experience all the more special. She'd like in the future to dress a whole space in plants and cut flowers — every inch of wall and ceiling in bloom. "It would only last a few days." And it would be total magic.