Say it with flowers — the weirder the better

For these artists and floral designers, pretty isn't the point. See why plants can be a powerful medium.

For these artists and floral designers, pretty isn't the point. See why plants can be a powerful medium

Detail shot of Vestige on Garbage Bag by Michelle Bui. (Courtesy of the artist and Franz Kaka gallery)

Shop windows, Instagram, a café pop-up at Frieze New York. Anahita azrahimi was seeing flowers everywhere last year — odd ones. "Like, single fragments of florals that I'd never seen," she says. But azrahami, a Toronto-based artist, is hardly the only person who's noticed the way floral trends have mutated beyond posies in mason jars and bushels of peonies — lovely as your nana's faves will always be.

The look of the moment is wild, rule-breaking, occasionally Dollarama-fabulous in colour and form. There's Freakebana, the "turnt cousin of Ikebana," as coined by The Cut's Stella Bugbee in 2017: "the art of arranging whatever-the-hell, in a way that nods at the traditional Japanese art form." And more bizarre than pairing snapdragons with feather dusters, strange arrangements abound on Instagram.

Flowers by Brittany Asch. (Instagram/@brrch_floral)

Sophie Parker (@wifenyc) paints hers. London's Harriet Parry is a mad genius at translating art history, film stills and vintage Dior with flowers and fabric. New York floral designer Brittany Asch (@brrch_floral) is perhaps the most influential of the bunch. Often involving a waxy anthurium or two (or three, or 12), her over the top arrangements are an alien fantasy — the sort of thing you'd find in an intergalactic nail salon. They've appeared in campaigns for Glossier and Gucci. Rihanna's Savage x Fenty New York Fashion week debut? Asch planted neon weeds on the models. Even John Wick is on the bandwagon. (For the threequel, Asch designed all the spiky sky-high bouquets for the movie's super-secret assassin hotel.)

"Flowers are definitely trendy right now," says Lauren Wilson, floral designer and owner of Timberlost, the Toronto company she founded six years ago. "A lot of brands want plant installations; they want flowers in their space." Wilson's brambly arrangements have an air of foraged romance. Fashion clients including Off-White and Holt Renfrew have called on her in the past, and she regularly curates plants for the front window of Souvenir, a College Street boutique. It's a spot azrahimi walks past all the time — which is why she pitched Wilson on a collaboration.

"Her window installations are very intriguing," says azrahimi. "She looks at things not with the obvious beauty and colour that you usually expect from a bouquet of flowers." Instead, she "highlights the hidden beauty." The artist felt a kinship — her own work aims to do the same.

Collage by anahita azahimi. (Courtesy of the artist)

On Jan. 17, the duo opens their joint exhibition, Quiet Vignettes. Part of this year's DesignTO festival, azrahimi is presenting 16 new collages made from back issues of Vogue. Cut-out shapes of fabric and folds are subtly embellished with thread. Wilson has created an original floral installation responding to the works.

"We process a million trillion things every single second," says Wilson, "so for her to hone in on the little moments that she does, in the way that she does, really spoke to me. We definitely both share that focus. I want to capture that sentiment in my installation by creating a suspended collage of dried foraged found flowers and flowers that will dry over time and transform into little characters as they wilt."

azrahimi, for her part, says collaborating with Wilson has made her even more attentive to detail. She's developing a forager's eye for beauty, she says. "I think her work has helped me to look at my surroundings," she says, and she hopes visitors to their exhibition feel the same.

The show is up at Black Cat Artspace to Jan. 26, and while it's their first collaboration, Wilson's worked with artists plenty. A lot of her friends work in the arts, she explains. "I think it was only a matter of time before conversations started happening and ideas started sprouting and we started cross-pollinating," she says, breaking into laughter before she can drop another pun. There was the time she collaborated with Diana Lynn VanderMeulen on glittering floral centrepieces, for example. Their still-life scenes were painted by another artist pal, Stephen Appleby-Barr. At the moment, she's creating "plant props" for an upcoming dance piece by Amanda Acorn.

Painting by Stephen Appleby-Barr. Writes Lauren Wilson on Instagram: "My friend and beyond-talented painter Stephen Appleby-Barr asked me to collaborate on a few still lifes with artist Diana Lynn VanderMeulen. I came with a few buckets of flowers, Diana came with her cosmic magic which included glitter, opalescent fragments and marbles, and the three of us created. The most mind blowing part of this story? This painting of Stephen's is seven feet tall." (Instagram/@timberlost)

Wilson's hesitant to call herself an artist, though. "I would say that it wasn't until I started to collaborate that flowers took on a truer meaning to me. Through collaboration, I entered into the realm of art. In terms of what realms they could possibly go into, it's just endless. When somebody comes to you with an idea, it just feeds into that idea of exponential possibilities."

Jamie McCuaig's experienced something similar. Her brand, Gunnar Floral, runs with a more extraterrestrial vibe, but like Wilson, she's redefining the floral beauty standard. She's also done loads of group work. Her installations have appeared at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Art and she collaborated with artist Sabrina Ratte for the Gardiner Museum's 2018 Smash party. Local jewellery artist Corey Moranis designed a lookbook around McCuaig's sculptural blooms, and even more recently, Elle Canada hired her to interpret the "stem signs" of the zodiac.

Zodiac sculpture by Jaime McCuaig. (Instagram/@j_aime)

"I think flowers have always existed in sort of a blue collar mom-and-pop-shop space," says McCuaig, "but a thing about flowers that really excites me is that I think they can exist collaboratively across a lot of mediums. And they can exist unexpectedly, in spaces that we're not used to."

Many of McCuaig's projects are photographed, and she says that's allowed her to build a reputation as an artist, not a florist for hire. She's hardly alone in making plant-life her preferred medium, though. Bethany Rose Puttkemery, another Toronto artist, comes to mind; she's the head designer at a local shop (Wild North Flowers) and an artist known for her live floral sculptures. Local galleries including  Xpace and Redd Flagg have shown her work; the Drake Devonshire Inn commissioned an original piece from her last spring.

Perennially Flowing by Alison Postma will appear at Akin St. Clair all January. (Instagram/@akinvitrine)

On a different scale, the front vitrine at Toronto's Akin St. Clair is currently featuring a thoroughly freakebana installation by Alison Postma. Perennially Flowing is an Instagram-ready collection of found objects — a ceramic block, a dash of packing peanuts, a chintzy bouquet. Per the gallery statement, it's "meant to be familiar and simultaneously strange and uncomfortable."

Because deliberately odd as certain aesthetic trends might be, there's nothing more familiar than flowers. Michelle Bui, a Montreal-based artist whose latest solo exhibition is on to Feb. 1 at Toronto's Franz Kaka gallery, regularly includes a few supermarket posies when composing one of her sculptural still-life photos. Picture a couple of fragile blooms, a snippet of ribbon, a scoop of fresh organ meats. The most ordinary things in the world have extraordinary potential to be deeply troubling, and according to Bui, she's interested in presenting familiar objects in disruptive contexts.

"It's about finding strangeness in the banality of the every day," she says, "and also finding the beauty in quote-unquote normal life."

Michelle Bui. Happy Like Doris Day, 2018. The piece is currently featured in Object Lessons, a group exhibition at the Paul Robeson Galleries in Newark, NJ. It runs to Feb. 8. (Courtesy of the artist)

"The selection of objects, the way I choose them, it was always in relationship to a human emotion or almost like a posture of a person," Bui continues. "I see a lot of the flowers that I choose as people, almost. I mean, they don't talk to me or anything," she says, laughing. "But I'm kind of interested in the flowers as a possibility to wilt, to grow, to swell. And I think that's also something that's very, very human: the possibility of change."

They're not objects, after all — they're living things. "They have an energy about them," says Wilson, explaining why plants are her go-to medium. "They're captivating and they are always changing."

It's that ephemerality that especially appealed to azrahimi. Art with a literal expiration date demands attention. When Quiet Vignettes is over, her collages will still exist. Wilson's installation, however, is fated for the compost bin. That's going to change everything for the viewer, she says. "I think the focus will become about the experience," she says. "It becomes more about the feeling we create with the viewer, and the memory they'll take away from it."

McCuaig understands the appeal. "When I make something, it's always short-lived. It will only exist for a moment in time. And that is kind of lovely, for me. There's not many art forms that exist, I would say, that have the same quality."

Installation view of Michelle Bui's Spilled Plenitude at Franz Kaka gallery. (Courtesy of Franz Kaka)


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.