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Artful arrangers; It seems genteel, but flower show competitions can be fierce.

Byline: Margaret LeRoux

Who doesn't appreciate a bouquet of colorful flowers, especially in the dead of winter? While you or I might view the blooms simply as pretty additions to a room or tabletop, people who arrange them as a hobby or competitively in flower shows have a different perspective. These horticultural artists use flowers as a canvas to create arrangements of ephemeral beauty.

At floral exhibitions, where carefully arranged blossoms are displayed, it all seems so genteel. Behind the scenes, though, the competition can be intense. Participants spend countless hours planning and considerable expense on flowers, greenery and containers in hopes of creating an award-winning entry. No one wants to receive the dreaded "honorable mention."

The flowers may be fragile, but the process of flower arranging during competitions is far from delicate. All the dirty work is completed early in the morning before the doors open to the public.

At the crack of dawn, competitors haul heavy buckets of blooms and lug suitcases or tote bags crammed with tools into exhibition halls and search for their allotted, usually cramped, display space. Working with knives, wire cutters, pruners and glue guns, they create with one eye on the clock to finish before the deadline for judging.

Flower arrangements are critiqued on a point system established by the Garden Club of America that ranks them on artistic concept, expression, use of design elements and how well they conform to the description of the individual category where they're entered.

"It's very subjective," said Kathy Michie, president of the Worcester Garden Club, who also is an accredited flower show judge. "Two different panels of judges could come up with completely different results and it can be so disappointing for the competitors." In the universe of competitive flower arranging, however, it's not sporting to complain. "You can't whine," Michie said.

Despite the challenges, they do it for the love of flowers, say mild-mannered members of the Worcester Garden Club who become passionate on the topic of flower arranging. Generations of them have been competing - since the club was founded in 1919 - at flower shows throughout New England.

In June, an arrangement by Worcester Garden Club members Julie Lapham and Ginna Thoma won a silver ribbon at the prestigious World Association of Flower Arrangers Show in Boston. Michie and fellow garden club member Sarah Ribeiro also competed.

Michie designed her first floral arrangement when she was only 10 years old and helped her mother with a garden club assignment.

"My mother wasn't at all artistic; she was more interested in horticulture and conservation issues," Michie said. "She made me do the arrangement; we put little pink roses in a tea cup."

Decades later, her friend and veteran flower arranger, Susan Dewey, persuaded Michie to enter the annual daffodil show at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. There, Michie says, she found her passion and subsequently entered flower shows throughout the state.

While participating in a flower exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston she had an epiphany. "It took so much time and effort and I was staying in Boston for the week of the flower show. I thought, why not bring more flower shows to Worcester instead?" she said.

The next year Michie introduced a floral exhibit to Art in the Park, creating a large-scale arrangement of sunflowers. She also organized and arranged flowers for three events celebrating Salisbury Mansion's 25th anniversary.

After competing for several years, Michie added judging to her repertoire. She recently completed the Garden Club of America's three-year apprenticeship program.

An artist trained at the Worcester Art Museum School, Michie uses the same principles that apply to painting - line, balance, contrast, color, texture and rhythm - in her floral designs. "I like the temporary nature of flower arrangements," she said. "It makes the process (of competing) less scary."

"Anybody can stick a bunch of flowers in a vase, but arranging for a competition is a whole other ball of wax," said Sarah Ribeiro, who's been a competitive flower arranger for five years.

Each competition has its own rules and requirements. "You have to consider the mechanics of the arrangement as you build it," Ribeiro said. "You learn what flowers don't hold up - hydrangeas and delphiniums, for example, are notoriously bad."

As a child growing up in Sanford, N.C., Ribeiro says her mother "let me do whatever I wanted with the garden - unless I pulled out something she thought was pretty." Years later, Ribeiro moved to Massachusetts, joined the garden club and started arranging flowers for shows. Her first was the annual daffodil exhibit at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

Flower arranging takes time and money, Ribeiro noted. "I was complaining to my husband about how expensive it is, but he advised me to think about the joy these beautiful flowers bring to the people who come to see them."

Behind the scenes at Flora in Winter

Most flower shows are held in spring and summer, but for the past decade, Flora in Winter, a decidedly unseasonal event, has drawn floral arrangers from all over Central Massachusetts.

Flora brings a bounty of flowers to the galleries of the Worcester Art Museum on the last weekend in January. Despite the likelihood of snow, the event never has been canceled because of weather. Last year, however, a storm dumped about a foot of snow on the city in the early morning hours of opening day, so the museum delayed the pre-show opening by an hour.

Flower arrangers weren't deterred; by 8:30 a.m. they were lined up at the museum's loading dock, clutching bundles of carefully wrapped blooms. The conservation department staff was waiting to greet them and examine everything they brought along.

"Nothing that could potentially contain insects is allowed," said Allison Berkeley, manager of marketing and public relations, noting the museum's responsibility of protecting its fragile artwork.

While most arrangers are busy building bouquets, Kathy Michie, one of four co-chairs of the event, visits all of them to verify that plant material and flowers listed on the entry form correspond to what is in the arrangements. The museum staff then translates the information into labels for the viewing public. Michie explains that each arrangement is tied to a specific piece of art. "Although you may see many of the same kinds of flowers, they're in completely different interpretations," she says.

Every year, Flora preparations begin in September when the museum sends out a call for entries; 23 arrangers are chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

After the artwork is selected, arrangers are asked to make their top five choices and museum staff match arrangers to artwork. One piece of art is chosen for each gallery and arrangers receive a folder with a photograph of their assigned art and list of requirements.

"I use all three months to think about my arrangement," Michie says. "I post the picture in my laundry room, above the washer and dryer."

In the museum's American gallery, Robin Whitney, another Worcester Garden Club member and co-chair of the event, uses Daphne roses, amaryllis, calla lilies, tea leaves and dusty miller foliage to complement Mary Cassatt's painting, "Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby," noting, "the peachy-pink roses evoke the shape and color of the baby's bottom."

Whitney created her arrangement ahead of time at home instead of starting from scratch in the gallery; Flora in Winter rules allow either option. "(Flower arranging) always involves a certain amount of swearing and a huge mess," Whitney said. "It must be nerve wracking to arrange on the morning of the event with the museum staffer watching you."

On the museum's ground floor, a third co-chair, Kim Cutler, manipulated lotus pods into a hand crafted, boat-shaped container that echoed the flat plane and grid design of "Nobleman Hunting on the Nile," an Egyptian relief from the wall of a tomb. The arrangement also contained lilies of the Nile, papyrus flowers and orchids. Cutler found the lotus pods and papyrus online and ordered them from Hawaii. Exotic and tropical flowers have become prevalent in competitions since they're easy to find online, but the overnight delivery charges to assure freshness can be hefty.

Last year Flora coincided with the museum's exhibit of "The Dead Toreador," on loan from the National Gallery. The Washington, D.C., museum agreed to include "Toreador" in the Flora exhibit, but prohibited the use of any water close to the painting.

Sarah Ribeiro, the fourth co-chair, was captivated by "Toreador" the first time she saw it. Her arrangement included a swath of royal palm frond from Florida and smaller parts of the frond, which she soaked then curled, dried and painted. In the center of the frond was a scarlet she kong heliconia. This flower is known for its brilliantly colored, wing-shaped blossoms that hang from thick green foliage similar to banana leaves.

The water restriction was a major challenge, Ribeiro admitted.

"I'd envisioned something with calla lilies, but when I found out the stipulation about no water, everything changed," she said. "I can't begin to tell you what angst I had over this."

Throughout the museum there was controlled commotion as arrangers hurried to finish before the 10:30 a.m. deadline.

Then, they were escorted out, the drop cloths and floral debris cleaned up, and the museum opened its doors to the public.

Flower shows

Here are several venues that showcase the creations of Worcester County's community of flower arrangers.

Home for the Holidays, Nov. 25-Jan. 1 at the Worcester Historical Museum's Salisbury Mansion.

Holly Days, Nov. 25-Dec. 30 at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

Flora in Winter, Jan. 26-29 at the Worcester Art Museum.

Worcester Garden Club Flower Show, March 15 at the Worcester Historical Museum.

Seven State Daffodil Show, May 5-6 at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

Flower arranging for the rest of us

Kim Cutler brings experience as a graphic designer and expertise as a potter to flower arranging. Not only does she create artful designs, she frequently makes the containers that hold them.

When she's arranging for a competition, Cutler favors exotic and unusual blooms, but she agreed to demonstrate how to make a stylish arrangement from flowers purchased at the supermarket. Here, she works with lilies, Gerbera daisies, bells of Ireland, button mums, twigs and an assortment of greens from her yard.

You also will need floral foam (available at craft stores), floral food (most bouquets come with a packet included), a knife, scissors and a chopstick or skewer.

Condition the flowers ahead of time, at least six hours or overnight. Make a fresh, diagonal cut on the stems and put them in room temperature water sprinkled with floral food.

Use floral foam to hold the arrangement in place. Soak the foam in the sink to saturate it; include some flower food in the water to give the blooms a boost. Check the container or vase for leaks. If it is metal or a basket, place a glass or plastic bowl inside to hold the flowers. Cut floral foam with a kitchen knife to fit the container. Foam can stick up above container if you plan to have flowers or greens spill over edge.

A center island in her kitchen doubles as Cutler's workspace for arranging; a countertop or table also will do. Cover with newspaper to make cleanup easier. Cutler uses her potter's banding wheel to hold the arrangement in progress. "If you have a turntable, it makes the process easier," she said. A cake plate on a stem is another alternative.

Cutler advises choosing durable flowers if you want the arrangement to be long-lasting. Delphinium, hydrangea and snapdragons are beautiful, but delicate; they wilt in a day or two. Watch out for tulips and calla lilies; even after cutting, they will continue to grow in the vase or container. Decide on height, width and shape of the arrangement. A centerpiece for a dining table should be low so people can see over it.

"Consider colors and contrast and select combinations that will complement the room and please you," Cutler advises. "Choose a variety of flower forms and sizes to give the arrangement variety in texture. Don't forget to collect some greens such as leaves, grasses or ferns to offset the flowers. You can often find them in your yard."

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Controlled commotion exists in Worcester Art Museum as arrangers prepare their designs before Flora in Winter opens to the public. (2) Kathy Michie is president of the Worcester Garden Club. (3) Sarah Ribeiro's floral design complemented Edouard Manet's "The Dead Toreador" at Flora in Winter at the Worcester Art Museum. (4) Robin Whitney's arrangement with Mary Cassatt's painting, "Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby" at the Worcester Art Museum. (5) Kim Cutler places stems of bells of Ireland along the perimeter to establish the line and contour of the arrangement. (6) She tucks short greens (rhododendron leaves) around the lower edge of the floral foam and throughout the arrangement to hide the foam. (7) A pair of curvy twigs in the center adds height without heft. (8) For flowers with thick or delicate stems, use a chopstick or skewer to make a hole in the foam before inserting the flower. (9) Use scissors to cut stems at a sharp angle to make it easier to work them into the foam. (10) Cutler builds shape with button mums "their green centers echo the green of the bells of Ireland," she notes, and more greens: arbor vitae and Chamaecyparis, also known as false cyprus. (11) "Test and assess," she advises. "As you work, hold flowers up to the arrangement before placing them into the foam. Taking stems in and out of the foam can weaken its ability to hold the flowers in place. Step back, assess and add flowers as needed. Distribute color and texture as it pleases you, but establish some kind of balance, either symmetrical or asymmetrical." (12) The finished arrangement -elegance from humble origins. "Don't forget to water it," Cutler adds.

PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM RETTIG
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 14, 2011
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