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Bouquets to Art: An homage in blossoms

Bay Area floral designers create living tributes to de Young pieces

The average museum attendee spends a scant three to five seconds passively glancing at each work of art, an oft-cited statistic suggests. As spring nears, an annual benefit by Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will invite attendees to lengthen and deepen that gaze as they view living interpretations of de Young pieces designed by local floral artists.

"It's a glorious week for the museum. It's completely bedecked with flowers," Barbara Traisman, co-chair of the Bouquets to Art festival, said.

The festival, which will enter its 27th year when it opens March 15, gives 150 featured floral designers creative leeway to interpret the de Young's permanent collection pieces by designing complementing blossom arrangements. The largest fundraiser for special exhibitions at the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, its displays draw thousands of attendees during the five-day event.

"It isn't judged and there's no prize: You do it because you love it," 10-year participant Constance Oakson of Los Altos Hills-based The Empire of Flora said.

The pairings range from literal duplications to reinterpretations to designs that draw emotive, tonal or structural inspiration from their partner, Traisman said, encouraging museum-wary attendees and seasoned art lovers alike to take a closer look.

"At Bouquets to Art, people stand in front of a given work, looking back and forth between the two. ... It encourages them to stop and regard the works in a much more thoughtful, expanded and intentioned way," she said.

Participants step outside of their comfort zones to design displays well-suited to the museum environment, designers and organizers say. Accustomed to designing short-lived, stand-alone displays, designers must avoid materials like untreated wood and fruits that could damage the delicate works that line museum galleries. They must also anticipate the extent to which their ephemeral arrangements hold up to the pressures of time and the heat of lighting and crowds.

"A lot of new floral designers don't know their materials well enough, and the next day, (blooms) will have to be replaced," Oakson said.

Her design this year is an interpretation of an earthenware pot in the American Indian section. The display will be housed within a pot reconstructed from potsherds, complementing the bulbous pieces within the gallery and encouraging museum-goers to look within to see an arrangement of succulents, leaves, red twig dogwood and orchids, hardier materials with staying power, she said.

The blooming interpretations at Bouquets to Art give floral designers a chance to share unconventional arrangement techniques, designers said, presenting peers and attendees from garden clubs the design equivalent of an inside joke.

"The floral designers are speaking to other floral designers in this event, using unusual techniques some might not pick up on," Oakson said.

Bouquets to Art designers often use cutting-edge techniques to interpret de Young pieces. In 2009, Kris Forbes and Andi Mallinckrot, a Woodside-based design team known as Pomegranate, used a novel design strategy to complement the bust of an African woman with a glass necklace. Using floral materials to interpret the woman's head, they wove rafia, flower buds and flax onto flexible forms to create a necklace.

"We were able to use a new technique from the American Institute of Floral Designers symposium we had attended last summer. It's difficult to find a commercial customer for this kind of thing," Forbes said.

Some designers sketch out their displays in the month before the event and others ultimately depend on the flower stock available at wholesale flower warehouses such as San Francisco Flower Mart, which is crowded with designers at 7 a.m. the day of installation. Design often takes place on the museum floor, as transporting a large installation could destroy it.

"I don't fully know what (the finished arrangement) will look like until I actually buy what I'm going to use," participant Donna Higgins from Los Altos-based Design and Interiors said. Even a slight curve of a fresh-cut branch, she added, should change the form of a finished arrangement.

Designers scrutinize their assigned pieces for design inspiration. Higgins, who has participated in Bouquets to Art since its inception, aims to design "open, loose and unconfined" traditional arrangements that play off her assigned painting's colors and textures. To complement this year's assigned painting that depicts a peach-toned nude outdoors, she predicted a display showcasing silvery greens, such as eucalyptus, and peach-toned roses. Tulips, finicky flowers prone to unexpected growth, may be part of her installation.

"I've had them grow 6 inches before," Higgins said.

But the challenges of designing and maintaining complements to permanent installations are outweighed by the displays' ability to attract and inspire art lovers, participants said.

One docent came up to Higgins' interpretation last year of a floral still life, she said, and told her, "I like the flowers better than the painting!"

What: Bouquets to Art

When: March 15-19, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; March 18 until 8:45 p.m.

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

Tickets: General Admission, March 15-19, $25 adults, $22 seniors, $21 youth, free for children 5 and under; members free

Info: 415-750-3604 or Bouquets to Art

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