Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

St. Elizabeth’s Bread and Roses

A saint of Hungary was a bread smuggler, disguised with roses.


St Elisabeth

Image: Helmut-Zenz

It’s from Barbara Irwin, artist and friend, we first learned of Hungary’s floral saint. In an alcove of Barbara’s former house, we spotted an odd sculptural assemblage: the cement statue of a woman in a long, gathered apron, with a sugar-rose attached where her head should have been. Very spooky, very lovely.

“That’s St. Elizabeth,” Barbara explained, and told the story.

Elizabeth was nobly born in 1207. She also married nobly, to Prince Louis of Thuringa at age 13. Like Francis of Assisi, she wasn’t much for palace parties and the like. Rather, she enjoyed mortgaging the family castles to build hospitals for the poor, the kind of thing that royally annoyed the in-laws. As with so many hagiographies, we get more than a bit snarled up in the mortifications, switchbacks, and other biographical turns, but we have been looking forward to recognizing St. Elizabeth. As usual, flowers clarify the portrait.

It’s said that Elizabeth preferred plain clothes to regalia, and twice daily would leave home to deliver food to the sick and shut-ins, Meals on Wheels, minus the axles. Her family, wishing she’d cut all this out and behave more like a princess, confronted her one day as she went about her deliveries. They demanded to know what she was carrying so she opened her big apron, suddenly filled not with loaves but roses.

In some renderings she’s shown holding bread behind her back, while the roses in her lap serve as distraction. Our favorite image, however, is Barbara’s, though we understand the rose-head, which really had been sculpted of sugar, eventually melted onto the statue’s shoulders and breasts.

Elizabeth is the patron saint of (among others) the falsely accused, the homeless, nursing services, young brides, and bakers. This is her feast day, November 17.


Posted by Julie on 11/16 at 10:02 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What Would Guru Nanak Do?

How do you celebrate the Sikh faith’s founder without getting orthodox about it?


In Jalandhar, a procession and pilgrims

mark the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak

Photo: Pawan Sharma, Tribune India

In a town west of Lahore, Pakistan, and other strongholds of Sikhism, the birth anniversary of spiritual founder Guru Nanak was remembered with celebration this week. In Nankana Sahib, this meant bearing a Pakleee, or throne of flowers, through the streets.

Such observances must involve a degree of irony, for—from the little we have learned—Nanak himself rejected orthodoxies of all kinds. One might even call him an anti-ritualist. He was born into a Hindu family, but studied Hindi, Persian and Arabic with equal interest. As a child he was already asking big questions of everyone, Muslims and Hindus alike. Nanak—and Sikhism—seem to have developed in response to considerable religious corruptions of late 15th century India (imagine that!).

In his late 20s, Nanak disappeared while bathing and was taken for drowned. He resurfaced, illuminated, saying, “There is but One God, His name is Truth, He is the Creator, He fears none, He is without hate, He never dies.” Nanak spent the rest of his days traveling, learning, teaching, and renouncing—almost to the point of mockery—the dictates of established creeds.

Rather than a pious or dictatorial guru, Nanak inspired with surprise. On a pilgrimage to Mecca, he fell asleep with his feet pointing the “wrong” direction, towards the holy Kabba. “How dare you turn your feet towards the house of God!” exclaimed the watchman, kicking him. “At this Guru Nanak woke up and said, “Good man, I am weary after a long journey. Kindly turn my feet in the direction where God is not.”

Nanak tossed holy water of the Ganges not toward the sky, in accord with Hindu ritual, but shoreward.  “I am sending water to my farm which is dry,” he explained. “If your water can reach your ancestors in the region of the sun, why can’t mine reach my fields a short distance away?” He even cooked deer meat in a Hindu temple, telling horrified friends, “Only fools argue whether to eat meat or not. They don’t understand truth nor do they meditate on it. Who can define what is meat and what is plant? (In the same vein, our friend Barbara Stallard once wisely asked, “Are you so sure broccoli doesn’t feel pain?”)


Guru Nanak (1469-1539) founder of the Sikh faith

with flowers and his companions, Bala and Mardana

One of the world’s great ecumenicists, Nanak challenged dogma of all kinds, professing love, equality and faith in an unknowable spirit—with a splash of wit. Among his legends is one especially germane to the Human Flower Project:

At the end of his life, Nanak’s many followers began haggling over who would be honored to conduct his obsequies. “Feeling his end was near, the Hindus said, ‘We will cremate you’; the Muslims said, ‘We will bury you.’ Guru Nanak said; ‘You place flowers on either side, Hindus on my right, Muslims on my left. Those whose flowers remain fresh tomorrow will have their way.’ He then asked them to pray and lay down, covering himself with a sheet.

“Thus on September 22, 1539 in the early hours of the morning Guru Nanak merged with the eternal light of the Creator. When the followers lifted the sheet they found nothing except the flowers,”  all of them fresh.

Posted by Julie on 11/15 at 09:26 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Dolls of Hirakata

A figural flower tradition blooms for the last time in Japan.


Kiku Ningyo- Chrysanthemum dolls exhibit

Photo: Yushima Tenmangu

To follow human custom is like watching flowers—there are seasons of flourishing and withering, and sometimes extinction.

Let’s hope the latter will not be the fate of Japan’s wondrous chrysanthemum dolls. Our friend Eishi Adachi, who recently returned to Texas from his homeland, reports that this may be the final year for a marvelous Japanese flower custom: the Hirakata chrysanthemum doll exhibition.

“Decorating dolls with chrysanthemums began as a novelty that turned into a huge hit in the late Meiji Era (1868-1912) in Tokyo’s Dangozaka neighborhood.” At the Hirakata show, a fall event in Japan since 1910, master craftsmen would build 50 dolls with bodies of blooming mums, arranging these floral statues into scenes from Japanese drama. In the early 20th century, Japan’s railroads began sponsoring the shows, initially to announce the opening of new transportation lines, and in more recent years to spur tourism. In 1974, more than 850,000 visitors came to see the Hirakata dolls, but attendance has dropped precipitously, to less than half that number in the past three years.

Further, we have learned that the chrysanthemum doll master Toshiyuki Murase died in 2000, and though he trained a handful of apprentices to carry on, there has not been much interest in learning the fine points of this exacting and expensive craft. (The fifty dolls cost approximately 100 million yen to produce and maintain for the duration of the exhibit.)

imageChrysanthemum dolls, Longwood Gardens, 1999

Photo: Longwood Gardens

In 1999, several Hirakata craftsmen demonstrated their art at Longwood Gardens in the U.S. Longwood posted an explanatory essay in anticipation: “Before they left Japan, the artists made body frames of bamboo and straw matting and faces of a hand-painted composite. These elements were shipped to Longwood where they will be dressed in period clothing fashioned from live chrysanthemums to depict the gracefulness of 6th-century Japanese court noblewomen, complete with kimono and obi made of flowers. The Japanese team will transform the stiff armatures into life-size dolls of living chrysanthemums. At the center of each frame will be a twisted mass of living chrysanthemum roots and stems, leaving only the flowers visible on the surface. Daily watering and continual care maximize their lifespan.”

Here is an exquisite portfolio of photographs by Chica Chubb of this year’s dolls, not to be missed!

The glory and demise of the Kiku Ningyo (chrysanthemum dolls) reflect the seasons of human culture. Living within traditions, we may assume they are airborne and perpetual, but that’s not so. Great art, though natural, is rare. And customs, like chrysanthemum dolls, survive only awhile, through “daily watering and continual care.”

Posted by Julie on 11/14 at 11:30 AM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySecular CustomsTravelPermalink

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bill Doepkens—Flower Muralist

A Maryland farmer’s chrysanthemum mural keeps customers dazzled and down on the farm.


Chrysanthemum peacock, Doepkens Farm

Photo: Michael Robinson-Chavez

U.S. flower farmers, under colossal pressures of competition from abroad, are having to grow smarter. Rather than shipping their plants and blooms—guzzling gasoline and sharing profits with vendors— some are turning their farms into outdoor boutiques, offering buyers a farm “experience” while they shop for homegrown roses, sunflowers, or—at this time of year—chrysanthemums.

Bill Doepkens has produced a farm attraction that’s ingenious and grandiose: a chrysanthemum mural he plants annually on a third of an acre at the family farm in Davidsonville, Maryland.  Darragh Jonhson’s feature story about Doepkens appeared in the Washington Post and came to our attention through Beyond Blossoms blog. Thanks, Josh!

The Doepkenses farmed tobacco for many years, but after Bill, Sr. had a stroke, it became harder and harder to find people willing to do the tough handwork of cutting, staking and hauling bright leaf; also, Bill, Jr. began feeling the effects of nicotine poisoning and decided to change crops. He turned to flowers, and through the spring and summer has a steady market for his cut gladiolas, lilies and sunflowers. In 1995 he tried something new—a strategic design of chrysanthemums, planted around Memorial Day. By November it had bloomed into a huge sunburst. A crow’s-eye view would be ideal, but visitors on foot enjoyed the living mural too.


Bill Doepkens toting chrysanthemums

Photo: Michael Robinson-Chavez, for the Washington Post

Subsequently, using a “paint-by-numbers” method, carefully plotted on a grid, Doepkens has grown other murals, including swans, a horse head, a butterfly and, last year, a giant watering can. This year’s design is a peacock, fashioned from bamboo, cornstalks, pipe, and for the tail “a downhill sweep of 95 varieties of 2,500 mums total—swirls that include yellow (official color, Erica), and red (Regina) and deep, deep maroon (Raquel).”

As globalization spins the fortunes of longtime flower growers, farmers must diversify. You might call it “conceptual farming.” Bill Doepkens has become Davidsonville’s installation artist, selling potted mums from the gift shop of his living museum.

Posted by Julie on 11/13 at 12:58 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyCut-Flower TradeGardening & LandscapeTravelPermalink
Page 3 of 6 pages  < 1 2 3 4 5 >  Last ›