Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Skagit Valley—What’s in the Foreground?

Maritime climate and immigrant labor switch on Washington’s electric tulips.


Tulip fields of Skagit Valley, Washington

Photo: Wade B. Clark, Jr.

Today the monthlong Tulip Festival of Skagit Valley winds down. Located halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, this region welcomes the spillover guests from both cities and beyond every April to see its brilliant flower fields in bloom.

As in other parts of the Great Northwest, the Skagit Valley’s horticulture took off during World War I,  when European seed companies couldn’t stay in production. As it turned out, this part of Washington was ideal farm country, especially for brassica (stinky) vegetables, like cabbage and broccoli. “The valley’s cool maritime climate helps growers manage the rate at which plants mature, making it easier to ensure that male and female plants required for hybrid production are ready for cross-pollination at the same time. And the Skagit winters are cold enough to allow biennial crops to vernalize — the wintertime chilling that encourages seed production the following year — but not so cold as to put them at risk of freezing.”

Daffodils, tulips and iris  thrived here too. Rather, we should say, they could thrive if properly tended. The first Skagit flower-raisers were Dutch, German, and Scandinavian. But for nearly half a century, it’s been Hispanic immigrants who have turned the valley into Maremeko stripes of pink, yellow, red and white.

Flower farms here prospered quietly. Only in 1982, when a Seattle travel agent “discovered” April’s bloom display, did the tour buses begin rolling in. But even then, visitors saw the rainbow fields as Mother Nature’s feat, rather than the accomplishment of hundreds of Latino workers. Depictions of the Skagit Valley in its glory typically showed swatches of color all the way to the horizon, without one person in sight.

That changed in 1994. Jesus Guillen had moved from the Rio Grande to the Skagit Valley with his family in 1960. “An artist and a laborer from the Texas border country, Jesus dreamed of living in a place where his children would be able to attend school and pursue their own dreams.” Guillen became a field hand in La Conner and with wife Anita raised his family here, finding time after hours to pursue his art.

imagePainting by Jesus Guillen

chosen for the 1995 festival poster

Photo: Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

In 1994 one of his paintings was chosen for the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival poster; for the first time, human beings, not flowers, were thrust foreward. With immigration so much in the social foreground today, Guillen’s poster has gained renewed attention. Isolde Raftery of the Skagit Valley Herald interviewed a number of area artists, including Al Currier, whose painting became the 1998 festival selection. Currier’s piece, too, featured people and was, he said, indebted to Guillen.

“’(Farmworkers) are the blood and guts of the valley,’ Currier said. ‘Sometimes they’re kind of overlooked.’”

Jesus Guillen died in 1994, the same year that his Human Flower Project became a Skagit Valley emblem and revelation. His son Michael has been able “to pursue his own dream”; he’s an artist working in Seattle.

“Dad had a strong philosophy of life that focused on the dignity of the individual,” says daughter Angelica. “He felt we all had an obligation to find that thing within us that made us happy, not out of ego, but out of doing something good for the community.”

Jesus Guillen’s poster is available from the Tulip Festival.

Posted by Julie on 04/30 at 11:14 AM
Art & MediaCut-Flower TradePoliticsTravelPermalink

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Florist’s Work is Never Done

Aren’t weddings and funerals enough?


Smithville Florist’s float for the 2006 Jamboree Parade

Photo: Bill Bishop

You’d think florists would have their hands full in late April, with weddings, prom flowers, and the never-say-die duties of sympathy flowers. But in a small town like Smithville, Texas, there’s more. Roy Wood, of Smithville Florist, can be counted on to decorate every holiday and local celebration, including the annual Jamboree. And, boy, is it ever appreciated.

Each year’s parade seems to serve up more cars and trucks. Hey, we can see that spectacle any day of the week sitting in Austin traffic! So thanks to Roy and his crew for their happy float, decorated with sunflowers, a huge butterfly, and bubble-gunning riders. Smithville Florist took the trophy this afternoon for “Best Hometown Float” and sure earned it.

Posted by Julie on 04/29 at 07:04 PM
FloristsSecular CustomsPermalink

Friday, April 28, 2006

Betty, You Made It!

Ceramic sculptor Betty Woodman, with a retrospective at the Met,  has her vases filled with flowers in the museum’s Great Hall.


“The Ming Sisters” by Betty Woodman

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thanks to friend and superstar potter Lisa Orr for inspiration today. Lisa notified us of the new Betty Woodman retrospective that has just opened (through July 30) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Decades ago Woodman asked if the Met would use her vases for its flower arrangements in the Great Hall. “They said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ ” Woodman, now 75 years old, told the NY Times.

Now Betty’s gotten her wish, and more.

imageWoodman vases in the Met’s Great Hall

Photo: Frank R. Conrad, for the New York Times

The Met, which owns ancient Greek redware pots and Etruscan funerary urns, has never before curated an exhibit of contemporary ceramics.  Writing in the Times today, Grace Glueck compliments Woodman’s “exuberance,” and describes how her vessels manage to be painterly, sculptural and architectural all at once. She sees Woodman’s art “in a class by itself” though in the Great Hall her vases are generously accompanied—stuffed with branches of what appears to be forsythia.

According to Lisa Orr, who studied with Woodman back in 1989, “One of the reasons she makes so many vases is that she consoles herself with flowers around her NY loft because she does not have a view of beautiful nature out a window.  Also she lives near the flower district and can really load up!”

For museum-goers hell bent on mummy cases, armor or Rembrandt, please take time on your next visit to the Met to enjoy the flowers in the Great Hall. For years, these huge arrangements were designed by Chris Giftos, an especially favored customer at the same flower district. (His successor is Remco Van Vliet.)

The giant arrangements are an ongoing gift to the museum—and its visitors and visiting vases—from Lila Wallace. She snipped $4 million from her Readers Digest fortune expressly for this purpose.

Grace Glueck winds up her review: “Ms. Woodman has done five ebullient substitutes for the pompous urns in the Met’s Great Hall that hold the floral arrangements refreshed weekly there. It would be nice if the Met got to keep them.”

Hey, Grace, the Met might even be able to afford buying a couple of Betty’s vases—ya think?


Posted by Julie on 04/28 at 01:43 PM
Art & MediaFloristsTravelPermalink

Thursday, April 27, 2006

If You’re Going to Sevilla…

The Feria de Abril, once a cattle market, now features horse-drawn carriages and lots of flowers in the ladies’ hair.


In Andalusian costume for Feria de Abril

Photo: Sevilla Tourism

Until April 30th, the beautiful and gracious city of Sevilla, Spain, will be more than usually awash in fans and lanterns—oh, and really tight polka-dot skirts.


The Andalusians can get away with this, and do, especially at the annual Feria de Abril (April Fair). What began as a big livestock trade day has evolved into a much more decorous celebration. In the spotlight are the well-to-do families of the city, who present their handsome young people in traditional Andalusian costumes, drawn past the hoi-polloi on horseback or in carriages. Proper attire for this occasion will be cropped black jackets and flat-topped black hats (Zorro!) for the men, and for the women shuddering, bright flamenco gowns.

imageYoung ladies at Feria de Abril, Sevilla

Photo: Jean Marc Stephan

The flamenco costume for women is elaborately accessorized: a fan, shoes with high but heavy heels, a floral shawl, decorative combs, and to top it off a showy flower in the hair. Why flowers? We can only guess: flamenco dancers traditionally pull their hair back into a tight chignon, to sharpen the profile. A red (or nowadays bright blue) flower against a glossy black head is sparkling, suggestive and dramatic. It may have been that Spanish women also wanted flowers handy to toss into the bullfight ring, and there will be many bullfights this week in Seville.

Spanish readers, please advise.

Whatever the reason, the floral hair accessory is a must for every female, young or not so young, at this spring festival of Southern Spain. Feria de Abril may showcase the first families of the city, but with a flower behind her ear, any woman looks like a queen.

Posted by Julie on 04/27 at 02:23 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink
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