Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

parker basket thumb
Princeton, MAINE USA

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Yearbook’s a Stage

The photo of a New Hampshire teenager has been banned from the high school yearbook, because she’s holding a flower.


Image: Human Flower Project/Chicago Darch-Times

The great challenge of adolescence (which chases most of us around for the next sixty years) is to be both confidently individual and comfortably part of a group: how to stand out and fit in at the same time. It’s tricky, and at no time do the stakes feel higher for pulling that trick off than in high school, when everybody seems to be watching how well or poorly you’re performing.

...which brings us to Melissa Morin, age 17. Melissa is a senior at Merrimack High School in southern New Hampshire. She’s caught the theatre bug, so you can guess which side of the stand out/fit in continuum she leans toward. For her senior photo, Melissa posed in a sundress, barefooted, sitting on a trunk backstage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. With intensely plucked eyebrows, a prepossessing gaze and an endearing teenage slump, she sits holding a bouquet of red flowers.

Gasp! Merrimack High, apparently, permits no “props” in senior photos, so Melissa’s picture may be omitted from the yearbook. “The high school first set the policy two years ago, but only put it in writing this year, after ‘high profile legal cases’ were brought against school districts related to the content of yearbook photos. Blake Douglass, a Londonderry High School senior, brought a First Amendment case against Londonderry High in 2005 after yearbook editors refused to publish a photo of him with a broken-open shotgun slung on his shoulder.”

A district court judge rejected the student’s case, noting that it had been the yearbook editors, not the school or district, that had censored his picture. But the shotgun (and lawsuit) were enough to prompt several high schools into clamping on rules for senior portraits.


Melissa Morin’s senior picture, for Merrimack High School

Photo: Brent Mallard, via Nashua Telegraph

Actually, we couldn’t quite make out just what kinds of flowers Melissa held for the photo: clivia? alstroemeria? We consulted friend Brandon Kirkland of Enchanted Florist, who wrote back, “They are silk, so this is a tough one. My guess would be, in this order,  a parrot tulip (the ruffled ones) or a poppy.” Whatever they were, they were enough to constitute a “prop” and so, due to Merrimack’s heavy-handed “fit in” editorial policy, they could keep Morin’s picture out of print.

We consider this silly, since everything that teenagers wear, say, drive around in, eat, or shampoo with constitutes a “prop.” Adolescence is prime time for fiddling with your personal “brand” and, as most of us know, figuring that out seems to necessitate all manner of foolish stunts and unbecoming costumes. It appears that Melissa has a firmer than average grasp on who she is and who she wants to be, and has chosen a shtick that’s perfectly harmless and, in fact, kind of fun. Her decision to hold flowers (as if she’s the lead actress just come back from her last curtain call) is delightful and completely in keeping with an (ahem) budding young actress.

At the same time we relish the controversy of Merrimack High School’s yearbook (the story’s gone out on the Associated Press wire and is being picked up all over the place) because it’s further proof of the cultural firepower of flowers—on a par, it seems, with shotguns.

To Melissa, we say, “Break a Leg!”


Posted by Julie on 09/11 at 01:28 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Roel Flores: Bouquet with Cotton

A self-taught artist from the Rio Grande Valley bunches work and pleasure.


Roel Flores with a piece from his exhibit

“La Labor” at Texas Folklife, Austin

Photo: Human Flower Project

We came upon a startling bouquet this afternoon: yellow roses, a pink carnation and a stem of ripe cotton. From the the roots of all three, bound together, dangled a tiny accordion, guitar and heart. 

An untitled painting by Roel Flores of Westlaco, it hung among two dozen other works at Texas Folklife in Austin. The exhibit “La Labor” opened today, with conjunto music in the yard, refreshments and a good crowd, eager to hear Flores discuss his art. “Most of our history is not written,” Flores said, speaking of Tejano (Texas-Mexican) culture; he stood before a painting in which trucks drive though open books in the desert, under a radiant pink sky.

imageUntitled, by Roel Flores

from “La Labor”

Photo: Human Flower Project

At age 6, Flores began traveling with his family to California to pick grapes and lettuce, then back to South Texas for the cotton harvest. He dropped out of school in the 7th grade. “We were always trying to get out of the field work with the music,” he explains. But in fact his life has been a balancing of la labor y la musica. For thirty years, he played bajo sexto with various conjunto bands after the work days were over. The current exhibit includes portraits of his musical heroes Flaco Jimenez, Gilberto Perez, Don Antonio de la Rosa and the abuelo of conjunto music, accordion player Valerio Longoria.

Flores says his paintings are meant to show “the good side of hard times,” and they do. Furrows sprout accordions and violins. And in this remarkable still life, Texas’ yellow rose is gathered with an image of stoop labor—dreadful cotton (Flores says the pink carnation is a nod to Marty Robbins’s hit song from 1957). Work and play, the violin and the cotton sack, “I can’t separate them,” he says.

“La Labor” will be on view at Texas Folklife in Austin until Dec. 21 and then tours to Houston and Brownsville.

Posted by Julie on 09/09 at 05:43 PM
Art & MediaCulture & SocietyPermalink

Friday, September 07, 2007

School House Lilies

On schedule, students are back in class and the school house lilies are in bloom.  Jill Nokes, author of the forthcoming book Yard Art & Handmade Places, notes the paradox of their simultaneous uprooting and rediscovery. Thank you, Jill!


Homer comes upon a display of oxblood lilies

in an abandoned yard in Hyde Park,  Austin, TX

Photo: Jill Nokes

By Jill Nokes

A developer is tearing down four houses across the street from our neighborhood park. No doubt the lots will soon be packed with houses built super-sized to exploit the high value of central city land.  I won’t be missing the houses so much; they weren’t anything special, just simple wood-frame cottages built after WW II, with refreshingly modest proportions.  But what I will miss are the masses of school house lilies that would suddenly appear in the neglected yards of those shabby rent houses in late August and September, after the first rains came to break summer’s long drought. Every year, among the dried pecan husks, sticker-burrs, and overgrown Bermuda grass, the bulbs would seem to emerge overnight; a sure signal that summer was beginning to wind down and the most delightful of Texas seasons- fall - was around the corner.  It always felt like Mother Nature was signaling us to hold on just a little bit longer.

“School house lily” is just one of the names given to this bulb, Rhodophiala bifida. It was assigned, no doubt, because these little amaryllids appear right around the time school starts. A more familiar name for them is “oxblood lilies.”  Their bright red, delicate blossoms are held on smooth, slender stems and form random bouquets across the yard. Sometimes in old yards you can tell where the owner might have lined a walkway with them. They multiply quickly from offsets, sprinkling themselves around the yard in ways never intended by the original owner, but still a delight to the passerby.


Rhodophiala bifida, fall harbinger in Central Texas

Photo: Jill Nokes

Scott Ogden, in his book Garden Bulbs for the South, tells us that these lilies are natives of Argentina and Uruguay. “No other Southern bulb can match the fierce vigor, tenacity, and adaptability of the oxblood lily,” writes Ogden.  “Whether planted on worn-out gumbo clay, or on impoverished sand, the long-necked black bulbs make themselves at home. The plants send out thick, white roots, which contract and pull them deeply into the soil, sometimes as far as eighteen inches.  Safely hidden in the cool earth, they multiply into healthy clumps.”

Central Texas is a good place to find these forgotten colonies of scarlet bulbs, for it was a German émigré, Peter Henry Oberwetter, who imported the bulbs while living in Austin until his death in 1915. As Ogden remarks, “he must have discovered and selected the vigorous Rhodophiala strain we now enjoy.” 

Oxblood lilies are making a come back in the horticultural trade. You can buy them on line and many nurseries have baskets of the bulbs for sale in spring. Still, I will miss their random, extravagant displays in untended and forgotten yards.

Posted by Julie on 09/07 at 11:42 AM
Gardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Gung-Ho for Elephant Dung

The ideal garden fortifier puts on a really big fine art show.


A willow and steel sculpture (and dung in nearby flower beds) alert Londoners to support elephant conservation.

Photo: Cate Gillon, for Getty Images

We’ve tried composted turkey, hog, horse and cow droppings in the garden—all with success. But we learn from manure-ologist Marion Owen that the dandiest doo is elephant dung. An exhibit of elephant sculptures now on display in London’s Hyde Park inspired our dung hunt. A wildlife charity commissioned the willow and steel sculptures to raise money for elephant conservation projects. “Steve Manning, a topiary artist, and Joe Crane, a willow technician, took six months to create the herd at workshops in Pakenham, Suffolk.

imageWyche’s Yellow Tomatoes

developed in elephant-fortified soil

Photo: Solan Seeds

“Half a ton of elephant dung will be used to fertilize flower beds at the site,” according to the BBC. Sounds like a lot, but according to one source, an adult elephant produces 500 pounds of dung a day. Dr. John Wyche, who owned Cole Brothers Circus, used elephant manure with great aplomb on his garden in Hugo, Oklahoma. Among his achievements was Wychie’s Yellow Tomato.

For the gardener who has everything, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. sells “Zoo Doo”—produced by the Smithsonian’s elephants in residence. Apparently, it doesn’t generate much money for the zoo but has been a public relations bonanza. Outside the Beltway—on other continent—elephant dung is used as a mosquito repellant. Now THAT we could use around Austin (we wonder if cow poop, a lot more plentiful in these parts, works as well?).

imagePrince Among Thieves

by Chris Olifi, 1990

Collection: Museum of Modern Art

In our quest to connect flower cultures back to the rest of life, we must tip our trunk to Chris Olifi, the English artist who made a name for himself using elephant dung in multi-media works. It was Olifi who scandalized then-New York-mayor Rudy Giuliani by including elephant dung—among other surprising elements—in his portrait of the Virgin Mary back in 1999, a piece the Brooklyn Museum included in its Sensation show. Olifi apparently discovered the sculptural qualities of this material while traveling in Africa and has since made piles and oversize “beads” of dung his signature.

Since he made it big, so to speak, Olifi has donated generously to the Zoological Society of London. “It would be impossible for me to create my paintings without the elephants,” said Olifi. “It has been a rare honour and opportunity to get to know Mya, Layang-Layang and Dilberta.”

imageThe Upper Room (detail)

by Chris Olifi, 2005

Photo: Roger Taylor

For more information on how to use more mundane kinds of manure in your own garden, check out this source on composting and here’s another. It all seems pretty straightforward!

The only proviso seems to be that shoveling fresh poop straight on your garden can burn plants. It’s safer to mix manure with the leaves and vegetable trimmings in your compost pile and let it all “cook” awhile. Marion Owen recommends “all animal manure should be aged for at least 6 months. Many gardeners spread fresh manure in the fall and turn it in to the top 6 inches of soil a month before spring planting.”

It’s about that time.

Posted by Julie on 09/05 at 05:05 PM
Art & MediaEcologyGardening & LandscapePermalink
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