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