Museum show a real garden party

Susan Kelly, of Marion Moss FLoral Design, with her very first desing at the De Young Museum's 'Bouquets to Art' event, in 2016. The painting is 'A Tulip Field.'


Once a year, San Francisco’s famed De Young Museum is host to a popular and highly unique event. For one glorious, colorful, and aromatic week, the revered museum’s world-class paintings, sculptures, quilts and artifacts are paired with specially made floral arrangements inspired by those very same artworks. Called Bouquets to Art, the 34-year-old event is a showcase for some of the best floral designers in the Bay Area and beyond, whose elaborate, inventive, and often outrageous flower-designs represent a chance to play, show off, and take risks on a truly grand scale.

This year’s show, running from March 13-18, features three different floral designers who all happen to live and work in Petaluma.

They are Tamara Apple at Bluebird Studio (, Andrea Paul of Lily and Mint (, and Susan Kelly of Marion Moss Floral Design (

Now in her third consecutive year of doing Bouquets to Art, Kelly still considers herself a relative newcomer to the show, a designation that better describes Paul, participating for her second time this year. The veteran, relatively speaking, is Apple, who will be designing a piece for her fourth consecutive year.

“In my case, what draws me to Bouquets to Art is the artistic challenge,” says Kelly, who lives on a 1-acre property near the Washoe House, and who works — as many of her fellow participants do — as a creator of arrangements for weddings and other special events. According to Kelly, originally from Chicago, all participants in Bouquets to Art must pass a demanding initial screening, in which they submit photos of past designs, along with references from floral designers who’ve participated in in the show in the past.

“What happens is, all the designers go to the museum in January, where certain works of art are labeled as being available for our interpretation,” she explains. “We all select five we are interested in, and a committee lets us know which one we’ve been assigned.”

This year, Kelly got her first choice, a painting titled “Still Life with Fruit” by the 19th century American painter James Peale.

“It’s a kind of dark and moody piece from 1821,” Kelly says. “It’s pretty great — mostly grapes, peaches and pears. I tend to do fairly literal interpretations of the art pieces, so I usually lean toward the more traditional paintings, Dutch masters and the like.”

Her new piece, she allows, is still coming together, but Kelly reveals that she will be interpreting the painting primarily through its colors, rather than building a make-believe bowl of fruit out of flowers.

“I’ll be using flowers and other materials that represent the colors in the painting,” she says. Asked to name the most enjoyable part of the annual event, for her, she says it’s the chance to engage with other members of the Bay Area floral community, and to mingle with them at the pre-show fundraising gala the night before the show opens.

“For me, it’s so much fun to see everyone all dressed up once a year,” Kelly laughs. “We usually just see each other at the Flower Market in San Francisco, all wearing jeans and sweatshirts. And for flower enthusiasts and lovers of art, the whole week-long show is amazing. It’s such a great thing. I can’t encourage people enough to go. Honestly, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Apple, who designs flower arrangements through her Bluebird Studio, and also works at Second Street Flowers in Petaluma’s Theater Square, has been attending Bouquets to Art for twenty years, but only started participating herself last year. Her initial entry was inspired by an early 20th century Inuit shaman’s mask.

“For that I created a floral abstraction of a mask,” Apple says. “It was up on a stand, and it was, well, circular, and it was constructed of branches and flowers and vines.” Laughing, she adds, “It was kind of hard to explain.”

This year, Apple will be creating a piece inspired by an etching of a quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph, the matriarch of a once-isolated quilting community from Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

“It’s very exciting,” she says. “I’m pretty much over the moon to get this piece. The Gees Bend quilting community is known for its improvisational style of quilting, and their asymmetrical designs. They are like the jazz players of quilt-making, incorporating strips of work clothes, or whatever they happen to have at hand. They are unlike any quilts in the world.”

Apple says she does not plan to recreate the quilt in any way, but to use its vibrant colors and shapes to inspire her own piece.

“I’m creating another kind of floral abstraction, capturing the piece’s colors and patterns,” she says. “I’ve designed my ‘container.’ The flowers need to have some kind of physical framework, right? My husband and son have welded together a metal stand. All of that is as important as the flowers I choose to use in the design. I still don’t know exactly what flowers I’ll use, but I hope to use the kinds of flowers that would be in bloom along the river in Alabama.”

By sheer coincidence, the third Petaluma designer to participate this year — and the one who’s done it the longest — has also been assigned an etching of one of Mary Lee Bendolph’s Gee’s Bend quilts.

“It was my top choice,” says Paul, of Lily and Mint. “I chose it based on the colors. You only have a couple of hours to go through and see all the pieces and make your choices of your top five. I don’t always have something specific in mind until I’ve been assigned the piece. I’m pretty sure I can find the right colors to do what I am now imagining, blush and burgundy and white.”

She says she’s enjoying how colorful this piece will be, considering that the last two years, the art pieces she was assigned were mostly made up of browns, and blacks and very light blues.

“It’s not easy finding flowers in those colors,” Paul remarks.

The very first time she participated, in 2015, the classic art piece she was assigned was an 1890 oil painting titled “A Celtic Huntress,” by George de Forest Brush.

“It’s a woman dressed in a lot of green,” she says. “So I used a lot of greens and mossy stuff, and some peach-colored flowers for her skin tone.”

Though the specific flowers and plants used are what most visitors notice, Paul says designing a piece for Bouquets to Art requires a surprising amount of engineering as well.

“One thing you don’t think about is how technical these are,” she says. “There’s a lot structure and building, creating one one of these piece. They require a tremendous amount of structure.”

Another thing most visitors don’t realize is how much upkeep is required to maintain the creations’ look, given that cut flowers have a finite life-span, and that the museum can tend to become warm, and that spotlights are aimed at some of the floral creations.

“The conditions are kind of tough, sometimes,” Paul says, “but that’s one of things that makes it so interesting to be a part of. Bouquets to Art is a true artistic challenge — and it’s loads of fun.”

(Contact David at