by Elizabeth Bako
(Editor’s Note: Philadelphia gave birth to America’s first horticultural society, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, in 1827 and the nation’s first flower show, the Philadelphia Flower Show, in 1829. Elizabeth Bako went behind the scenes for the 183rd annual Flower Show to get the story behind the story.)
By Elizabeth Bako
Thursday Afternoon: Pre-Show Setup
When I entered the Philadelphia Convention Center on the second to last day of setup before the opening of the Philadelphia International Flower Show, cranes and plows groaned their way around through the cavernous space. Alert to the echoing beeps of machinery in reverse and hopping over jagged piles of lumber, I made my way into the throng, the air just above freezing as a frigid wind came through the open loading docks.
At the entrance, I was met with an enormous life-sized hot air balloon, designed to look like a map of the world. A woman sat playfully posing at the base of the balloon. She introduced herself as Barbara King of Valley Forge Flowers in Wayne, PA and she pointed out that this was the fourth year she has been asked to help create the centerpiece at the entrance of the show.
“We did the flowers for the balloon,” she smiled, pointing above her head. Taking a second look up and to my shock, I saw what I had overlooked before: the balloon was composed entirely of freeze-dried roses and posies, and she and her 80,000 cut flowers could not have looked more welcoming.
She ushered me over to Sam Lemheney, the Director of Show Design who casually informed me that it took over one week and ten volunteers to build the 28-foot balloon.
It is this kind of cooperative ingenuity which has been a trademark of the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest indoor flower show in the world. Not surprisingly, every show takes eighteen months to coordinate and next year’s show, “Paris in Springtime”, has been in the works since September, 2009.
In a nod to globalization and the fact that many of the plants in this year’s show came from other parts of the world, The Philadelphia Flower Show this year added ‘International’ to its title, and so the theme is, “Passport To The World.”
Sam explained that each plant displayed in the centerpiece exhibit, has been introduced to the area through the flower show, and fostered by a local horticulture center, such as Longwood Gardens.
The proceeds from the show support The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and its acclaimed urban greening program, Philadelphia Green, sponsoring community gardens and parks where they are needed the most.
After thanking Sam for his hospitality, I set off amongst the piles of mulch and packaging paper to explore the works in progress.
Some of the more notable exhibits included a life-sized elephant made of flowers in the, Flowers! The Jewels of an Indian Wedding exhibit by Jamie Rothstein Distinctive Floral Designs Inc.
One interesting exhibit, Polar Fantasy, by Scaffer Designs interpreted with floral arrangements and fibre optics on Aurora Borealis.
Thai Tranquility, a Thai tea house sat among smaller spirit houses of the Buddhist culture, on the edge of a lagoon. This exhibit was created by the Men’s Garden Club of Philadelphia, a group of fellows that were quick to pose for pictures between telling jokes, some of them aimed good-naturedly at Stan Amey, their ‘President For Life’. This is their 21st year at the show and their fourth year as a central, non-competitive piece in the show’s theme.
Yet, of all of the exhibits, one that fascinated me most was MODA botanica’s, Box. From across the room I spotted six shipping containers towering over grass huts, wooden gazebos, and room installation exhibits scattered below it. At first sight it was jarring, out of place, and I had to see it up close.
I made my way over to the artists at work on this beautiful monster and was fortunate enough to interview one of the three partners in MODA, Bailey Hale. In show full of country-specific themes, Box sat ambiguously on the side.
MODA botanica’s designs use flowers from all over the world, and they didn’t want to limit themselves. To express the passport theme, MODA employed used shipping containers made in different countries, delivered from a shipping yard in Camden, NJ by semi-trailers two at a time, and then lifted into the second story room by forklifts.
“It could be very harrowing,” Bailey laughed.
The idea, Bailey explained, is to exhibit not flowers but their style, self-described as, “a modern design aesthetic with an artistic approach,” with, “exceptional flowers, creative design and unexpected materials.”
“Flowers by their very nature are pretty,” Bailey said to me as we walked through the containers. “They don’t need our help. We like to challenge people to see things in a new light. Present them in a way you’re not used to seeing.”
Awe-struck at the task Bailey and his crew had ahead of them, I left the show wondering if the exhibitors would ever be ready on time. While I slept Friday night, I learned that the Bailey and his partners, and the design technicians that worked on Box labored away until two am Saturday morning, only to return, fully dressed and functioning, eight hours later. I was there too, eager to see how Box turned out.
Saturday Morning: Press and Judges Only
The opening weekend of the Flower Show brought Philadelphia its fourth major snowstorm. This year, the weather has been brutal, exacting in its ability to shut the city down every week with one storm’s snow piled on the last. The days are short and dim. The moments you steal outdoors in the fleeting daylight are spent huddled face-down, dogged by the biting wind and chill that rushes you from one indoor corner to another.
The cold darkness was spreading and I began to feel as though it had infected my mind. A sort-of dim vagueness had impaired my ability to think and create, and I felt an ever growing urge to give in to the warm-tingly feeling and go to sleep. Saturday, however, I was up early.
When I stood in the open, unpopulated quiet of the Philadelphia International Flower Show’s pre-show, the exposed architecture of the PA Convention Center’s massive ceiling space mirrored in the dark shine of the freshly washed cement floor, and looked up through the beam of a halogen spotlight onto MODA Botanica’s exhibit. At that moment my winter fell to its knees.
My first reaction was to laugh, not because it was funny but because it was my body’s way of dealing with something that I had to first grasp with my mind. The feat was incredible. The art was like fresh water. Six gigantic, heavy-metal shipping containers, two stacked on top of four, posed five rooms of art displaying interactive botanical design and floral show-pieces in a in a way that mingled punk rock with museum-quality beauty.
In the few hours during the pre-show, circulated by the press, volunteers and judges, MODA’s exhibit drew a crowd. One woman gaped, “It’s like a wonderland…” as she passed through the exposed light bulbs, reflected into infinity, in the chartreuse-fauna interior of the mirrored shipping crate. Another woman stared, sighing over and over again.
I had to kneel to fully grasp the attention to detail carried down to the flower arrangements, which stood in sophisticated splendor from the cinder blocks on the floor, or peered up at the grotesque display of carnivorous plants hanging from above. The nature and beauty, creation and innovation of MODA’s exhibit reminded me on this miserable winter day what it means to be in a living world.
Two graffiti artists, who write under the names of Distort and Distraught unleashed their art on an open container that created one of the two through-ways in the piece. Intermingled with the graffiti were colorful orchids, camouflaged as if grown there organically, protected by some natural surrounding.
On the container’s side was a series of graphic illustrations of Jane Pepper, is a fine tribute to her last active year as President of the Horticultural Society.
A wildly intricate architectural ensemble of colorful Jute twigs (a plant whose fibres are used to make fabrics) wrapped itself around the graffitied container, hanging precariously off its side and leading to the mirrored show-case, a room cut out and roped off from within one of the container building blocks.
In this container, a dining scene set off by elaborate cut flower arrangements, all in hues of purple, reminded MODA’s audience that their young genius is, of course for hire.
No doubt, MODA’s brilliance was the talk of the show and each angle or turn brought about something new to look at. However, it was at the foot of their Ship Wreck Room where the entire show came to a respectful pause, bowing to the beauty of luminescent white radiating from delicate baby’s breath and fleshy orchids, planted in a dark, rusted, well-traveled container.
Elizabeth Bako lives in Center City, Philadelphia. She graduated from Temple University after studying abroad in Rome for a year. She has a background in sales and marketing, is a contributing editor for the Wild River Review, and has just finished her first novel.
all photographs copyright held: Wild River Review
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