For decoration to accompany a series of talks on Darwin last year, the Natural History Museum sought out a quirky and original florist. True to her reputation, Holly Vesecky prepared for the event not by going to the flower market but by stopping at Trader Joe’s — to buy mushrooms. Then she piled enokis and shiitakes onto a gnarled, primordial-looking tree stump cradled in moss.
The talk that night was about how elephants “speak” to each other by stomping the ground, sending seismic vibrations that travel for miles. Vesecky strung orchids on fishing lines that stretched taut from the ceiling down to a table, upon which sat an elephant-foot skeleton. Beneath the table, a subwoofer played elephant-stomping noises, loud and deep. With each boom, the orchids jiggled.
The effect was stunning. In a few hours, however, it was gone. Thrown away with the evening trash.
Vesecky is not so much a florist as a floral artist. On a blistering, petal-wilting August day at her studio in Culver City, she scrolls through photos of her work on her iPhone. The only documentation of her work in many cases resides in memory — hers and her phone’s. “This was for Jacquelyn’s wedding,” Vesecky says, referring to her assistant, Jacquelyn Langberg.
“That’s the chuppa,” Langberg says. “Holly went to the beach and got this driftwood and put jasmine all over. It was magical.”
Vesecky’s arrangements are fresh and dramatic and elegant and imbued with humor. She was recently commissioned for a cheese party. To accompany goat cheese aged in Spanish pirate caves, she hacked three battle axes into a slab of wood and balanced a ball of purple orchids on top. She once made boutonnieres out of lamb’s-tongue cacti, so all the groomsmen looked like they had fuzzy, gray tongues sticking out of their lapels. Her shelves hold props that include fake lobsters, apothecary jars, a squirrel-shaped nutcracker, stuffed birds, corals, shells and cinnamon sticks, even a real crocodile head she suspects may come in handy some day.
Flowers are perishable and transient, but ideas about what you ought to do with them are even more so. Flower snobbery is rife. From the ’90s to the early 2000s, when everybody had a Georgia O’Keeffe painting hanging in their living room, a florist could only do Calla lilies. “Because they’re clean and modern and they’re single petiole,” Vesecky says. “Now they’re just not fresh. They’re played out. Right now, epiphytes are big — you know, air plants?” She walks to the shelf, grabs a spidery snarl of a plant, an epiphyte curly and dense as Sophia’s wig on The Golden Girls. “This one is 25 years old.”
The big trend now is rustic. “It’s an entire generational thing,” she says. “It’s like we couldn’t go any further in the realm of luxury. Now people don’t want to seem contrived.”
Vesecky learned to think outside the bouquet, as it were, at Velvet Garden in West Hollywood. She had worked at run-of-the-mill floral shops, places that regard the flower as the end product, a pretty, precious thing in itself, rather than as a medium to be bent and twisted and ripped and cut and glued and otherwise made to service a larger vision. Most weren’t doing the conceptually progressive work she wanted to do. But Velvet Garden was. They were the first to do submerged leaves and submerged orchids.
Her M.O. has lately been to do unconventional but simple table settings, and then, off in a corner, place a breathtaking fantasy sculptural element. A bulldog covered in succulents, for example.
Earlier this year, Vesecky replicated Sam Francis’ Toward Disappearance abstract-expressionist painting in white carnations for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “It took 75 hours to make, and it was only up for two hours,” she remembers. “Then we took it down and gave the flowers away to people. The museum had conservancy issues. They were concerned with the humidity in the gallery.”
Vesecky’s art defies conservation. She often forgets to document her work altogether. The elephant sculpture was never photographed or videotaped. Is she sad that at the end of the night, people throw her art away? “No. I like this moment when you don’t have to consider the future of this thing, or how it’s going to age,” she says.
“Something that fleeting has a majesty to it,” adds her new business partner Becky Uchtman, who has joined us at the studio. (Uchtman’s boyfriend recently underwent a vasectomy and to celebrate, she made up an arrangement of milkweed pods, a prickly flower that Vesecky calls “grampa’s balls.”)
Vesecky flops a headless pheasant pelt onto the table, crowns it with a plant, then arranges a bounty of pomegranates and one sugared plum in a constellation around it. “You just do this … and then all of a sudden … see?”
Some people don’t see. “It’s the rare person who will spend six thousand dollars on a fantastic, beautiful flower sculpture that dies the next day,” Uchtman says.
But every now and then, someone takes a chance. A bride came in with a picture of lavender flowers. “It was pretty tame,” Vesecky says. “On the next table we had another bride’s stuff. It looked like it was from outer space. Her fiancé was mesmerized by it. Hey, Jacks, do we have a picture of that?”
Langberg searches for a photo of it on the computer. “No, no, no … wait, here. See, how it looks like it was at the bottom of the ocean.”
“That’s gloriosa,” Vesecky says. “And the thing is, those flowers were the first thing in the whole wedding that the groom related to.”
She finds photos of another kind of arrangement. “We call them moments of discovery. People get up and move from table to table and they find little surprises.” This one is a succulent with a tiny, gold kitten trinket tucked beneath it.
“It looks like it’s lived under there forever,” Langberg says.