She Created SZA’s Floral Bikini. Could She Help Me With a Centerpiece?

This article is part of our latest dedicated Design section, on spaces inspired by nature.

When I recently received a white orchid stalk during a flower arranging workshop at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, my first impulse was to carefully carry it home, where I could put it in a vase all by itself and appreciate its blossoms. while they lasted. Instead, it seemed like we had to drag these precious beauties through paint.

Fourteen of us showed up for the two-hour class, including a floral artist who flew in from Nashville and a florist who drove five hours from New Hampshire. A local art director went to great lengths to secure a spot: After being told the class was sold out, she burst into tears and anxiously emailed a member of the museum staff until she was admitted.

There were also those who were just looking for something fun to do on a spring evening. But a handful of real gung-ho participants helped give the class the merry feel of a fan club.

The object of attention and affection was our instructor, Los Angeles-based botanical artist Kristen Alpaugh – she of the HBO Max reality show”Full bloomand over 39,000 followers on Instagram. Ms. Alpaugh was the first of six artists to tap into the museum, known as MAD, for its just-opened “Flower Craft” exhibition† The other five would then take turns occupying a second-floor gallery for a week and delivering a workshop in an adjacent space, where they could share their own floral views.

Mrs. Alpaugh’s, it had become clear, sometimes involved putting her own spin on nature.

For her installation, she had conjured up large-scale, dazzling works of dried lotus leaves, dyed pampas grass and anthuriums glowing with iridescent paint. She had smoothed out twisting branches with resin, making the bark look like reptile skin. One patch puddled on the ground had sunflowers rising from the tall grass, the flowers rigged with mechanical motors to vibrate.

“Nature speaks to me and I will speak back,” she had told me by phone the day before. “It’s a conversation.”

My classmates and I sat at tables covered with butcher paper. Each of us had a teal glazed ceramic vessel fitted with green rubberized chicken wire to hold flowers in place and a bucket of Gerbera daisies, glistening roses, sweet peas and phlox in a palette that ranged from grapefruit to lavender.

As everyone started making their arrangements, cutting stems with the florist’s scissors provided to us, Ms. Alpaugh, 33, in olive overalls and leopard-patterned sneakers, shared tips for those of us who weren’t in the trade. They include:

  • Always cut stems at a 45-degree angle.

  • Place larger flowers in the center of an arrangement and smaller ones at the edge.

  • Change the water in your vase daily.

  • No leaves below the waterline!

Each of us also had a single anthurium painted by Mrs. Alpaugh in our flower bucket. Anthuriums — eye-catching tropical plants — are sometimes referred to as flamingo flowers, pigtail plants, and, er, peck on a shell. Mrs. Alpaugh likes them partly because their flat surfaces are good to paint on.

“I feel like they were some sort of bullied flower,” said Ms. Alpaugh, who sells upgraded versions through her company. House of Stems, up to $40 a pop. “This thing is just being who it is — why are we kidding about it? If they had a publicist, this is a rebrand for them.”

Ms. Alpaugh keeps her anthurium painting technique close to the chest, but she was eager to show us how to do our way with orchids. She squeezed drops of acrylic paint from small plastic bottles into a trough filled with distilled water thickened with carrageenan so that the paint, which formed expanding circles when it hit the solution, would float on the surface instead of immediately dissolving. Using a plastic stirrer, she gently swirled her circles.

Then she dipped in a branch of orchids, then quickly rinsed the flowers in plain water and held them up so we could see the marbled petals.

woohoo, went to class.

To my right, a Massachusetts floral artist, with a tattoo of peonies and jasmine vines on one arm, dived into painting her orchids. The New Hampshire florist said she planned to use the technique for an upcoming bridal magazine photo shoot.

To me – someone who is very happy with a simple bouquet of tulips in a single color from the corner bodega – the orchids looked perfect on their own. Did they really need embellishment?

But in preparation for the workshop, I had clicked on a few tutorial videos on flower arranging online and found it surprisingly fascinating to watch a professional quickly create a balanced composition before my very eyes. And I was intrigued by Ms. Alpaugh’s work – were they? roots in one of her Instagram shots?

Other museums have hosted floral events, sometimes attracting artists to create arrangements inspired by paintings on their walls. But with “Flower Craft”, MAD is turning the spotlight entirely on contemporary floral artists and their evolving vocation.

It’s one that hasn’t hit its target, said Elissa Auther, MAD’s deputy director of curatorial affairs and the show’s curator.

This may be because of the association of flower arranging with the traditionally devalued household atmosphere and female gender – with one exception, all participants in the workshop were women. Its practitioners also tend to run businesses, Ms. Auther noted, adding what some might consider the taint of commerce to their artistry. Botanical artists have long pushed the boundaries in the field—in 1930s England, Constance Spry used chard, kale and weeds in her arrangements—but the profession tends to operate under the radar.

Social media — especially Instagram, with its focus on visual content — seems to be changing that. Ms Auther said she found all the artists for the museum show by scrolling through the Instagram feed of her “Flower Craft” co-curator Sarah Bedford, who is the founder and creative director of a flower studio in Manhattan.

Instagram has been pivotal to Ms. Alpaugh’s success. Her posts for her custom botanical business, FLWR PSTL, caught the attention of singer Katy Perry, who began ordering arrangements for friends. Then Mrs. Perry ordered a cascading dress made of flowers for her Music Video “Never Worn White”, in which she revealed she was pregnant. Ms. Alpaugh went on to create a floral print bikini for SZA to wear in her “Kiss Me More” video with Doja Cat. And she made Doja Cat’s Venus flytrap earrings for last year’s Billboard Music Awards.

Rebecca DePasquale, who had come from Norristown, Pennsylvania for the workshop, was one of the floral designers Mrs. Alpaugh encouraged.

“Not everyone looks at florists that way,” says Ms. DePasquale. “She helps show flowers as an artistic medium.”

So who was I to question Ms. Alpaugh’s methods when it came to my orchids? Finally, l wasn’t the one who starred in a museum show. Plus, I had paid $250 for the workshop, and I thought I might as well get my money’s worth.

The class was winding down when I grabbed a few bottles of yellow and orange paint and gently squeezed a few small drops into my trough. The results, while not as dramatic as Ms. Alpaugh’s, weren’t bad either.

I cut my branch to size, threaded it into my arrangement, and carried my flowers out of the museum, feeling triumphant as if I had gone to a wedding and was told I could take the centerpiece of my table home.

When I got up the next morning and saw my arrangement on the counter, it looked fantastic. The peony was open at night. The anthurium was shining in the sun. The sweet peas smelled great.

Would I have liked the orchids better in their natural state? Yes. But they certainly wouldn’t have looked as good with my colorful composition as the paint daubed ones.


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