Every artist knows and masters the principles of design—unity, conflict, dominance, repetition, rhythm, balance, harmony and transition—until they become so ingrained she uses them unconsciously. Working on the cover art for this Quarterly I was often conscious of balance. Part of it was the nature of the artwork itself and part came from reflecting on a recent Board meeting and my first National Conference. My hands were painting but my mind was drawing parallels between artistic balance and the balance we strive for in farming.
At our Board meeting I volunteered to illustrate the Quarterly cover to celebrate the ASCFG’s twentieth anniversary. This was met enthusiastically by the Board, who suggested we offer the illustration as a painting to be auctioned at the National Conference in Portland. Wow, great idea, but now I needed to find a balance between an illustration and fine art. My original idea was to illustrate the letters, ASCFG, and then fill the space with flowers whose botanical names started with each corresponding letter. The focal point of the illustration would be the letters, celebrating the association, but who would want a painting about letters? On the other hand, a floral painting’s focus is flowers and anything as graphic as letters should not be included—so I needed to find a balance between the two art forms.
Once I had a general concept and started working on the flowers, I needed to balance between a “painterly” and an “illustrative” quality. Considering my audience, the flowers needed to be familiar and recognizable, and to honor the labor involved in growing perfect flowers, they needed to be accurately rendered and yet aesthetically pleasing.
To balance the overall design required a variety of flowers—tall spikes to fill the vertical spaces and round full flowers to anchor the space (just like a three-dimensional floral arrangement). Adjustments to scale were also needed—I tweaked the size of flowers, enlarging and shrinking to create a pleasing design, again balancing between art and reality.
Color was an issue as well. The colors needed to be bold and beautiful—eye-catching enough for “cover art” and still remain within a believable realm. There also needed to be a harmonious color influence to create balance between the background, letters and flowers.
I agonized for days playing with the various elements in my mind. Leafing through old Quarterlys, plant catalogues and gardening books I focused on distractions until the looming deadline was hanging heavily overhead. Then I locked myself in the studio and just did it.
Growing flowers for the aesthetic market also requires a small circus of balancing acts. Growers walk the line between new varieties and those with proven track records. We seek balance when creating seasonal color palettes—we plant a mix of annuals and perennials but some weeks we are really heavy on one color. Have you ever tried selling an entire truckload of yellow flowers?
Weighing trends can keep you on your toes as well. Fifteen years ago a wholesale buyer told us sunflowers were “out”—glad I didn’t listen to that one, sunflowers are one of our biggest sellers. The same buyer could not sell red and twelve years later it is one of our hottest colors but how long will it remain trendy? There is also the cutting see-saw—do you cut for longevity or risk cutting more open flowers for greater instant visual appeal?
We are local and this small business does sustain our household but we juggle the production of aesthetically perfect blooms with the desire for chemical-free farming. Our “audience” demands perfection. These consumers may feel noble eating less than perfect produce, they may even be fond of organic “blemishes” but they refuse to serve wholesome foods with “hole-y” or buggy flowers. Keeping ahead of weeds and pests with a limited staff—my husband and me—is a constant struggle. We pick off, wash off and add beneficial bugs but when aphids and thrips threaten an entire crop we must resort to the big guns.
But the ultimate challenge is balancing life with our livelihood. There is a huge difference between gardening and raising flowers. Farming, especially raising flowers for the cut flower market, is not a hobby.
Years ago I read an article about two ladies growing flowers in California, illustrated with lush glossy photos—should have been my first clue. Ralph warned me that farming was not like a Martha Stewart story spread. We have been farming for fifteen years and I have never stood at sunset in a dazzling white dress and floppy brimmed hat with a pretty basket of posies in a field surrounded by rows of full-blown flowers. On any day June through August if you drop by before noon you will catch me un-showered and sweaty up to my arm pits in weeds, bugs, flowers and stinky buckets not having had time to brush my teeth let alone my hair. Flowers are a lot of hard work and if you don’t find a balance between work and rest they will eat you alive.
Because we are so isolated, frantic clients call through out the night and day during high season and we keep the cooler stocked for any emergency. This makes for long days and short tempers that we have learned to be aware of and work around. We balance these hectic days with moments of quiet and calm and try to be mindful that we are creating a life as well as making a livelihood.
Once I settled into the cover art and got the pencil in my hand things just started coming. The images poured onto the page just like they were supposed to. The flowers fell in place and the overall design started taking shape. Colors flowed from the brushes and it all held together. Every element fell into place and I am pleased with the finished piece. We often experience something quite similar when farming. Rather than becoming overwhelmed trying to balance all the elements I just get out there and start working. Getting down and dirty and letting the soil “ground” me I usually find the balance.