A perennial favorite: ‘Art in Bloom’ showcases floral design

Art in Bloom will take place at the Milwaukee Art Museum from April 8 to 11.

In Milwaukee, where green grass can be a hot commodity, spring doesn’t always bloom with all the vibrancy or fragrance it’s supposed to. Milwaukee does its best to enliven downtown, with rows of pastel tulips lining the sidewalks, but spring somehow seems to slip between the cracks of winter’s brutality and summer’s heat waves.

Except in one little nook of the city.

For the third year, the Milwaukee Art Museum will ring in the season with “Art in Bloom,” a lavish exhibit in which local florists and designers combine signature works with innovative arrangements of exotic blossoms and the richest of colors.  Beginning April 8 and ending a mere four days later on April 11, the exhibit will engulf the museum’s main gallery in flowers and is expected to draw more than 11,000 visitors.

Fran Serlin, the museum’s director of public programs, can’t imagine welcoming spring any other way.

“’Art in Bloom’ showcases the talents of nearly 40 renowned floral designers interpreting masterworks from the museum’s collection,” Serlin said in an e-mail.  “The weekend brings together gardening, floral arranging, landscape design, and environmentally friendly practices beneath the wings of the museum.”

Serlin said “Art in Bloom” was created three years ago after a committee member stumbled upon a parallel event at a museum in St. Louis. Other museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, have been hosting this same exhibit for decades.

Originally, the museum invited local designers to head up the creations, but with the exhibit’s growing popularity, MAM has now turned to an application process. Serlin said selected designers are assigned specific works at the end of January.

Aside from the exhibit itself, the museum will also feature an educational side, with several lectures and presentations on topics as varied as design strategies, gardening tips and different types of roses. A marketplace, complete with floral vendors and experts from around the city, will accompany the exhibit as well, to encourage visitors to embark on their own floral masterpieces.

As if the exposure and opportunity to collaborate with MAM doesn’t offer enough of an incentive for participants, the museum has heightened the performance pressure with a competition of sorts. “People’s Choice Awards” will be voted on daily, and judges will handpick the top designs of the exhibit.

Chris Dobs, owner and design specialist at Milwaukee floral shop Urban Sense, walked away with a first-place People’s Choice Award each day last year for his artwork, modeled after a painting of poppies by Georgia O’Keefe. Dobs hopes to impact visitors just as much this year with a sculpture inspired by Elsworth Kelly’s “Cyclamen” ink drawing, though he insists the competition doesn’t add any weight to his motivation.

“It’s more the fun and creative aspect,” Dobs said.

With 20 years of designing on his side, he began piecing together the remnants of his sculpture back in January when he first received his work assignment in the museum’s lottery.

Dobs describes his process and creation as more of a literal interpretation of the art. While some florists seem to use as many flowers as they possibly can, he works with a much simpler canvas of different textures and outside elements.

“I think you lose the beauty of the actual piece that way,” Dobs said.

As the premiere of the exhibit approaches, he is looking forward to studying the variety of views and interpretations in other florists’ artwork.

“It helps create a more diversified environment,” Dobs said.

For participant Debrah Bathurst, owner of Petaluna Flowers & Gifts, the exhibit further celebrates the artistry and detailed thought behind the floral design field.

“I think it brings the community together,” Bathurst said.  “It also adds an awareness to this industry that floral design is an art.”

“Art in Bloom” will officially open to the public today at 5 p.m.  Admission is $10 for students, although lectures and presentations cost extra. For a complete schedule of events, visit www.mam.org/bloom.