A conversation between Elisheva Heit, flower artist, and Tali Himmel, author
Elisheva Heit grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her mother used to forage for edible and medicinal plants “deep into the country and on the edge of forests.” Medicine was hard to get, and her mother treated their childhood illnesses with teas she steeped from dried plants and flowers. To this day, dry flowers remind Elisheva of medicine. Fresh flowers are a whole other story.
“When you were invited over for dinner in Russia, you always brought a bouquet of flowers with you. It was the appropriate thing to do.” Elisheva explains, as she works on her day’s creations at Flamenco Flowers and Sweets. “There was no flower delivery, you went to a specialty flower store or to one of the little stands that dotted the streets of St. Petersburg. Flower choice depended on what was in season.”
“Were there other customs you remember?”
“On the first day of school, each child would bring flowers for the teacher.”
“A single flower?”
“Oh no!” Elisheva laughs. “Every child brought a bouquet.”
“What would the teacher do with all those bouquets?”
“You know, I never thought about it. What I remember is that most of the kids would bring Gladiolas, but my Mother hated Gladiolas, so I brought Asters.”
It’s interesting to me, what we associate with flowers, and what social norms are at play whether we are aware of them or not.
“People use flowers to commemorate the big events: Birth, Marriage, Death.”
“What do people usually order flowers for?”
“Love, marriage, birth, death: the big occasions. What other big occasions does a person have? What else is there?”
“Are there certain flowers that are associated with specific events?”
“For funerals, you’d need a big display, vivid, big pieces – so you’d use cheaper flowers. Carnations for example, are very popular for funeral arrangements. And so I get a lot of people who tell me not to put carnations in their bouquets – it reminds them of death and loss. Although I think carnations are lovely. Look,” she opens her cold storage, “see how many colors they come in: the purples, the reds. Those are not painted, those are all naturally colors.”
“That’s interesting; where I grew up we do not associate Carnations with death at all. But sometimes people have personal associations. My mother cannot stand cala lilies, since the cala lilies in her window box were in bloom the day her father passed away. She cut them down that day.”
Elisheva nods. Her hands are busy – she chooses flowers and vines from the cold keep, snipping stems, correlating blooms, and arranging them in glass vessels. There’s not much time for dwelling on sorrow; “Grief and even anger,” she says, “can be worked into art”.
I look through her collection of vintage sewing machines, pipes, and utility tools that have ended their practical, useful days and have been twisted and shaped to house plants and lights, in their new incarnation under Elisheva’s hands. Tentacled air plants send their arms giddily out of conch shells and driftwood. They look like little hermit crabs.
“Why do we use flowers for our death rituals, anyways?” I ask.
“Acknowledging.” Elisheva does not pause her work. “Not as comfort. Not as an offering. It’s not comforting. We commemorate, with something that is not permanent.”
“What about love? Do people follow the pop culture conventions?”
“Roses, yes. But if they ask my advice, I talk people out of getting roses. It bothers me. Get something unconventional. Step off the whole thing.” She laughs. “But I carry roses, of course. People want them. This convention of a dozen roses, someone came up with that at some point and it became the custom. In Europe, by the way, it’s considered unlucky to give an even number of flowers.”
“Where do those conventions come from? When I was researching Victorian customs of flower-giving, I was fascinated by the intricacies of messages communicated by the sender’s flower choices.”
“Oh, look at this”: Elisheva pulls out a lengthy scroll of bouquet descriptions. “If you want to follow Victorian conventions, you can take a look at this. But I personally like making up my own combinations.”
“What’s your process of designing a bouquet?”
“I start with a color scheme. I always start with a color.”
“Is today a red day? You’re wearing a red skirt.”
“No, I was just looking at what I have here, and I see what feels right. I start with that. For me, flowers are personal. I find it a lot easier to make flower arrangements for people I know. This is for a wedding party – I know the people, I know which table this is going on and who is going to sit there. It’s easier to create something once I have an association. Maybe it’s strange? I don’t know. When someone wires orders, I have to work hard to find an association. If someone comes into the store, I try to find out more about the person and the occasion. I ask questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Who are they giving it to? What’s their style like? Romantic, modern, traditional… I love it when people tell me ‘I did something wrong!’” She laughs. “I love it. I don’t know why. A person will come into the store, saying – ‘I made a mistake. I did something stupid.’ I say – you don’t have enough money to fix that. I never ask them the details – it’s not my business. I don’t need to know. But, I love it. I love it that people try to fix what went wrong. Or when people are interesting; a guy came in here, a biker, tattoos and all. He wanted a bouquet for his wife – she just got her Ph.D. in Medicine. People are interesting.”
The Lonely Bouquet
“Tell me about your Lonely Bouquet project.”
Elisheva smiles, this is a pet project of hers. She’ll create a bouquet and place it in a random place with a note for whoever finds it, that it’s theirs for the taking.
“I saw it online, someone in Britain had been leaving bouquets out for strangers. And I thought it was a lovely idea. You know, everyone tries to get their name out, but how much more personal can you get? And you make someone happy. Someone gets something nice and unexpected.”
“Have you ever heard from a person who had taken the lonely bouquet?”
“I haven’t heard. At first I was trying to watch it, but I never caught it in the happening. I don’t know who is picking it up, or why. Sometimes I’d leave in on a bench, thinking, could be some old person will be walking from place to place, sit on the bench, and they will find the flowers and they will make him happy.”
“You said it’s easier to create an arrangement for someone you know. Isn’t it difficult to create something for someone anonymous?”
“Yes, but the lonely bouquets are for people I imagine. I can imagine all kinds of scenarios. If I found a bouquet like this, and I would feel like I need it, I’d like to visit the person who had made it, one day.”
On Art and Loss
“Elisheva, you had recently participated in the St. Louis Art Museum’s Art in Bloom 2017 exhibition, in which you had to recreate a work of art in flowers. Wasn’t that difficult, coming up with an idea out of nothing?”
“Coming up with the idea wasn’t difficult. They had us draw lots for which work of art we need to recreate. I didn’t connect to the work of art I first drew, so I switched with the lady in front of me. She actually won, you know. But I don’t mind. Because I love the work of art I chose. It spoke to me. When I saw it, I knew it was right. It’s called Large Still Life. It was really very modern, the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. The artist, Max Beckman, had left Nazi Germany. He actually lived in St. Louis. But he had experienced the World War in Germany, and he must have experienced a lot of trauma. There is a lot of anger, a lot of grief in his work. When I was working on it, it felt like expressing PTSD in art. Those are my thoughts, of course. I don’t really know. What do I know about the rest of the world?” She shrugs.
I pause my scribbling and look up. Because she has me thinking.
“The story I wrote, “The Illusionist”, for me had to do with grief. I had started out with a question that had lingered in my mind: what went through the mind of this Daguerreotypist, why did he choose to be a photographer of the dead? Working through this story had me facing my own grief and trauma that I had experienced from the loss of a baby.”
Elisheva sets the glass vessels on the counter, ready for pickup. Two customers walk in. Elisheva engages them in conversation, and they end up helping her set up speakers for opening day. She gifts them with a flower of their choice. One of the customers chooses a rose in a gradient shade of pink and ivory. I decide to take home the air plant that looks like an octopus peeking out of a conch shell.
“Tell me about the process of preparing the flower art for the exhibit.”
“Do you see the shade of red in the picture? The roses I chose were exact, to a shade. When we first got them, everyone thought they were too orange, but I knew exactly what roses I was buying. But for the life of me, I could not find a container with a claw foot. I had found a container I was happy with, and I reworked it to create a claw, but the whole bouquet ended up being forty, maybe fifty pounds. It was too heavy. I wasn’t content with it. The night before the exhibit, I ran back to the shop to get a different container. I ended up being very happy with it. The artist that created this picture spoke about how he takes a three-dimensional image and recreates it in a two-dimensional medium. I wanted to take his art and put it back into three dimensions. With Flowers.”
“I have to ask this. You put in so much work into your art, and even as you are working on it, you know that the flowers will wilt. How do you feel about that?”
Elisheva smiles. “Tell me – what in this world stays forever? Nothing lasts. Show me something that doesn’t change. I don’t know. Nothing ever stays the same.”
You can find Elisheva Heit at Flamenco Flowers and Sweets, 6346 Delmar, Saint Louis
Writing Prompt: write about a person who finds a lonely bouquet. Who left it there? Why does the person decide to take it?
Titan Talks is a new blog series exploring curiosities with authors, artists, experts and the nerdily obsessed