Story by George Tanabe
Photos by Elyse Butler
“So there we were in our Boston hotel room with five kinds of orchids, anthuriums and silver bromeliads from Maui,” says Bertie Lee. “We put them in ice buckets, and we turned the room temperature down to sixty degrees.” Lee had been invited along with collaborator Dorothy Nitta, a nationally certified judge for the Garden Club of Honolulu, to the Boston exhibition of the World Association of Flower Arrangers in June 2011. There they competed against some of the finest flower artists from around the world, creating living sculptures in several challenging and abstract categories: “Writing,” “Magic,” “Electricity,” “Mirage,” “Synergy.” “One category,” Lee remembers, “was called ‘Zipper.’ Now how are you going to use plant materials to suggest a zipper?” But Nitta and Lee, with their Hawai‘i flora flown in from five thousand miles away, pulled it off. The pair won an honorary award from the most avant-garde of floral associations in the “Sphere” category for their suspended sculpture of orchids, anthuriums and protea arranged in a threefoot- diameter bubble.
For Lee floral design is a form of installation art created out of living materials, ephemeral and impossible to duplicate. The artistry on display at the World Association exhibition reflected the same degree of creativity, dedication and skill that other visual arts demand, though the title of “artist” often eludes floral designers, who are sometimes misrepresented as the prim matrons of the art world. But the members of the Garden Club of Honolulu are artists nevertheless, gifted with the color sense of painters, the spatial perception of sculptors, the dexterity of jewelers, the imagination of storytellers and the sensitivity of poets.
Take for example club member Pat Wassel, who transforms ordinary plants into exquisite jewelry. Her creations aren’t for sale, and she makes only one piece every three years, which is how often the GCH hosts one of its major flower shows at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For the 2009 show Wassel gilded a palm seed stem with gold nail polish, bent it into a circle and fixed dried ‘ohi‘a lehua flowers where the ends met. On the petals she glued a burst of tiny black mustard seeds and attached pearly white peppercorns along the stem. The challenge was not just to make something beautiful, but to create a piece that reflected the show’s theme, “Na Pua Ali‘i, Reflections on Hawai‘i’s Royal Legacy.” One entry was patterned after the diamond barrette Princess Lili‘uokalani purchased on her trip to England to attend the coronation of Queen Victoria. Wassel’s palm and peppercorn necklace instantly evokes the Hawaiian kingdom of the nineteenth century; it won Best in Show.
The Garden Club of Honolulu was founded in 1930 as a branch of the Garden Club of America; in its early days, members were mostly garden fanciers, genteel ladies who supervised their yardmen. Wassel and the other 130 or so members no longer attend meetings wearing the fancy hats and white gloves of their predecessors. They love to get their hands dirty, and they’re no amateurs: Every candidate for membership must be an accomplished gardener who is nominated by three club members. Then they’re on probation for a year during which they must take classes at Lyon Arboretum to learn horticulture and flower arranging. The club’s activities, too, have expanded beyond the manicured grounds of wealthy estates and into the community: They award student scholarships, create internships, promote conservation efforts and restore gardens at historic sites. The club planted the gardens at Washington Place with the very species Queen Lili‘uokalani had planted—they had the list in her own handwriting. They’ve coordinated with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to plant the Le‘ahi Millennium Peace Garden on the slopes of Diamond Head. Their handiwork is on display in the Sullivan Chinese Garden at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. They even teach gardening to prison inmates.
Such projects keep GCH members busy in the off years, but in an on year like 2012, it’s all about The Show.