Fleurotica: From bud to blossom

The Fleurotica wildflower collage series was conceived in an alpine meadow just below Independence Pass, near Aspen, Colorado when I lived and often hiked around there with my then husband, Barry. Rosy Pussytoes and Goldenrod Erecta grow in profusion in that sunny spot.

When I first got the idea of creating wild flower images by replacing the sexual parts of flowers with our more familiar human sexual parts, little did I know that the work would engender such controversy. To me the idea was thought-provoking and humorous. With great enthusiasm, I set about materializing the concept using exacto blades, scissors and rubber cement.

When I showed the resulting Fleurotica series to Playboy Magazine (since their layouts contributed in no small measure to the source material) the editors spent weeks talking about a feature article. Finally, Art Kretchmer, then editor-in-chief, decided it was too risqué for Playboy. “But these are wonderful.” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You should take this to Penthouse.

For Penthouse I designed an elaborate full-size layout, using color prints carefully tipped into the latest issue of their magazine so they could see exactly how the artwork might be integrated with the rest of the photographs. We talked back and forth for months. They said it was wonderful. They’d never seen anything like it. Then Bob Guccioni, who was in charge at the time, decided it was too subtle for Penthouse. “Not really erotic,” he said.

Gerard Saint-Paul, foreign correspondent for French National Television in Washington, who also wrote several articles each year for LUI magazine which is published in Paris and distributed in Europe, said he wanted very much to do an article on my collages. Ah, ha, I thought. France. Vive la difference! I remembered my son Andy telling me, upon his return from a bike trip in the French countryside when he was sixteen, “Hey, Ma, this is where you should show your work. It’s not only okay there—they actually like stuff like that.” He described a commercial that he had seen in a movie theater. The scene opens with a couple in bed. The woman, nude above the waist, gets out of bed and walks across the room, in full glorious view of the camera, much to the glee of my young son. The French woman picks up two bottles of Gini, a lime soda, puts one to her lips and hands the other to a second man, clad only in a towel, who is just coming out of the shower. “See, Mom? Don’t you think France is the place?”

So I retrieved my layout from Penthouse, wondering if the double entendre flower names would survive translation, and gave it to Monsieur Saint-Paul. His publisher said the work was “wonderful.” He’d never seen anything like it. The publisher framed the layouts and hung them in his office, never to be seen again.

Then I met Bruce McGaw at the ArtExpo in New York. McGaw Graphics was probably the largest publisher and distributor of posters in the country at that time. He was intrigued. He told me the work was “wonderful.” He’d never seen anything like it. His wife said, “Bruce, have you lost your mind?”

So I found my way to Black Box Collotype in Chicago. They were scouring the country for unusual and sensual images to publish as posters in order to show off their incredible screenless lithography printing process. It is continuous-tone printing that is done, as near as I can tell, by magic. There are none of the usual dots that in conventional printing make up the image. My original collages, which are made up of cut-outs from printed magazine pages, are already made up of dots, so reproducing them with standard lithography would greatly reduce the quality of the work. I flew to Chicago. They loved the work. They said it was “wonderful.” They’d never seen anything like it. The high-risk posters were printed, but somehow never made it into their distribution channels.

At one point I was in negotiations with Marigold, a company in Manhattan that was considering using one of my images for a line of fine bed linens. The collage, called Three Ladies, was made up of nudes. I printed the image in pastel colors and designed several display boxes so that the nude ladies printed on the pillowcases (in pink and yellow and mint green) could be seen through a cutout window in front. Ultimately, the president of the company decided not to go ahead—the work apparently, was too explicit for the bedroom.

When the well-known naturalist and botanist Carl Sharsmith came to Aspen to lead a field study group, he was told he should definitely see the work I was doing. His lifetime specialty was the genus Antennaria, (a.k.a. Pussytoes). He walked into my studio with fifteen people trailing behind him in full hiking gear. When he saw Rosy Pussytoes from across the room, he smiled and said, “Yes, that’s it. Wonderful. Pied d’chat in French and Katchen Pfotchen in German.” He came closer. The moment of recognition seemed to be taking a surprisingly long time, maybe because Mr. Sharsmith was in his seventies—or maybe because he didn’t know what kind of art he was coming to see. When he realized what he was looking at, he turned pale. Who could have sent him here without telling him what to expect? The unbearable silence was finally broken when several of his students, realizing what they were all looking at, started to laugh.

When I mentioned to one of my neighbors, a librarian of sorts, that the very first press proofs of my posters were buried in the time capsule at the 1983 Design Conference, I’m pretty sure she thought that the work was finally where it belonged.

Even my ex-husband, who’s always believed in the work and been my constant supporter, smiled when a set of the posters mailed to a gallery in Montreal, in their bulky, rather large mailing tube, were returned one day. The tube was marked with broad black X’s, stamped with pointing fingers and covered with iridescent stickers reading DO NOT DELIVER IN CANADA in three places and in two languages. It had been denied entry by Canadian Customs. “You call me outrageous?” he said. “At least I’ve never been rejected by a whole country.”

There has been encouragement, however. In Washington, D.C., where they’d rather wear a coat and tie than do almost anything, the collective sentiment was expressed by one candid gallery owner who said to me, “I’m going to tell you three things. First of all, you must be crazy. Second, I couldn’t possibly handle this work in my gallery. Third, whatever you do, don’t stop making these pieces.”

So when Moshe Safdie, who was a member of the Aspen Design Conference board, saw my work and said, “You should speak at the conference. This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything like it,” right away I got depressed—I thought I’d save myself some time. Though the Design Conference gallery event of my work was mobbed, with lines of people spilling out onto the sidewalk, my presentation to talk about Fleurotica was cancelled at the last minute. Though they’d never seen anything like it, there was a scheduling conflict.

I’ve always had a penchant for seeing my commercial failures as creative accomplishments, so this litany is in no way a complaint. With the exhibitions of the original collages here and abroad, inclusion of the work in my more recent memoir, Storm of the i: An Artobiography and now this website, Fleurotica has found another chance to bloom. —T.C.