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Photograph by Lucas Samaras

The Zen of Flowers

For floral sculptor Anthony Ward, even the smallest bouquets have great meaning

By Sarah Phelan

LONGTIME RESIDENTS of Santa Cruz remember Anthony Ward as the Flower Man--a willowy young guy who used to stop traffic and dazzle pedestrians whenever he carried his stunning yet amazingly natural-looking floral creations from his downtown studio to Santa Cruz destinations.

"My work is not about decoration, but about merging nature with interior settings," Ward explains, as we drink lattes in a local coffeehouse.

"It's not about 'using' flowers as if they were interchangeable with chairs, or salt and pepper shakers. And it's not about flowers being stuffy, stiff, pushed or prodded," he says, his eyes sliding briefly over a stuffy stiff floral arrangement on an adjacent table.

"It's about flowers in their natural setting. And there's nothing more beautiful than that."

Two years ago, Ward spread his creative wings and took off for the New York, a city that's hardly famous for giving its latest artistic arrivals a break. So, it's a testament to his talent that within a year Ward could add Madonna, Bette Midler, Maya Angelou, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke to a list of clients that already included the Dalai Lama, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh and Alice Walker.

During the last two years, Ward has spent 90 percent of his time on the East Coast, returning to Santa Cruz when work or time permits. Then Sept. 11 hit. In the days and weeks after the attacks, Ward says he was shown the deeper meaning of his work when people left thousands of flowers at ground zero and in Washington Square Park.

"Flowers sanctify space and help heal wounds, which is why, while lots of businesses were failing post-9/11, florists were selling out of every flower they had," says Ward, who left a floral sculpture in Washington Square.

He decided to return to Santa Cruz in the late fall "to get some clarity" while working on his book Being With Flowers. He also began preparing to teach a workshop by the same name at the Mount Madonna Institute in the spring.

Teaching Passion

Despite becoming one of the glitterati in New York, Ward says the most important part of the last two years has been teaching.

"What teaching does for me , especially with people who've never worked with flowers before, is take me to what they call 'beginner's mind' in Zen," says Ward. "It reminds me of who I am, that after all these years even the smallest bouquet is still a new experience."

And beginners are as welcome as experienced florists.

"The only prerequisite for the class is that you love flowers. It's not a 'should' or 'have to,' but 'this I what I do' approach," says Ward, who believes our relationship with flowers is central to any efforts we make to arrange them.

"Once in New York--where everyone is jaded--I set a dandelion in a bowl of water, and it lasted for three days, and everyone slowed down to look at it." He asks his workshop participants to think about that and other stories as they try to connect with flowers.

"By the time we get to be adults, our creativity has been subdued, beaten back, lost for whatever reason," he muses. "And so has our connection with nature. When people rediscover that, they are overjoyed."

Part of Ward's teaching strategy is to look at the language people use when talking about flowers. "Ninety-nine percent of the florists I've spoken to say, 'I used ivy and roses in that arrangement,' whereas I say, 'I worked with ivy and roses.' The first time I taught a workshop, a florist of 40 years told me that because of that little change from 'used' to 'worked with' she had a new job."

Seeds of Change

Ward's relationship to flowers began with watching his two grandmothers, both avid gardeners, water and prune their plants. But it was growing a sunflower garden with his neighbor's kid while living in L.A. many years ago that first opened his eyes to how flowers affect other people's worlds.

"It was great to see those flowers grow so tall so fast and go from seed to flower and create a jungle, all through the eyes of a little girl--who was the first to call me the Flower Man," Ward recalls.

In Ward's opinion, the good thing about working with flowers is you don't have to be so artistic. As he sees it, "Most of the work--the color, the texture, the shape--is already done for you, because flowers are already amazing masterpieces."

Easy for a flower master to say. But as Ward points out, being with flowers isn't about mastering flowers but about observing nature--and being playful.

"Gardens are an amazing way to learn about floristry," he says. "Stand under a winter tree. Look up at the bare branches and learn what balance is in nature. It's not forced. But you have to take time to observe, by taking walks and noticing. Even at the risk of looking crazy."

Ward, who says his pieces have been mistaken by Japanese tourists for Japanese flower arrangements--"which I understand is the highest compliment"--recommends that people start simply by being themselves.

"I do go through my way of doing an arrangement, but I'm not suggesting this is the way. One of the ways we can learn is by watching others, which is why I demonstrate to help others find their own way. People may say I'm a master, but I'll always be a student of nature."

Anthony Ward's Being With Flowers workshop is March 1-3 at Mount Madonna Institute in Watsonville. For information, email [email protected].

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From the February 13-20, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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