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Bouquet Hearted Melody

Photo by Robert Barbutti

Designs for Living: Floral arranging genius Anthony Ward reaches for the heavens in his Christmas show, opening Friday at the Santa Cruz Art Center.

Floral designer Anthony Ward passionately embraces nature's love of chaos, contrast and imbalance

By Sarah Phelan

The tall young black man who wanders through the Farmers' Market cradling bunches of grapes and a tower of freshly cut flowers is a local legend in the making. His name is Anthony Ward, floral designer, and people are drawn like bees to his bouquets, which some folks have described as "orgasms in vases."

Ward's secrets for giving us a successful climax are simple: a deep-rooted love of flowers, and the lessons of chaos, contrast and imbalance that his pleasure-seeking mistress--Nature--taught him. Ward is a quick study, using whatever falls into his hands to give us unadulterated acts of pleasure.

Unusual bedfellows hang out in the same vase in an organic orgy of contrasting colors, textures and heights. Orchids cozy up with dandelions, while virginal lilies brush lips with a shaft of prickly berries. Blood-red apples lie on variegated ivy, and a belt of loganberries belly dances around a cobalt blue vase.

Ward's custom floral design store, Passionflora, is located downtown in the Santa Cruz Art Center. He named it after the intense joy that flowers awaken in him and the way flowers stimulate all five senses with their scents and satins, sharp edges and shiny leaves.

The atmosphere inside Passionflora is heavy with the aroma of dried roses, lavender and marjoram. Bulrushes, huge bay leaves, irises and silvery-green eucalyptus leap upward. Bunches of bleached grasses and yellow strawflowers hang on the walls. Alien-like seed pods perch precariously on wiry stems, and a single tendril twists up and away into space leading the eye to a mask in bronze. As we talk about his passion, Ward twirls a pink strawflower delicately in his slender fingers and his liquid eyes tear up with emotion. "Flowers are one of the biggest gifts we're given, and one of the best gifts we can give. They disarm us," he says.

At about six feet, Ward is almost as tall as the willowy sunflowers and stiff umbrella grass he frequently favors. He figures that, "when we have to look up at tall grasses, it sparks something of the child in us, and helps us tune into the sense of wonderment about nature that we once had."

If you haven't bumped into Ward on the street yet, you'll have plenty of opportunities to find his work in the windows of shops, museums and galleries in downtown Santa Cruz. The Pope Gallery was one of his first clients in Santa Cruz, and regularly displays his work. Other local clients range from India Joze, Asian Rose, Herland bookstore, Annie Glass and Gravago to the Santa Cruz Downtown Association, First Night, University House, the Santa Cruz Symphony Orchestra and the Bridal Expo at the Cocoanut Grove.

He's already worked for a galaxy of stars, including Depeche Mode, Diane Keaton, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bonnie Raitt and Ram Dass. Last Valentine's Day he branched into altars, including one at a Zen Buddhist retreat.

It's an impressive list of clients that Ward has collected since arriving in Santa Cruz two-and-a-half years ago from Los Angeles with $40 in his back pocket. He admits, "If I'd had a car when I first got here, I'd have missed a lot." Instead, he discovered the glorious disarray of wildflowers and tow-headed grasses along the rocky levees of the San Lorenzo River, and fell in love with the tangle of inky blackberry bushes along the Bay Trail that leads to the UCSC campus.

For Ward, walking is part of his job. It's where he gets connected with nature and the world. He gathers fresh produce from the Farmers' Market and visits the Homeless Garden Project, where he likes "to lie down on the chamomile beds and close my eyes for a while, and then cut the flowers myself. A lot of stuff plops itself naturally down onto the ground in Lighthouse Field Park, too," he says.

Ward mostly gathers flowers from abandoned houses, gardens of friends or even those of strangers. Ward recalls how, two weeks after his arrival, he was admiring a garden full of flowers when a sweet lady came out and invited him to help himself. "Can I get you a knife or clippers?" she inquired, an unbelievable offer to Ward, who was used to people being afraid of young black men. The lady turned out to be Paul Newman's daughter, Nell, and Ward plans to repay her trust and kindness by doing the flowers at her upcoming wedding.

These days, Ward works only on commission, but will work in your home within your personal budget and use your vases and whatever is growing in your yard to reduce costs and personalize your arrangement. He has one reservation. "Call me a snob but I won't work with silk or plastic flowers because you can achieve all that using freeze-dried flowers." Call him environmentally correct, too--he avoids waste by drying leftover flowers and using Composting Creations, a composting service that comes once a week by bicycle to collect any waste and garden scraps that Ward can't use.

Ward, who has lost friends to AIDS and has done several benefits for the Santa Cruz Aids Project, explains that "part of the joy of a floral bouquet is that it calls a person to be in the moment. It's a visual reminder that we're all temporal. People enjoy flower arrangements for a short, intense time. Then time moves on."

Time is moving on for all of us. With only a few weeks left until Christmas, it's worth noting that Ward does gift certificates and will decorate your Christmas tree. Expect anything from the man who can magically mix dried leeks, hollowed squash and kiwis on the vine with the usual drapings of the season.

Anthony Ward's 'Holiday Passion: For gift ideas, visit the designer's Christmas show, featuring customized holiday wreaths, centerpieces, gift baskets, poinsettias and orchids. The show runs Dec. 1-10 at the Santa Cruz Art Center, 1001 Center St. A reception will be held this Friday from 6:30 to 9pm. Call 427-4008 for appointments or for more information.

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From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 1995 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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