WILKES-BARRE — Her tumbleweed came from Texas, her lambswool from Austria and her mopani wood from Africa.
But artist Susan French, who lives in Kingston, likes to use local material in her floral sculptures as well, collecting dogwood branches from a friend’s garden in Forty Fort, hydrangea blossoms from her family homestead in Noxen Township, and pine cones from a stranger’s yard somewhere in between.
“I knocked on the door and asked if I could gather some,” French said. “He said, ‘Take all you want.’”
“I’m always collecting things,” said French, who designed 18 floral pieces for the “Art in the Garden” exhibit that is on display through Jan. 20 in the second-floor gallery at Marquis Art & Frame in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
The exhibit also features paintings by 11 other artists who were inspired by scenes from the Back Mountain Bloomers Garden Tour that was held this summer.
Unlike the paintings, French’s floral pieces require almost daily attention, because they make use of fresh flowers as well as the dried and silk varieties.
Fortunately, French’s day job brings her to downtown Wilkes-Barre, where she works as an engineer for the Department of Environmental Protection, so it’s convenient for her to visit the gallery and water, trim and replace the live flowers as needed.
In one piece, she’s twice replaced the white chrysanthemum set like a pendant against a blue background of rug yarn from Falls Edge alpaca farm in Benton.
“I love this stuff,” she said of the yarn. “It’s so soft.”
Her nearby art studio also has extra leucadendron on hand, in case she’d need to replace the red branches in a tripod piece which also features black bamboo, sago palm, silver dollar eucalyptus and artificial orchids. “I was going for a tropical/Japanese theme here,” she said.
Another piece suggests a dragon, thanks to the graceful curves of a piece of mopani wood that French spotted at Creekside Gardens in Tunkhannock, and yet another looks like a creamy dessert, thanks to fluffy Austrian wool and a trio of waffle cones.
“I call this one my ‘watermelon slice,’” French said, pointing to a curved wooden branch decorated with skeletonized, almost see-through, aspen leaves and pink flowers called ranunculus. The crooked branch, by the way, comes from a shrub called Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, with the botanical name Corylus avellana “Contorta.”
Knowing the scientific names seems to be second nature to French who is, after all, a trained scientist.
During her senior year at Penn State, where she majored in chemical engineering, she took a two-credit floral arranging class “as comic relief.”
She really enjoyed working with flowers — it has become her “ serious hobby” — and later earned a Certificate in Floral Design from Longwood Gardens, near Philadelphia. She has won prizes in regional competitions sponsored by the National Gardens Clubs Inc., which has also accredited her as a flower show judge.
For European Masters Certification, which French expects to earn in September, one of the final requirements will be to travel to Belgium and, from there, to the Louvre in Paris, choose a painting to honor, and, using fresh flowers, create a piece of art to represent the painting.
It sounds like a challenge, but French is not afraid of challenges.
“One thing about engineers, we’re very good problem solvers,” she said. “I’m not afraid to try something new and, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll try something else. That’s the fun of it.”
“I hope I’ve met my objective,” she said of the exhibit, which is her first. “I wanted to show people there are different ways to showcase flowers.”
Herbert Simon, a professor emeritus from Wilkes University’s art faculty, believes she succeeded.
“The craftsmanship is quite beautiful,” he said after viewing the exhibit. “I don’t think there’s ever been a show like that around here. It goes beyond flower arranging. It’s sculpture.”