A Colossal Interview
Tiffanie Turner On Her Evolving Understanding of Beauty and How the Climate Crisis Impacts Her Realistic Florals
March 23, 2020
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Tiffanie Turner via email. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Grace: You just were working on a show that was scheduled to be on view at Winston Wächter Fine Art in Seattle this month. How did planning and creating for it go, and how are you feeling about it now?
Tiffanie: I am so sorry that show is probably not going to be seen by the public at large in person due to the pandemic. It is a process-based group show called Cut Up. I sent one of my favorite pieces ever, a rotting ranunculus I made for my 2019 exhibit What Befell Us and a new three-headed piece, which shows the Edward Scissorhands of it all, two chrysanthemums overshadowing a third in a bouquet, depicting what might happen when something or someone is neglected or outshined by others.
When I was working on that piece I was really meditating on my own narcissism vis-à-vis my children, but I think these pieces are there for people to react to with their own narratives. It was technically the most difficult piece I’ve ever made. I decided to start to “reject circles” this year. The circular form of a single flower is something I’ve been slowly moving away from over time, but preparing for this show, I really committed to being able to view these pieces on the wall at more natural angles than just dead-on and circular-faced. I’m very happy about it now, but it was a real beast to create. I think there are a few thousand hand-sculpted petals on it.
Grace: I’ve seen in previous interviews that you’ll work 17 hours straight sometimes in preparation for a show. How do you manage the creative process and everything else?
Tiffanie: When I was preparing for What Befell Us in 2018 and 2019, I decided sleep was the thing. So now I get a solid seven hours of sleep, but in exchange, I’ll work for months straight without a day off. It just doesn’t work if the intensity isn’t there in some way. Otherwise, a sculpture that takes me seven weeks to make might take me seven months. I do allow a lot of drawn-out, languid time between bodies of work, so a lot of the creative process is in that downtime, where I will combine concepts with flowers and afflictions that might reflect those concepts and plot it all out. Then it is just an agonizingly long time with little immediate gratification bringing those things to life.
There is no good way to do what I’m doing. Yes, I get to take the summer off with my kids and have other really wonderful periods of downtime, but in exchange, there are months at a time where I am being supported by my family and really doing the minimum of parenting and participating in normal family life so I can be all-in on the work. We have been doing this for several years now, so it is our normal, but it is far from ideal. Lots of other things slip through the cracks.
Grace: Can you tell us about your relationship with botany? Your work is often very realistic, so is there a certain amount of fact-checking when you create a piece?
Tiffanie: I always say, I am not a botanist. I do a fair amount of research on the flowers I recreate, and it is always ideal to get my hands on real specimens, but I can’t always do that. I came to this as a practicing California architect who loved flowers but loved flowers as ornament even more. Seed packets, art deco railings, Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolors, these types of things are what I have always gravitated to. Now, I love real flowers so much I will react as if I’ve seen a movie star if I see a flower in person that I’ve only seen previously in a photo. It will make my heart race when that happens. I love everything about flowers. I don’t think every flower is suited for paper in a way that clicks for me, but the challenge of studying and replicating them, in my small (life-sized) work especially, has been constantly compelling for me.
The thing about flowers is that we all know what they are. We’ve all drawn one. We’ve all touched one. They are accessible and beautiful, and I have found it so fascinating to watch people be drawn to them so easily, with their guard down. Flowers are wonderful vehicles for expression and sharing conceptual ideas in that way.
Grace: How do you define beauty, today? I know your conceptions of it are evolving but that you’ve been adding elements of aging into your pieces more recently.
Tiffanie: I went through such a period of self-hatred in regard to my own beauty as I was creating What Befell Us last year. I was pouring my whole personal story of becoming invisible as I age in the San Francisco/Bay Area into the show and was using it to try to find beauty in myself, the same way we can find beauty in wilting and dying plant life. It was rough, and I was very outward about how I was feeling about myself. A lot of people heard about how I was feeling because it was all I could talk about. I’m convinced that making that work and thinking about age and decay and wilting and dying really got inside me because my mindset shifted to a more accepting state of myself a few months after the show hung.
Growing older and losing your younger appearance is a loss. There is a painful time where you realize this is happening. Then you find yourself on the other side of it, and older people look more beautiful to you. You can relate to them more, and you can try to find the good in being older. I want to continue to advocate for finding the beauty of aging with my work. If we can find such magnetism in a rotting ranunculus or rose, can we still feel that for a person with age spots and jowls? I think we need to!
Grace: What role does the climate crisis play in your projects, considering you’re crafting very realistic representations of flowers that are having to adapt to changing environments?
Tiffanie: I’m so glad you asked me this. I have always strived to represent climate change in my work, but there is a certain amount of superimposing those ideas onto my physical work that has to happen because it is hard to see climate change in flowers, which I am thankful for but has made climate crisis issues difficult to depict directly. I’ve worked with several horticulturists who say the same thing.
What we see in regards to blossoms and flowers is that things are blooming too soon, so that when it is time for the bees to pollinate them, the pollen has been degraded so much from the early exposure and warm weather that the flowers just don’t happen at all. Depicting that would be like depicting the “unknown flower.” There are visible problems like drought and insects and poor growing conditions that I can work with. There are flowers that are too big and too robust due to protection by pesticides. There are things that I can still play with now.
But I think our climate crisis is best depicted in my work by reflecting on the lengths, expenses, and world resources we humans exhaust in order have “perfection” in our lives. The cost of the pursuit of beauty, and the insanity of consumerism and materialism in order to build “perfect” lives, are helping to destroy the planet. If we could let go of or change our ideas of what perfection is and started accepting the “ugly fruit” of it all, we could make a small dent in what is happening in our planet. So I think I will continue to seek out actual damage and mutations in flowers from environmental afflictions, but focus on depicting imperfections as beautiful, in hopes that one day that shift will happen for us as people.
Grace: Do you have plans to write another book? What role does instruction play in your professional life?
Tiffanie: Writing The Fine Art of Paper Flowers was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It was so hard on my family and so hard on me. I don’t know if I could ever do it again, unless the conditions around it were really, really good. That said, I have been bursting with lots of new “small” work in the past year that I have been developing for my workshops and think I could definitely have enough new flower designs for a second even more wonderful and refined book one day very soon. I have heard from sources in publishing that a second book can sometimes weaken or dilute sales of a first book, so that would be something to consider, as well. I’m getting excited writing about it right now, so never say never, I guess?
Instruction is a huge part of my life and a huge part of who I am now. If I am not working on a large exhibit, I am preparing to teach workshops, and the preparations for workshops are as time-consuming as anything else I do. Although I love one-day classes, long-form workshops are the very best. In long-form workshops (anywhere from three to eight days), we all share so much. We live and work together. We help each other. We learn from each other. We can overlap different techniques and ideas and flowers from one day to the next.
I have made lifelong friends in every one of my workshops, long or short. It is such a special thing to get together with people who love and appreciate paper flowers as I do. People have come to know that my workshops are A LOT of hard work and focus, but the end results are always so beautiful. Teaching has allowed me to travel frequently on my own, around the U.S. and abroad, always so exciting. I miss my family when I am gone, but I love my work.
Grace: You have a pretty strong following on Instagram, and your feed is beautiful. How would you describe your relationship with social media? Do you have to put that on hold sometimes in order to create, or do you work it in pretty organically to your days?
Tiffanie: Thank you. These days I have my head screwed on pretty straight about social media. I love to share and am entertained and fulfilled when I get feedback from people about my work. I told a friend once, you’ll know I am about to dive headfirst into a serious work session if I post something on Instagram. There is a lot of time while I am sculpting spent just holding petals in place until they cool or dry, so in those moments I might stare into space, or I might scroll and read comments. It just depends on the day and my mood.
I appreciate the support that I receive online about my work. I might work for over a year on a show and having some encouragement and discourse via comments on social media is a nice thing while none of my work is physically out in public places. I think it would be very unnatural for me to not share my process and progress and then one day surprise everyone with ten new pieces. Part of the fun is bringing people on the ride with me because it is SO LONG.
Grace: What’s next for you? Is there anything you can tell us about?
Tiffanie: Right now, due to the pandemic, things are being postponed and canceled. Some teaching trips will move around. One big one in 2021 hopefully will stay intact. I know I’ll spend the next half of 2020 and a major chunk of 2021 working on a new body of work, which will probably be exhibited in 2021 at Eleanor Harwood Gallery in San Francisco, where I am represented.
Besides creating a new body of work, I will be spending some time looking for more public projects. I appreciate my private collectors so very much. Every one of them has helped me keep making my work, and I’ve loved all of it. But I’d be so thrilled with something that is more public-facing again, like my month-long residency and exhibit at the de Young Museum in 2016. Being able to talk to people about my work, work with them, and to touch a lot of people at once is really the next level goal right now. Working in paper makes those opportunities seem few and far between because it takes a lot of public spaces out of the running, but I know eventually the right opportunity will come my way.
You can follow the artist’s realistic florals on Instagram.