Voluptuous floral arrangements covered several walls of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Oregon for most of 2021. But these weren’t your ordinary florists’ bouquets. Artist Amanda Bayha mobilized the citizens of her adopted town to forego their yard debris bins. Instead, they brought nature’s drying bounty to the cultural center for perhaps the city’s most interactive art project ever.
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Amanda Bayha lived in the Portland area for most of her life until 2013, when she and her husband decided they wanted to raise their children somewhere smaller. They chose Newberg, a population of 23,000 and about 25 miles southwest of Portland. The open fields and rural landscapes felt like living in a postcard, but the conservative politics were a shock for the transplanted Portland family.
Bringing people together with flowers
Bayha calls herself an “artist for life,” and has worked in many different mediums. She started focusing on flowers just before COVID hit. It was a rough time for her, dealing with some family issues that deeply affected her mental health. She sought solace in her backyard and began to look there for art materials.
“I feel like the art that I’ve been creating kind of tells the story that Mother Nature is showing me, through hummingbird nests on my porch and chipmunks eating off little picnic tables in my backyard,” Bayha said. “I mean, it’s literally a Snow White situation over here at my house.”
Through trial and error, Bayha figured out how to harvest and dry flowers. The more she harvested, the more she saw art materials everywhere. She started asking neighbors and friends if she could harvest their flowers. They told their friends and soon she was making appointments with strangers. It is through harvesting that she gets to know people on a different level than meeting them any other way.
Bayha found that a shared love of plants and nature transcended politics. She realized she had more in common with her neighbors than she’d initially thought.
“When I think about all the flowers that are in those sculptures at the cultural center, it is across the gamut,” Bayha said. “I mean, the leftest of the left have given me flowers, and the rightest of the right have given me flowers. And the conversations have been the same when I go harvest with them. And they’re both just as generous and just as excited to participate. It’s amazing.”
The cultural center project
When Bayha got the Chehalem Cultural Center director to agree to host her project, some of the town’s artists and gallery owners were flummoxed that she managed to get in just by asking. But the director recognized a project that would engage all types of community members. She started building a flower sculpture in the back lobby on Earth Day 2021. And then she put a call out to the public.
“I’ve got racks in the entry asking anyone to drop anything off that they can,” Bayha said. “And I’ve gotten the cutest pictures of little kids dropping really big dried flowers on my racks. And then I get to take them to the back and put them in the sculpture and take a picture of where they went and then post that.”
Soon the cultural center let her pieces migrate to other rooms, and allowed her space to work upstairs. An art professor from nearby George Fox University volunteered to help her hang her sculptures. Many locals stopped by to drop off flowers or to take a look at the gorgeous, ever-evolving floral arrangements blooming across the walls.
Bayha sometimes calls her process “flower taxidermy.” To get the best appearance from her flowers, she may hang them one way to dry, then another, to keep air flowing through the petals. Sometimes she blows on them. Some flowers are easier than others to successfully dry, depending on petal structure and thickness. For instance, those with wispy petals shrivel up instead of dry nicely.
“I almost take the things that are hard to dry as a challenge,” Bayha said. “What kind of little form could I create for it to hold its shape or hold it open?”
She watches how plants naturally decompose to improve her taxidermy process, then practices techniques on the drying racks in her garage. She has stuffed calla lilies with cotton balls to preserve space inside as they shrivel.
The spiritual side of flower art
Bayha’s work has evolved into Soul Seeds, which encompasses her artwork, craft workshops and the rituals she leads with flowers. While nothing in life is permanent, dried flowers are an especially ephemeral kind of art.
“They last as long as they’re meant to,” Bayha said.
For longest-lasting results, she recommends people hang her work inside, away from direct sunlight. Sometimes she restrings her sculptures, tightening them up with twine and adding some new flowers or herbs. Or people can use the floral sculptures as spiritual tools to watch the cycle continue. A dried flower wreath is a living seed packet full of black-eyed susans, zinnias, sunflowers and other flowers, just waiting to sprout.
“There’s nothing wrong with letting something lose its color and bleach out, especially if you’re looking at it to watch it move, right?” Bayha said. “Once you feel it’s done in your house, what a cool, cathartic thing to say I’m going to go plant this and see what comes up. Or let the earth take it back and receive from you whatever it’s meant to receive and continue the divine conversation with it.”
Images via Amanda Bayha