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The Fantastical World of the Colourblind Florist

Benjamin Avery, the artist behind The Colourblind Florist, may not see colour the way most people do – but he wields that to his advantage, focusing on whimsical textures and off-kilter shapes in his work. With a flair for layering and utilising negative space, his floral arrangements are good enough to eat. We spoke to Ben about his latest installation in our flagship Sydney showroom, a fantastical feat of flora and fauna that defies gravity and all preconceptions of what is physically and imaginatively possible.

Tell us a bit about your background. What led you to the world of floristry?

My journey into floristry started in art school. I majored in oil painting and always found myself creating surreal dreamscapes and focusing on gravity and weight within the compositions – this way of composing lent itself to become a sculptural practice. I just needed a medium. I was also always looking at the natural world for influence so when I began managing weddings, it was a natural progression to begin composing with botanical elements.

I really started gaining some traction when I worked in a Notting Hill florist in London. I learnt the ins and outs of mechanical floristry and, on a larger scale, working with clients, briefs, and the business side of the industry. After returning to Australia and another stint with a local florist to further hone my skills, I felt it was time for me to branch out on my own.

You went to art school – do you think your fine art training informs your aesthetic at all? Are there any artists that inspire you?

My art practice has indeed given me an attention to the most microscopic detail; truly, I’ve gained a lot of patience for small details. I did a lot of biological studies, drawing the intricate details of botanical specimens I would find in the woods which really honed that for me. I have always found it a meditative practice to concentrate on minute details.

I find my art practice and botanical styles play off each other in a surreal and dream-like nature; playing with weight, gravity and the impossible makes me excited about what I’m doing. My favourite reaction is when people are perplexed by the existence of something that makes absolutely no sense and shouldn’t be able to exist. It’s been an interesting transition from a 2D painting where I can create any shapes and forms without worrying about mechanics to now being able to walk in and around the works that are three dimensional and exist to be interacted with.

Some of the artists that are always inspiring me are Cai Guo-Qiang, the incredible firework artist, Hayao Miyazaki, whose use of nature in his films constantly excites my creativity, and underwater photographer Helen Wayne to name a few. Also, I’ll add to that list Dasha Plesen whose microbiology art is so wild, Javier Senosiain for his architecture and 3D illustrator Alex Schlegel.

In the past, you’ve compared being colour blind to having “dyslexia with colours”. Can you elaborate a bit on that, and how you perceive colour when it comes to your work?

I always find I describe colour as something secondary to the arrangement. Not to dismiss it, but I definitely find I concentrate on texture and the form of the materials before addressing the colour. Shapes are just more interesting to my eye than colour.

Colour-blindness comes in many forms, most commonly passed from a colour-blind man through his non colour-blind daughter to her now colour-blind son. A way I like to describe it is that the colours are on a line – at one end you have red, green and brown, and these could all interchange as each other. At the other end a similar situation occurs with blue, pink and purple. This leaves yellow and orange tidy in the middle for me to see separately. This is why you’ll see a lot of orange and high contrast colours coming through the work as, for my eyes, that makes a lot of sense visually.

Because of your colour blindness, you’ve mentioned that you take a more sculptural approach to florals rather than being guided by hue. What textures and shapes tend to capture your imagination?

In my eyes, each of my compositions or arrangements are their own little world. An island in the sea, a cavernous rock formation, a mossy outcrop, mountain ranges, alien terrain or an entire coral reef. I like playing with a narrative story, starting somewhere and your eye ends up somewhere else, doing that by playing with the depth of field and layering of flowers. Influences are not just natural though. Architecture, fashion, and design all play a part in informing shape and texture.

Your arrangements are surrealist and almost topographical in appearance. What is your relationship with the natural world, whether real or imagined, and how does it inspire your craft?

The natural world really is my most driving inspiration. I spend a lot of time underwater diving and pull inspiration from the landscapes I find within the rocks, boulders, reefs, gullies, caves, meadows and forests that I come across in the process. Rock formation comes into the imagery a lot in my work; large heavy objects that are eroded into the most beautiful gravity-defying shapes and forms. I also spend a lot of time up in the mountains, searching for mossy canyons and fern filled caves. I’m really trying to create these interesting forms over chasing the most perfect bouquet, taking the hardest inspirations of nature and recreating from the softest parts.

Is there a flower that really resonate with you? If so, why?

Passiflora, the passion fruit flower. No matter how many times I see one, I can’t help but stop and get lost in the intricate shapes, levels, patterns, and colours that make up this truly alien flower. I guess like a lot of my work, the passion fruit flower is surreal in appearance.

How did you approach the brief to create an installation for our new Custom Colour range? What inspirations did you have on your mood board?

My goal was to create a moment in time; the freeze frame of a ribbon floating in air. I investigated a lot of underwater images of seaweed in the current and undulating in tidal ponds, the Pearl Fryar Topiary Gardens and lava flows and lava lamps. My experimentation also took me as far as photographing ribbon and other lengths of fabric in the air and seeing how they moved.

From these starting points of inspiration, my next step is to begin sketching the various movements within the installation space. I must have done about 50 different versions before landing on the design currently on display in the showroom.

I really was hoping to leave people a touch confused when they looked at the installation. I hope that they are left wondering what ways in which gravity and form are completely opposing forces and how it even exists in the space.

Your floral sculptures currently have pride of place in our Sydney flagship showroom. How do you think it interacts with, and contributes to, the interior architecture?

I was very interested in using spaces in the showroom that may not be obvious spots to utilize. Leading from the upper windowsill, bouncing off the bar and hitting the wall on the opposite side, I think this creates the illusion of a hanging installation that is in fact supported from the ground with no need to suspend. The straight lines of the showroom and rugs lull the viewer into a false sense of ease until the ribbon appears and completely messes with the prior geometry of the space it inhibits. 

Like our rugs, your work is very much driven by the materials and the techniques. What have you been excited to experiment with lately?

Recently, it’s been all about gravity. I’ve been having a lot of fun with “impossible arrangements”, really looking into different and hard to conceive form-making and the environments the arrangements exist in. This involves a lot of work before flowers even go up. It’s about exploring the possibilities of what can be done with flowers and showing people, not just about flowers in a vase, but flowers as a medium for artistic expression.

Finally, what is keeping you creatively stimulated right now?

Creative stimulation comes in many forms for me, but at the moment, I’m very interested in the joy being found in what seems to be the end of a lockdown situation in Sydney. Suddenly a weight has been lifted, and with this feeling of freedom comes movement. I can see it in the streets, in dance, in restaurants. A sudden flow of energy that is jubilant and playful, and for me that translates into shapes, ribbons of movement, a playful nature and general uplifting. It’s fascinating to watch and take sketches of a feeling in the air.

Follow the Colourblind Florist on Instagram.

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