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Parie Donaldson, floral warrior, in celebration of American Flowers Week (c) Abby Jiu Photography

Last fall, Holly Chapple was getting ready for the first Flowerstock, her festival of flowers and floral design held at Hope Flower Farm in Waterford, Virginia. We talked about the idea of her attendees coming together to design a wearable floral fashion in celebration for American Flowers Week.

Little did I realize how personal this project would become, for Holly and for the woman who served as both model and inspiration for so many of her friends and colleagues.

Holly knew I wanted to use the floral fashion project to showcase domestic flowers, the design talents of Slow Flowers members and America’s beautiful diversity in our model selection. At first, she had a particular model in mind; then she called and told me she wanted to have Parie Donaldson wear the floral creation.

Parie was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 19, 2016, and began her chemotherapy treatments about a month later. An uber-talented floral designer, owner of Amarillo, Texas-based Parie Designs, and a member of Chapel Designers, Parie had recently shared her scary news with that tight-knit community of wedding and event designers, including their founder, Holly.

Paire in her mythical pose (left); Chapel Designers adorned their friend with fresh, local, American grown flowers. (c) Abby Jiu Photography

Holly invited Parie to attend Flowerstock as her guest, and she wanted her friend to experience restorative time on the Virginia farm, surrounded by the supportive floral community. “We all knew she was coming to Flowerstock before returning to Amarillo for a double-mastectomy,” Holly told me. “And I knew you wanted to have unique models and real people, so it felt right to design with Parie as our model.”

By the time everyone arrived at Hope Flower Farm for Flowerstock (October 17-18, 2016), Holly had already imagined the theme of “rebirth,” picturing Parie emerging out of flames into flowers.

The huge stone fire pit at Hope seemed like the perfect setting for the undertaking. With several design instructors and attendees lending support, the team draped Parie in sheer, diaphanous fabric and began to “flower” her. She stood at the center of the fire pit, regal, mythical and strong, as new and old friends adorned her head, shoulders and body. She held a piece of foraged bark, which Holly says a few designers dragged back to Hope Farm from a nearby vineyard. It somehow morphed into a botanical scepter, part of the imaginary storyline of Parie as warrior-goddess.

“This was a gift to me from Holly, and it was pretty significant,” Parie recalls now. “The amount of physical support, monetary support . . . it’s the stuff that brings me to my knees. It was overwhelming.”

Filled with flame-hued dahlias and other blooms, the fire pit symbolized a rebirth for Parie. (c) Abby Jiu Photography

Dahlias, amaranth, roses and other flowers — from Hope Farm and farms across the U.S. — embellished Parie and her scepter. More were used to symbolize flames in the fire pit.

For her part, Parie remembers the emotions more than the actual experience. “I was really raw. My psyche was raw at that point; my hair was gone. I was about to lose my boobs. I was physically weak, mentally weak, mentally raw — it was very unlike how I usually am as a confident, take-charge leader.”

Going to Flowerstock and being surrounded by a supportive community was a positive act, Parie says. “It was oddly comforting that I could absolutely let go while I was there. It was very loving and comforting that these women and men were completely taking care of me. It was certainly physical; it felt like an age-old ritual of laying hands on me. Pretty powerful.”

Strength in community, with flowers as her muse, Parie Donaldson (c) Abby Jiu Photography

Holly had imagined Parie emerging, phoenix-like, from a fire. For her part, Parie held onto a similarly potent image during her cancer treatment. “My visual for working through this was a Joan of Arc type figure. I imagined I had a suit of armor and on each of the scales on that armor appeared the name of all the other women who had gone before me, especially those I knew through my past support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation in my community. I told Holly about it, and the visual of a warrior became real when everyone started grabbing flowers to place on my head and body.”

After finishing and photographing Parie, the group placed leftover flowers in the pit and built a campfire that burned for two days, through daytime and night. “We are a very close-knit group and for all of us to be part of that and to work on the installation was very healing,” Holly says

Nature comes full circle, with the charred Amaranth seeds re-sprouting in the same place where Parie once stood (c) Holly Chapple via Instagram

Fast-forward to June 2017 and the seeds of once-burned amaranth stalks have begun to re-sprout in that very fire pit, appropriately bringing new life to Hope Farm. Parie has gone through five surgeries and radiation treatment and is getting ready for her final breast reconstruction surgery later this month.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier doing what I’m doing in my life,” Parie says. “Cancer will change your life. It puts things into perspective, especially how you choose to spend your time and energy. Being in flowers has changed my life. It has always been a comfort zone for me, but it is more so now.”

Details:

Check out our story of how Parie Design celebrated American Flowers Week in 2016.

Check out all the details about the October 9-10, 2017 Flowerstock here. Slow Flowers will be participating with Debra Prinzing as a speaker.

Holly thanks the following flower farms and growers for their donations to this project: Hope Flower Farm, Harmony Harvest Farm, Green Stone Fields, Don’s Dahlias, Peterkort Roses, Delaware Valley Floral Group.