What happens when COVID-19 cancels your American Flowers Week Botanical Couture photo shoot?

Floral couture by Tobey Nelson (c) Aly Willis Photography

For Tobey Nelson of Tobey Nelson Events & Design, the month of March brought the dawning reality that COVID-19 was indeed disrupting “business as usual.”

Based on Whidbey Island, Washington, Tobey planned to design a botanical couture look for American Flowers Week 2020 and she scheduled the photography for early March. Her vision involved creating a garment using foraged materials such as driftwood and branches, as well as cut flowers and foliages from the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market and more botanical ingredients donated by CamFlor (Watsonville, California).

Tobey made two attempts to pull off the styled shoot last month and both were derailed, first due to illnesses and later, due to concerns about social distancing with a larger group of artists. “Yet, I couldn’t stand the thought that those flowers we procured were just going to waste,” she says.


Floral Couture by Tobey Nelson, with makeup by Marqui Artistry (c) Aly Willis Photography

“I thought I would make at least one piece to showcase the blooms that were otherwise not going to be photographed,” she says.

The floral artist sent out an invitation, asking who might be available the following day.

She wrote: “I need to do something creative. I’ve got all these flowers and I hate it that people have gone to the expense to provide them for a project that won’t happen now.”

The response from her contacts was immediate and enthusiastic: “Everyone said, ‘Yes, we need this!’ So we pulled things together really quickly and photographed the following day.”

Tobey drew from a tight circle of other creatives based near her on Whidbey Island. Aly Willis of Aly Willis Photography hosted the shoot at Island Light Studio. Marqui of Marquis Artistry joined in and recruited her daughter Niah to serve as the model.  That was great because makeup-artist-mom and model-daughter were already sheltering in place together, eliminating social distancing concerns.

The photographer didn’t need to be too close and everyone took extra care in sanitizing and hand-washing. “Even though this happened before (Washington State’s) shelter-in-place order was issued, I made sure that everyone was being super careful,” Tobey points out.


Floral Couture by Tobey Nelson, with makeup by Marqui Artistry (c) Aly Willis Photography

Tobey created a versatile floral piece measuring about 15 inches long and six inches wide using coiled chenille pipe cleaners as the base, a mechanic technique she learned from Hitomi Gilliam. The method is also featured in friend Susan McLeary’s new book, The Art of Wearable Flowers.

“I love how Sue designs a piece and makes it so versatile so you can use it as a headpiece, a shoulder piece, a belt,” Tobey observes. The technique uses S-shaped coils from chenille stems, interlocked together to form the base onto which floral elements are glued using Oasis floral adhesive. Ribbon ties on either end facilitate attaching the piece to the waist, shoulder or neckline.

The spring-themed palette included a few peach and white carnations leftover from the floral garment Tobey designed for the Fleurs de Villes exhibit that took place in late February at the Northwest Flower & Garden Festival, as well as pink-flowering pieris purchased from Crowley House Flower Farm in Oregon, and hellebores from the designer’s Whidbey Island residential garden. She also incorporated Camflor’s ranunculus, hyacinth and Dusty miller foliage, previously donated for the planned  American Flowers Week photo session.

“I love the pipe cleaners, which give me plenty of surface area to glue the flowers, and allowed the piece to be really flexible so I could use it in many ways,” Tobey explains. “If I had used fabric instead of the pipe cleaners, the piece would have buckled or wrinkled, but the pipe cleaners are so flexible.”

Connecting with beauty of nature is always one of the best medicines for about anything that’s hurting.

Floral Couture by Tobey Nelson, with makeup by Marqui Artistry (c) Aly Willis Photography

Tobey says the entire project was cathartic for both her and the others involved. “I’m sure that piece took me five or six hours to make, pleasant hours for sure,” she says. “It was self-indulgent and soothing. I loved being in the moment as I made it. The decisions I made about which flower to glue next weren’t difficult, so it took me away (from worries) for a little while. Connecting with beauty of nature is always one of the best medicines for about anything that’s hurting, I think.”

A passionate knitter, Tobey recalls reading about a brainwave study of what happens when knitters work on a fairly repetitive pattern. “Brainwaves of the knitters were found to be in the same state as monks when they meditate. So I’m sure that’s true of painters or any sort of craft people.” Similarly, for Tobey, making the floral piece was a meditation of sorts.


Barnyard couture flowers by Tobey Nelson (c) Russell Sparkman

There is a postscript to this beautiful lesson in resourceful floral design. The following day, Tobey found a pot-bellied pig to pose with the floral wearable. Tobey had been joking with Russell Sparkman of Fusion Spark Media, her marketing coach, about putting flowers on a pig. “I thought, ‘oh, this has to happen.’ So I put it out on Facebook, and asked ‘who has a pig that I can photograph?'”

A friend on Whidbey Island saw Tobey’s post and connected her with the owner of a pot-bellied pig. “Russell is a great photographer, so I called and recruited him,” Tobey says. “Then, we found out that the pig, Lucy, required string cheese as a bribe to pose for us.”

The leftover American Flowers Week ingredients first became a fashionable floral accessory created for the prior day’s studio photography. The feminine floral collar also fit perfectly around Lucy’s neck, tied with ribbon. “I think Lucy got four pieces of string cheese,” Tobey laughs. “At first she was a little grouchy about the whole thing. But then, she really caught on, I think after the first piece of cheese. She probably thought, ‘wait a minute, this might not be so bad.’ I don’t know how many pictures Russell shot to get one good one. It was hilarious.”

Truly, Tobey and her friends found the perfect antidote to the daily anxiety about the current COVID-19 climate. When she posted the photo of Lucy with the flowers, “people loved it and commented, ‘it’s exactly what I need right now.’ And I thought, ‘yes, we need humor; we need levity; and we need beauty.'”

Later that week, Tobey and Russell couldn’t help themselves. They went on to find an elegant alpaca and a perky chicken to photograph wearing the floral collar. “We are calling this our ‘Barnyard Couture Series,'” Tobey says. Expect more animals to appear in this series!


Tobey Nelson teaches foam free centerpieces at Whidbey Flower Workshop
(c) Suzanne Rothmeyer Photography

Tobey Nelson is determined to find silver linings during the COVID-19 stay-at-home, no-contact ban. She has launched an Instagram Live series of interviews with other experts that can be viewed on her account @sustainablefloraldesign. Future segments take place each Monday at 10 a.m./Pacific.

“I feel like it’s the perfect time to make use of the tools at hand to spread information about sustainable floral design, and also to test whether this type of content is something people want,” she says.

Creative Credits
Floral Design: Tobey Nelson, Tobey Nelson Events
Flowers: CamFlor, Seattle Wholesale Growers Market
Model: Niah @niahdyan
Hair & Makeup: Marqui Artistry @marquiartistry
Model Photography: Aly Willis Photography
Barnyard Couture Photography: Russell Sparkman, Fusion Spark Media