Mobilians know a thing or two about throwing a party. Gaze up into the branches of any tree along the parade route and you’ll find the evidence, limp and faded Mardi Gras beads dangling in Carnival limbo. And as any good party host will tell you, never end a big celebration without having another one in the works.
After all the floats are tucked away, streets brushed clean and calendars flipped to March, many of the creative minds behind the season of revelry have already turned their full attentions to the next task at hand: Providence Hospital Foundation’s Festival of Flowers.
In the early 1990s, Tommy Zieman Jr., a former chairman of the Providence Hospital Foundation Board, was visiting the famous Chelsea Flower Show on the grounds of London’s Royal Hospital Chelsea when he was struck with a realization: “Why not try the same thing in Mobile?” The show, he thought, could serve as a fundraiser benefitting the hospital’s mission while showcasing Mobile’s landscaping prowess, talented florists and thriving horticultural industry.
By 1994, Zieman’s idea had come to fruition. As tractor-trailers hauled palm trees, flowers, shrubs and tents onto the grounds of Spring Hill College (where the fete was held until its move to Providence Hospital in 2006), Zieman described the scene as if “the circus was coming to town.”
ABOVE Floral vignettes from past events, including this verdant waterfall tablescape, demonstrate a hint of what’s to come. Under 300, 000 square feet of tents, this year’s festival will include seminars and demonstrations, a children’s playground, a wondrous cypress archway, a flower shop, a photography gallery, a cafe, water features and the carousel exhibit, among countless attractions. The landscape development master plan for the 2018 Festival of Flowers was created by lead landscape architect Blake Smisson of WAS Design Inc. This year’s honorary chair is Ann Bedsole Holmes and the featured artist is Augusta Hyland Wilson.
Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau
No Walk in the Park
Since that day, the Festival of Flowers has evolved in grand fashion, and Carroll O’Neill, events coordinator at Providence Hospital, is quick to explain why. “There’s a lot of talent in this community, ” she says. “It’s so amazing to me how many people come out and help and donate their time and talents to put this show together. And it takes a true village.”
O’Neill, who’s been involved with the festival for 10 years, says the four-day showcase takes almost a year to conceptualize, organize and execute. “The design committee starts meeting at the first of the summer, and we meet continuously until we decide on a theme, a logo, a look … and from there, it just kind of takes off. It’s not something that’s done in three months.”
While every year has brought something fresh and exciting to the festivities, the 2018 installment, to be held at the Providence Hospital Campus from March 22 – 25, is especially significant as it’s the festival’s 25th annual celebration. As this year’s lead landscape architect, Blake Smisson (of WAS Design Inc. in Mobile) was tasked with developing the year’s theme and establishing a consistency throughout the exhibits.
“Each garden venue will be unique, but an overall cohesive look will be achieved by repeating colors, patterns and materials throughout the show, ” Smisson explains. “It takes almost a year for the theme to fully develop and the help of many talented volunteers to iron out the event details. Now that the show is less than two months away, I believe we have a good game plan, but elements are still changing from day to day.”
Themed “A Celebration Promenade, ” this year, the grounds will be styled after the features of a city park — a meadow, a playground, a zoo, a square and a much-anticipated “floral carousel, ” among countless other curiosities.
“We add new features every year to create a little excitement, ” O’Neill says, “and the carousel is definitely one of those.”
ABOVE Mobile architect Craig Roberts, lead architect for the floral carousel, at work in his home studio. Roberts’ architectural rendering portrays what he calls a “contemporary interpretation” of a carousel.
Photos by Todd Douglas
Mobile architect Craig Roberts sports a bowtie as he sits at the drafting table of his Spring Hill home. A hand-drawn rendering of the floral carousel rests at the end of his black pen. “I still draw everything by hand, ” he says, a rare habit in this digital age.
Roberts, a respected member of Mobile’s architectural community and a festival volunteer for the past 15 years, was asked by Smisson to serve as lead architect for the floral carousel. Gathering inspiration from numerous examples and as many photographs of carousels as he could get his hands on, Roberts has designed what he calls a “contemporary interpretation” of a carousel. Based on his structural design, the venue will tower to a height of 26 feet and will be 20 feet wide. Fabrics of blue, yellow and red will drape from a golden ring at the carousel’s peak, a colorful ceiling for the six “floral horses” sized at 6 feet long and 5 feet tall. Though the horses will remain stationary, the gold-gilded mirrors at the venue’s center will rotate to create the sensation of a carousel’s movement.
“The challenge of my job is the coordination of people and the sequencing of events along the way, ” Roberts says. “But I’ve done this so many times, it’s not at all as scary as it used to be.”
What makes the carousel truly unique is that the six horses, made of wire framing, will each be decorated by a different florist. Hillary Herrington of Herrington’s Florists; Ron Barrett of Ron Barrett, LLC; Dennis Harris of Zimlich the Florist; Carol Reeves of Elizabeth’s Garden; LeNae Denson of Cleveland the Florist; and Julia Greer Fobes and Betsy Greer of Fashion, Art and Flowers are the talented minds behind the horses. Their participation, along with many others, will make the carousel come to life, according to Roberts.
“I get the title of lead architect, ” Roberts says, “but so many people are working harder than me, I assure you.” Like the festival as a whole, it’s the volunteer work of many that makes the carousel possible. Sherry Pierce, owner of Studio08 and volunteer chair of the venue, secured the florists making the horses. Committee members Pam Friedlander and Sherry Sindel “do incredible things as artists, ” Roberts says. “They’ll be doing the mirrored, revolving centerpiece. I can just show them what I want, and they make it look pretty.” Nadine Andrews of Sterling Event Design will be in charge of constructing the drapery covering the carousel.
“We’re gifted in Mobile because of Mardi Gras, ” Roberts continues. “People here are just used to doing volunteer work and being creative. Mobile is a special place like that. And no matter what role you play as a volunteer, when the whole thing is finished that Wednesday evening for the Gala party, it really is astonishing what we Mobilians can put together.”
ABOVE A fanciful illustration by florist Julia Greer Fobes of the “unicorn-to-be.” Fobes, left, and sister Betsy Greer, right, perform preliminary work on their floral contribution.
Photo by Todd Douglas
The Run for the Roses
“I hope no one else is doing a unicorn, ” Julia Greer Fobes says to her sister Betsy Greer as the two florists begin working on their floral horse (er, unicorn — thanks to the foam horn attached to its head). In their midtown studio, Fobes and Greer stand on either side of the impressively large form, a wire outline of a horse in mid-gallop. Using palm fronds spray-painted silver, Fobes effortlessly weaves her unicorn a mane and tail, a small addition that adds a surprising amount of life to the animal. Though her work is solely voluntary, Fobes, who’s participated in the Festival of Flowers for about 10 years, says it’s one of her favorite assignments of the year.
“The festival is really the only thing that all florists get to participate in, and it’s one of the few chances for us to see each other’s work, ” she says.
Greer glues small white flowers to the saddle on the unicorn’s back. The women asked their mother to keep an eye out for an old saddle on her visits to antique shops, and when she found one, they painted it gold. “Eventually it’ll have flowers all over it, ” Greer says.
On a project such as this, it’s important to know your flowers. For the blooms glued to the frame, the pair will use varieties that are durable and long-lasting. For the flowers that will need a little TLC over the four-day festival, floral foam containing water will be strategically hidden within the unicorn frame, delivering some much-needed H2O.
“We’ll be using mostly white flowers, so keeping them watered will be important because they brown so easily, ” Fobes says.
The sisters will do as much prep work as possible beforehand, but the majority of their decorating will be on-site in the days leading up to the event, as a fully decorated unicorn would be nearly impossible to transport. “It’s a lot of work, ” Fobes says, “but we love doing stuff like this because it’s different and so out of the box.”
As the anniversary occasion (which is sponsored by Wells Fargo) looms, the scope and importance of the undertaking comes into focus once again. “This is more than a local event, ” says Bill Barrick, executive director of Bellingrath Gardens and Home and a 19-year festival volunteer. “This is a great way to market our city. And it’s now the only outdoor flower show in the Southeast.” Under 300, 000 square feet of white tents, a vibrant park will be brought to life, combined with seminars, a garden market, children’s exhibits, photography showcases and much more — and all for a worthy cause.
“Every year, the proceeds from the festival go towards purchasing a piece of equipment for the hospital, ” O’Neill says. “This year, the event will help provide external pacemakers for the cardiac care unit.”
On second thought, maybe it’s not that Mobilians simply know how to throw a party. Rather, they know how to work together, selflessly, in pursuit of a common goal.
“Our community enjoys the festival and believes in it, ” O’Neill concludes. “You know, not many festivals last 25 years.”
The 2018 Festival of Flowers will be held from March 22 – 25 at the Providence Hospital Campus. Tickets: $12 in advance, $14 for adults at gate, $13 for seniors and military at gate, $11.50 group rate (14 or more), free for children ages 12 and under. Group rates and packages with Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Gulf Coast Exploreum, Mobile Museum of Art and hotels are available.
text by breck pappas • photos by todd douglas and elizabeth gelineau