Blooming into miniatures
A backyard garden inspires Michele Carter's floral arrangements
By Susan Roemer I Photography by Kent Clemenco
Magic is one way of describing Michele Carter's talents in creating floral
arrangements in miniature. But unlike the great magicians, Michele creates
her illusions with paper and wire. "I want people to believe they are looking
at a real plant or flower, not just bits of wire and paper," says Michele.
To create the illusion of reality, Michele first dissects a flower blossom
to discover its architecture. Then she tries different paint colors, applying
them directly to the foliage or petals to determine the exact color. She often
makes a plant or flower several times before she is satisfied with the results.
Although the foliage with its various shades of green may be for some people
the least interesting and often overlooked part of a flower, Michele sees it as
an opportunity for realism. She cites tulip leaves as an example, with their
very soft, almost mint green color.
"Finding the correct color makes all of the difference in the believability of the
illusion," she says. Michele seeks ways to disguise the natural properties of
each paper so that the finished leaves look soft and pliant. She feels she has
succeeded if someone asks, "How did you do that? What is it made of?"
Nurtured to love miniatures
Michele an active miniatures hobbyist for years, received her first dollhouse
as a youngster: a white two-story stamped-metal house with a red roof and
furnishings made of molded plastic. "I was fascinated with the concept of
miniatures. I remember saying that I wanted to shrink myself so I could live
in my dollhouse. That fascination has stayed with me into adulthood," she says.
Similarly, Michele's husband, Dan, is a professional artist and has been
making scale model car kits since he was a small boy. One Christmas
Dan gave Michele a Dura-Craft San Franciscan kit and helped her build it.
Michele made furniture from kits to furnish the house.
After helping Michele build the dollhouse, Dan discovered the joys of making
1"-scale structures from scratch. He has built several historical buildings,
including a replica of Vincent Van Gogh's house. Michele made numerous
accessories for the house including stretched canvases, an easel, a
painting box, framed paintings, clothing, bedding, and shaving equipment.
She also made accessories for and decorated the French grocery store
below Van Gogh's bedroom.
Passion for art, gardening, and miniatures — and a miniatures
In 2001, Michele, a former marketing communications executive, decided
to take a Brooke Tucker workshop. That class indirectly changed her life. During
the workshop, Michele met a woman who knew how to make flowers. Michele
asked the woman to teach her how to make a rose.
Michele went home and began making roses and other flowers. She bought
punches and basic flower-making booklets from Hanky Panky and experimented
with various techniques and papers including crepe, tissue, printer, and
Japanese rice paper. She worked with silk dyes, craft paints, and colored
chalk to add details to the flowers. She discovered that some papers work
for certain flowers, but not others, and some papers can be more easily
shaped. One breakthrough came when she tried painting airmail-weight paper
with acrylic paints. "The paper is thinner than typing paper, and once it has
been painted on both sides, it loses some of its stiffness and becomes pliable
and soft. It holds a curl and it droops correctly, mimicking the properties of
eal foliage," she explained.
Please with the results, Michele focused on making floral arrangements and
plants. This was a natural choice because she grows perennials to make
bouquets for decorating her home and uses them as models for her
Michele sought Brooke Tucker's advice at a workshop on how to start a
miniatures business. "Brooke was very supportive and encouraging, but
she also gave me a much-needed dose of reality," says Michele. Brooke
advised her to come up with a "mass market" product — something that
anyone could afford — in addition to the high-end floral arrangements. "It
was good advice, and I developed a line of plant and floral kits that I have
sold at shows and online to customers from Australia to the Netherlands."
Michele launched her business, PepperWood Miniatures, in July 2002,
and in October she received Artisan Status with the International Guild of
Miniature Artisans (IGMA).
Window view provides inspiration
Michele and Dan's home is located on about an acre of land — in the
foothills above San Jose — which they call PepperWood Farm. As she
works, she peers out her studio window, which overlooks an antique
red barn and the back pasture where they used to keep horses. The view
also reveals colorful flowers blooming around a potting shed and an
antique orchard cart that holds orchard boxes planted with brightly
colored annuals. These surroundings provide her inspiration.
At any given time, she may have 10 or moreideas for pieces. Sometimes
she sees a vase or a container that inspires an arrangement, and other
times it will be a flower in her garden. "Right now there is a Bird of Paradise
blooming in my yard," she says. "It is a very dramatic, exotic flower and it
is on my ‘to-make' list."
When she doesn't have an actual plant to dissect and study, Michele
uses good pictorial aids from her extensive reference library: encyclopedias
of plants and flowers, books on Ikebana, flower arranging, gardening,
and Victorian interiors. For close-up photos, she also looks at flower and
plant catalogs. For her work, Michele considers her essential tools to be
surgical tweezers with very sharp points, a Lace Tool, and sharp embroidery
scissors. "I use the Lace Tool to shape and curl petals and leaves, and
the scissors are necessary to make the fine cuts needed for petals and
leaves," she says. The tweezers ease handling of tiny pieces of paper and wire.
Painting a new direction
Michele has done full-sized painting for many years. In the early 1980s she
was juried into the Copley Society, a group of watercolor and oil painters
in the Boston area and into a cooperative gallery in Sudbury, Massachusetts,
where she exhibited and sold her paintings. In 1986, she had a two-person
show in Weston, Massachusetts, with a good friend who is a talented
watercolor painter. Michele has continued to paint, but since moving to
California thirteen years ago, had only painted for enjoyment.
This year, her miniatures work has moved in a new direction. Michele found
her miniature business, was cutting into her painting time, so she decided
to try her hand at painting in miniature. She discovered that creating paintings
of gardens and floral arrangements in 1" scale was a logical extension of her
love of all things miniature and floral.
Another recent addition to her product line is floral acrylic paintings in miniature
and a "Leaf Sheet" series of laser-printed plant leaves. In the near future
Michele hopes to feature some of Dan's miniatures works. "Dan has always
been my sounding board. With his practiced eye, I count on good feedback when
I am working on a new piece," says Michele. "I included Dan on my Web site
because of his incredible talents and abilities. I can envision him becoming
an equal creative partner in PepperWood Miniatures."
Of all the vibrant and spectacular flower pieces created by Michele, her favorite
is a bouquet in shades of pink, with Asiatic Lilies, Mums, and Nerines
arranged in a white porcelain footed bowl. Luckily, she has a photo of it
on her Web site so she can still enjoy looking at it because it sold at the
Seattle show in 2003. "I do not repeat any arrangements," Michele points
out. "It is important for my customers to know that they are purchasing a
unique, one-of-a-kind work of art."
Contact: PepperWood Miniatures, 5350 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose
CA 95127; (firstname.lastname@example.org); (pepperwoodminiatues.com).
Upcoming show: Chicago International 2004.
DB1203_01 Michele Carter
DB1203_02 Flowers from Michele Carter's garden inspire many of her floral pieces
including these purple irises in a glass vase.
DB1203_03 This is Michele's favorite piece a spectacular bouquet of pink lilies with
Nerines and mums in a pedestal bowl.
DB1203_04 This is an example of Michele's one-of-a-kind Christmas
centerpieces with gilded accents.
DB1203_05 Michele's wedding floral arrangement consists of a centerpiece,
bride's bouquet, and a boutonniere.
DB1203_06 Michele's miniature paintings include still life such as the
Flowers and Fruits picture at left and the Garden Gate scene (DB1203_07).
DB1203_08 Michele painted Manet's Peoney's and Monet's Gladioli
a(DB1203_09) with acrylic paints.
DB1203_10 Water lily
DB1203_11 Window box