Flowers and friendship: Flora Metamorphicae boosts sister city love

Photo: Bernice Furdal Chouery / courtesy of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association Bergen ceramic artists Eli Veim and Kari Aasen visited the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard for the installation of their exhibit Flora Metamorphicae, open for viewing through February 28.

Photo: Bernice Furdal Chouery / courtesy of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association
Bergen ceramic artists Eli Veim and Kari Aasen visited the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard for the installation of their exhibit Flora Metamorphicae, open for viewing through February 28.

Special Release
Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association

In Norway, flowers are not only given at funerals, they are a way of life. Each spring flowers mark the end of winter and the arrival of light. Colorful and luxurious, flowers bring joy and renewed life: they are a cause for celebration. Each special occasion calls for fresh flowers: birthdays, graduations, weddings, banquets, national holidays. For Norwegians, flowers are part of their culture, love for a landscape that is both majestic and gentle, dramatic and comforting.

In 2003 a group of 12 professional ceramic artists from Bergen decided to capture the essence of the Norwegian landscape and its flowers in a collaborative creative project built upon the history of the flower motifs in porcelain, going back centuries. These artists would bring together thousands of individual ceramic flower creations that together would transform into one collective artwork. They established one simple rule: each flower had to be handmade and no larger than two hands. The result of their efforts became Flora Metamorphicae, a ceramic installation that has traveled throughout Europe, the U.S., and Asia, winning awards on all three continents.

When the museum association in Bergen approached Eric Nelson, CEO of the Nordic Heritage Museum, about bringing the exhibit to Seattle, it seemed like a natural fit. Seattle and Bergen have been sister cities since 1967, and with a large Scandinavian diaspora and a vibrant artistic community in the Pacific Northwest, the museum presented itself as an ideal venue to host the installation. In 2014 Nelson met with the remaining six artists in the group in their studio in Bergen and plans were soon underway. Subsequent grant money and support from both Norway and the U.S. made the venture possible, and the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association was called in to offer additional support. The exhibit opened at the Nordic Heritage Museum on January 7 to an enthusiastic crowd.

At the opening night preview at the museum, members got the opportunity to meet and mingle with the artists Kari Aasen and Eli Veim, two flaming redheads who traveled from Norway to install the exhibit. As they spoke about their work, listeners detected a fiery passion behind their quiet demeanor. This passion took expression when the exhibit room was opened to a fantastic array of thousands of colorful ceramic flowers, both dramatic and calming, the transformative magic that is Flora Metamorphicae.

At their gallery talk the following Saturday, Kari and Eli shared stories of outdoor installations that local host authorities deemed to be doomed to destruction, but in the end, the effect was much different. At the Porcelain Biennial in Porsgrunn in 2007 when they decided to install the flowers in the old canals of the city, they were warned that “they just didn’t know what the people of Porsgrunn were like.” Once the capital of the Norwegian cultural life and home to the beloved Porsgrund porcelain, the seventh-largest city in Norway now suffers from the maladies of modern urban discontent, including vandalism of public property. The artists persisted in their vision, however, and the canals were cleaned up and transformed by the flowers. Much to the officials’ amazement, the ceramics remained untouched for the duration of the installation. When Flora Metamorphicae traveled to Kaunas in Lithuania, they were also warned not to choose an outdoor location. Artistic inspiration prevailed and the ceramists arranged the ceramics at a public open-air site. Hundreds of visitors came to admire the flowers, and in the end none were stolen or damaged.

This is the transformative experience of Flora Metamorphicae, where the beauty of art has the ability to raise society up. Upon seeing the flowers at the Nordic Museum, many visitors commented on how the flowers simply made them “feel happy.” With bursts of color, spontaneous overflow, and the joyous abundance of the exhibit, it seems nearly impossible to feel any other way.

While each installation of Flora Metamorphicae is unique, inspired by each new setting and the mood of the moment, the immediate experience of the individual is at the center of the exhibit. At the Nordic Heritage Museum, the flowers took on the shape of concentric circles, placed in a square, enclosed space. When the artists conversed with their guests, one visitor commented on the clever array of flowers put together to form one enormous flower. For Kari and Eli, this was yet a new way of looking at their own work. As they had arranged the flowers, they’d thought about the emigration from Norway to the new land, as a new Norwegian flower rooted in a new land. As each circle spread out, so did the Norwegian Americans in the U.S., the design of the flowers ever-changing, their way of life ever-changing. Much of the beauty of the exhibit lies in the multitude of possibilities, both from a creative and receptive viewpoint.

During their week in Seattle, Kari and Eli made themselves at home in the community of Ballard, where many Norwegians put down their roots. The Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association hosted them on a full-scale city tour, including stops at the Leif Erikson monument at Shilshole Bay, the colorful Seattle Public Market, Pioneer Square, the International District, downtown, the University of Washington, the Seattle Center with the Chihuly Gardens, all to the glorious backdrop of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. It was a day filled with new impressions and inspirations, as well as a new bond of friendship between the two sister cities.

When asked what is next on the horizon, the Bergen artists expressed that Seattle seems to be somewhere in the future for them again. As SBSCA president Lori Ann Reinhall alluded, there is often the sentiment that exchange programs like the Sister Cities are anachronistic, yet it is the immediate experiences and personal friendships that are so meaningful to us in the end.

Flora Metamorphicae is at the Nordic Heritage Museum through February 28. Visit www.nordicmuseum.org for more details.

To learn more about the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, please email seattlebergensistercities@gmail.com. The public is also welcome to join the association’s annual meeting to be held at the museum on Sunday, February 28, 1:00 pm. Norwegian refreshments will be served to celebrate the closing day of the exhibit.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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