Joshua Werber Sticks Flowers to his Head
| April 10, 2017
There I was, scrolling through the endless stream of lives, dreams and only-just concealed fears captured in the small square picture frames of everyone’s favourite social media app. Suddenly, Joshua Werber appeared in one of the frames with a conflagration of iris attached to his head, and a serious look on his face. I immediately stopped – I had to find out more about this man, the flowers and the facial expressions.
There’s a real honesty within Joshua’s Instagram images that appeals to me. His focus seems to be solely on his art, not how he as a person may or may not perceived. I struggle with this myself and would find it very hard to stick my head up on Instagram weekly like Joshua does. After following his work for ages, I recently got in touch with him to find out more about it, and his life with plants.
Hi Joshua, can you please tell us a little about your life with plants?
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City on the North Shore of Long Island. My mother was a science teacher and always admired plants. She would identify every moss and lichen she encountered. On long drives, she would point out the crops growing along the side of the road.
Like other plant people, many of my family vacation photos are of my mother or me in front of, next to or inside of a plant.
I started gardening as a teenager after a couple of large white pines fell at my parents’ house and I took on the project of re-landscaping the backyard. I would peruse the plants at local nurseries, studying seed and bulb catalogues, and watching gardening shows on public television.
In college, I interned at high-end fashion magazines. Then I worked for a celebrity stylist, and then for an iconic jewellery designer. After this I began working for a real estate development company, consulting on capital improvements including interior and landscape design. In 2009, I moved to south Utah for a few months where I focused on making art and got into ceramic sculpture. I loved the feeling of working with clay and I would build forms inspired by the rhythmic patterns in nature and then carve away at them.
I then started taking flower arranging classes and was soon hooked. I could work big and fast and apply the same ideas of construction and deconstruction but with more immediate gratification. I apprenticed in a boutique flower shop and the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s the deal with the flowers on your head? When did you start snapping the pics, and why?
Long before the #FloralTeteATete project started, I was a firm believer that everything could be a hat. No basket or cavernous object was safe. I have long been inspired by the book Natural Fashion by Hans Silvester.
In 2013, I dressed up as an Omo Valley tribesperson for Halloween. I had recently met Kumiko Matsuura at a flower workshop in Philadelphia. She had seen photos on Instagram and challenged me to a weekly headpiece ‘competition’. We came up with the hashtag which literally means ‘head-to-head’, but alludes to a private conversation between two people. I thought #FloralTeteATete had a nice ring to it and I loved the added nod to the early blooming daffodil. The project became a weekly practice which I’ve been keeping (with some minor exceptions) ever since.
What was your first floral headpiece?
When I was in college, I made a hat from a woven palm frond for my sister. It was for the Jewish holiday Succot on which palms are one of the “four species” traditionally used in the holiday’s rituals. At the synagogue my family attends, married women wear hats so it was appropriate for the holiday and somewhat tongue in cheek. My sister still has the hat and keeps it in a shoebox in her closet. Palm continues to be one of my favourite materials to work with, both because of that nostalgia but also because I’m amazed by the myriad of woven palm hats and objects made by people all over the world.
How have they evolved since then?
With any weekly practice, the more you do it, the better you become. Also, as the project has progressed, I’ve also had to up the ante and push the envelope a bit more with my designs. The headpieces have grown in complexity and scale but show more restraint – each creation is made with fewer materials. The flowers create shapes and forms unto themselves.
I am fortunate to have worked with many florists and teachers who have inspired me and whose influence has helped me to refine my aesthetic, which used to be more maximalist. I have also been looking to milliners for inspiration.
Drawing from my styling experience I try to ensure that the work looks like fashion and not just like flowers on my head.
I’m a bit terrified of putting my face on Instagram and admire you very much for sticking your head up, framed by mad florals, every week or so. Are you naturally an extrovert?
Thank you. In some ways I’m an extrovert, in other ways I am very private and can be quite shy. For those astrologically minded, I am a Leo, which might explain a lot. However, the main intention of the practice is to create the work. The photographic component provides proof that these ephemeral creations existed in the world.
In the beginning, it was a bit odd putting myself out there in this way, but I got over that long ago. I am the photographer and model out of ease.
While I often take commissions, the headpieces I create each week I design for me, so why not?
I get as much joy looking at your facial expressions as looking at the floral arrangements on your Instagram feed. Do you try to match your face to the flowers? Is it a conscious decision?
It’s funny, most of the feedback I get is about my facial expressions. People are dying for me to smile, which I sometimes do. My friends can often tell how I feel about the work based on the subtle expressions on my face and can see the self-satisfaction behind my eyes. After more than three years of taking selfies, I still have yet to invest in a selfie stick or tripod! It is also often challenging to capture the headpieces in the best lighting – some of my favourite pieces have not photographed well. Also, sometimes the headpieces are quite large and hard to fit in the frame.
This might sound crazy, but my right arm seems longer and better for a wider angles, so often in the images my head is facing left. I find the slight profile to be more flattering. The expressions on my face are the result of me looking at myself (often without my glasses) on the digital display of my camera trying to show the work in the best way possible. Plus, I’m trying to be all serious and model like.
What’s your dream headpiece? Can you please describe it for us?
My dream headpiece is always the next creation. I try not to repeat myself or my designs, and even try not to reuse the same materials, or if I do, to use them in a different way.
I do have some fantasy projects, including creating a book. I would love to pay tribute to the many teachers and mentors who have enriched my world and adorn them in creations that reflect the impact they have had on my life and ideas about design. But now that I’m thinking about it, for a headpiece, something with Himalayan blue poppies would be pretty incredible and decadent.
Have you ever accidentally stuck one of your pieces to your head?
While I haven’t stuck a headpiece to my head exactly, I have accidentally glued large clumps of my hair to my scalp!
A few weeks back when working on the Dutch Iris piece, I must have been excited and hadn’t realised some adhesive was still wet. It was quite painful combing out scabs of glue from my scalp. For a few moments, I thought I would have to shave my head.
When the time allows, I prefer to wire my stems individually and not to use glue, but for certain designs and for general ease, there is nothing like glue. Before I begin assembling my creations (and often about halfway through) I will look in the mirror and hold the flowers up to my head to check floral placements and to see how the forms I’m creating actually relate to my face and for fit. I mostly just get floral glue on my fingertips.
What do you do when you’re not making floral headwear?
I work as a freelance florist and designer and collaborate on various creative projects including interior design, editorial shoots and events. I also throw parties for people I love and spend lots of time with my rescue puppy Delilah.
Do you have any special plants in your life? If so, tell us a bit about them.
I think it was in Martha Stewart Living that I once read that if you have three of something, you have a collection. I have begonia, spotted aloe, mammillaria and rhipsalis collections.
I am a notorious begonia killer, but a few years back I took home a stem of begonia from a fading arrangement made for a weekly client. I rooted the cutting in water and the plant developed long fluffy roots. A friend declared that once potted in soil it was going to die. Despite her pessimism, it is still going strong!
While all plants are special to me, I often look for plants with multiple seasons of interest or that bloom in the very early spring, late fall or even better, in the dead of winter. In our temperate zone, snow drops, witch hazels and colchicums are of higher value to me than perennials that bloom in June. That being said, I have some peonies and daylilies that I transplanted from my grandparents’ garden as a teenager over a decade ago. Those plants are even more special to me, as my grandmother passed away this past year.
If you were a plant, what would you be?
This is such a difficult question to answer, but If I could just pick one, it would have my namesake tree, the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia). This past fall I finally got to meet them in their National Park in southern California.
Like most forays in old growth forests, I felt like I was walking amongst my relatives.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your Floral Tete-a-tete project?
I am continuously amazed by and grateful for the outpouring of support and positive feedback I receive from this practice. I have been fortunate to connect with so many plant lovers and plant hunters around the world through it!
All images by Joshua Werber.