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Home Blog The Farmer & the {Florist} Interview: Susan McLeary
March 2nd 2020

The Farmer & the {Florist} Interview: Susan McLeary

Written by
Floret

Susan is one of the most talented, innovative, generous designers I’ve ever met. It’s been our honor to have her teach at many of our Seasonal Floral Design Workshops, and student feedback was overwhelming each time. If you ever have a chance to take a class with Susan, don’t pass it up. Her positivity and creativity are infectious, and she has inspired so many designers to think outside the box and try new things. Susan has a big year ahead of her, with teaching opportunities across the world and the release of her spectacular new book, The Art of Wearable Flowers, so I’m thrilled to have the chance to talk with her about her journey.

Susan McLeary design workErin: Susan, thanks so much for taking time to share your story with Floret readers. For those not familiar with your work, can you share an overview of your story?

Susan: Thank you for having me! I found this work more than 15 years ago when a friend asked me to do her wedding flowers. I had a hobby making jewelry at the time, and my friend had initially asked me to make jewelry for herself and her bridal party. I added on the floral challenge but honestly felt pretty neutral about it. I had no idea that I’d connect with it so immediately and strongly. It was a real time-stopping moment—I realized quite viscerally during the work that I was meant to be a florist. I’d always been vaguely artistic but had never felt very good at any one discipline. I decided to listen to this feeling and became obsessed. I began to gather as much information as I could. I read every book at the library, took classes at my local community college, earned certifications through the Michigan Floral Association and AIFD [American Institute of Floral Designers], freelanced for event florists, and ultimately got a job at a bustling full-service floral shop.

Those experiences taught me so much, but at a point, I realized there had to be more to this work. The design opportunities I was exposed to were limited and pretty one-note. I had connected with many inspiring people and had gathered skills, but I was really having trouble envisioning my place in this field. My curiosity and frustration led to much Internet surfing, where I finally started to find other florists out in the world creating dynamic, artful, expansive work—each with a distinct point of view.

Susan McLeary installationAt the time, the prevailing look in the U.S. was dense, rounded, and quite formal. I did not connect with this, but unfortunately, this was what I was making each weekend! It was when I encountered Francoise Weeks’s work that it finally clicked that floral design is an art, and each designer can—and should—express their own viewpoint through it. This discovery led to others, and I expanded my circle of influence. I attended design workshops and met many more influential people—Francoise of course, but also Joseph Massie, Holly Chapple, and you, Erin! I felt encouraged to make the leap to open my own studio and make the things I wanted to see.

I enjoyed nearly 10 years producing weddings and events under my studio name, Passionflower. About 3 years ago, my curious nature tugged once more, and I began sharing my passion for flowers, the art of floristry, and the profession as a teacher and writer instead of a studio florist. I occasionally design for a wedding or event, but my real jam is working to identify common design challenges, break them down, and develop processes to ease them a bit. I’m driven to add my voice to the conversation—ideas on sustainable, updated, fashion-forward floral design. My online classes (www.passionflowersue.com) have allowed me to transition into this role, and I’m so grateful.

Art of Wearable FlowersErin: Your book, The Art of Wearable Flowers (Chronicle, March 3, 2020), hits stores this spring. I’m lucky enough to have gotten a sneak peak! Congratulations on creating a book that is gorgeous, unique, and inspiring in both the design and in the depth of projects. What prompted you to write this book?

Susan: I’ve always dreamed of writing a book and am quite lucky that my publisher found me on Instagram! I feel like it was kismet—I deliberately worked to develop a portfolio of work that I felt was strong enough to approach a publisher with, and I had started working on a book proposal, so when I got the email, I was thrilled! It really is the first of what I hope to be many love letters to this work. It’s meant to inspire florists to make the things that fire them up, and it’s meant to excite the public, showing people a bit of what’s possible within this medium.

Susan McLeary floral tattooErin: The book contains nearly 40 how-to projects. How long did it take to complete, and can you tell us a bit about the process of taking a project from the idea phase through to the final beautifully styled photo?

Susan: From start to finish, just under 2 years. The ideas came fairly easily, but the planning and coordination was quite a feat! I worked with the photographer on the project, Amanda Dumouchelle, to choose dates that worked for us both, reach out to models, hair and makeup people, choose—and often gather—wardrobe pieces, and, of course, choose and gather the flowers, plants, and foliages. I’m a bit tightly wound, so I had to learn to accept that not every component of a given design will always materialize as planned. I had to harness my powers of pivot and flexibility, and I also had to become a better planner. Each step-by-step project had to be made to completion ahead of time, and then created a second time, step by step, in front of the camera. It was quite an undertaking!

Susan McLeary corsagesErin: In the introduction you write, “Through years of reading, observing others, creating, taking apart, and creating again, I’ve developed some helpful rules based on a set of principles that I use over and over again. These design rules guide my work … .” You go on to explain contrast, weight, air, and the golden ratio. Why was it important to you to include design principles and theory?

Susan: This is really important to me at this stage of my work life. There’s a richness underneath floral design—design principles and art theories that, when applied, can answer placement questions and inform the choices the designer makes. These result in work with dimension, movement, depth, naturally pleasing proportion, and visual flow. I’d argue that when one has knowledge of these, the work becomes more stimulating and creatively sustaining. It becomes more than making beautiful compositions, it becomes the creation of art. I think there’s a danger of losing interest or becoming stifled without this awareness.

Susan McLeary amaranth wigErin: I loved what you wrote in your dedication: “Create that which you crave to see.” Can you tell us what that means to you and why it was an important enough phrase to make it into your dedication? 

Susan: This has become my mantra! I found, in my own life, that when I try to replicate what other people are doing or when I work in reaction to a request, I make things that don’t inspire me or others. It’s only when I listen to my own creative voice that I make things that fire me up—thus leading to greater creative energy and more ideas—and also connect with other people. It’s also sort of a kick-in-the-pants mantra in my mind: If there’s something you see that needs to improve or change, then take the initiative and push a solution forward!

Susan McLeary greenhouseErin: I’m curious about the sourcing process for the various flowers, succulents, and greenery used in your book? Did you use local flowers? 

Susan: Yes, as much as possible. I live in Michigan, so the season is short, but within the season I reached for local materials first. In the growing months, I bought as much as possible from the Michigan Flower Growers’ Co-op. I also gathered from Seely Farm, Michigan Flower Farm, and the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Many of the blooms were grown by my friend Adrianne of Marilla Field and Flora. She allowed me to pop over to her field after hours, count my own stems, and send payment online, all of which was incredibly helpful. The healthy, teeny baby succulents in the living jewelry chapter were grown by my favorite local greenhouse, Graye’s. In the cold months, I had flowers shipped to me from Florabundance in Carpinteria, California. I love the fact that they source from plenty of U.S. growers and label these selections on their website, and their quality is superb. I also grow a bit in my teeny yard and was happy to have attractive clipping options outside my front door.

Susan McLeary floral tattoosErin: After what I’m guessing has been many years of dreaming of and working toward this book, its release is just around the corner now! What do you hope comes from the book’s venture out into the world? 

Susan: I hope this book cracks open the door a bit, prompting the public to take more of an interest in the art of floral design. I hope it’s well-received, showing the publishing world that floral design is indeed enjoying a renaissance. Selfishly, I hope it leads to another book project! I’d also love the opportunity to design for mass consumption media and collaborate with global brands.

Erin: I’m sure you are busy planning events and workshops for your book release. Can you tell us a bit about your approach to teaching? And do you have in-person workshops or presentations coming up?

Susan: My approach to teaching has really developed over the years. I’ve always enjoyed demystifying intricate or complicated-looking designs, and I continue to share methods that aim to do that, but I also focus on sharing the importance of curiosity, finding your specific, unique passions within the field, and streamlining processes. I hope to cultivate an enthusiasm for this work by sharing mine.

I do have quite a line-up of workshops and presentations coming up. In March, I’ll host a book release event in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. From there, I’m presenting, teaching, and participating at the Trend Summit in Vancouver. After that, a public book event in New York in conjunction with the Chapel Designers conference. In late March, I head to Holland, where I’ll be teaching at the Boerma Instituut. After that, I’m pleased to be teaching alongside Hanneke Frankema for the Mayesh International Experience workshop.

In May, I’m excited to teach a workshop at Menagerie Flower Farm, and mid-month, I head to Seoul, Korea, to teach a 3-day workshop with the wonderful Saison Fleurie. In June, I’m teaching at the New York Botanical Garden, and at the end of the month I’m giving the keynote presentation at the Slow Flowers Summit. In early July, I will teach the first of two U.S. workshops with Mayesh, in San Francisco; the other will be in October in Raleigh, North Carolina. My final stop is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in October. Links to all of these events can be found on my website.

Susan McLeary white floralErin: What are you currently working on, dreaming of, and excited about in your life and work?

Susan: I’m doing a lot of daydreaming and making a bit of real progress on a new book idea. It will be an information-dense essential meant for designers and growers alike. I’m also working on some product development. If all goes well, an announcement of my new wearable mechanics line will happen in April. You’ll be the first to know!

Erin: Anything else you’d like to share?

Susan: I have to add that in addition to the online classes I run, I recently released the Virtual Studio. This is an affordable monthly subscription that delivers new tutorials and live master sessions each month, along with an interactive forum meant for sharing innovations, ideas, and progress. The classes offer specific design solutions, foundational skills, and methods for pivoting to sustainable design practices. I’m really enjoying the interactive and ongoing format of this model, and the feedback from the student group is fueling my creative energy. I’m thrilled that I’m able to teach this way!

Erin: Thank you so much, Susan, for being here with us today, and congratulations on the release of your gorgeous book.

I’m so excited to give away 3 copies of Susan’s beautiful new book, The Art of Wearable Flowers. For a chance to win, please share which wearable flowers you’re most inspired to try. Winners will be announced on Friday, March 6th.

UPDATE: A big congratulations to our winners Lola Higgins, Michelle Vara and Carolyn Hunter

Please note: If you submit a comment and it doesn’t show up right away, sit tight; we have a spam filter that requires we approve most comments before they are published.

Learn more and connect with Susan McLeary

Book: The Art of Wearable Flowers (Chronicle, March 2020); click here for a pre-order bonus.

Website: susanmcleary.com

Instagram: @passionflowersue

Photos from The Art of Wearable Flowers (Chronicle Books, 2020). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Amanda Dumouchelle.

55 Comments

  1. Viv Herman on

    LOVE THE WIG!!!!!!!! ALSO THE NECKLACE–WOWZA…

    Reply
  2. Erica on

    I love the flower hair! Especially that photo of it in motion.

    Reply
  3. Sarah on

    I can’t wait to see the book. I want to try earrings!

    Reply
  4. Judith Brink on

    So excited for Sue, I can’t wait to get my hand on her book. I love hats and headpieces so that will be what I am trying soon.

    Reply
  5. Lori Merrill on

    I love the flower designs…my favorite is the necklace!

    Reply
  6. Deanna Brown on

    I love the earrings and how the flowers were incorporated into the dress!

    Reply
  7. J. Ferguson on

    Such lovely arrangements! Thanks for sharing this interview, and continuing to inspire all of us!

    Reply
  8. Joanne on

    I loved the necklace. I can see this in so many variations

    Reply
  9. Lena Paschen on

    Very excited to get to know the design principles Susan is talking about. Her words are so well chosen! The succulent ring is really cute but i’d love to try out the necklace. Challenge yourself!

    Reply
  10. Michelle Vara on

    I think that tulip magnolias have such an aray of beautiful and romantic colors, which as in nature, goes well with browns to give it a rustic look, would be something I’d be interested to experiment with, alongside other more uncommon but interesting flowers and greenery. I’m a bit of an eccentric, coming from a family of artists, and sometimes you just need the basic or core information on how to create something, then let your creative mind run free, and the end-result always becomes a masterpiece. I’m very excited for the knowledge shared in this fascinating book. Thank you for the chance to win a copy of it.

    Reply
  11. Lily Siegel-Gardner on

    Floral tattoos and the necklace and earrings. I love the ephemeral take on pieces we are used to seeing as everlasting accessories.

    Reply
  12. Kim H on

    I can’t wait to try the succulent ring and bracelet! So beautiful!

    Reply
  13. Kelli on

    I love the idea of earrings and a necklace. That would be such a fun way to incorporate flowers into a wedding party.

    Reply
  14. Kris on

    They’re all so beautiful! The floral cuff bracelet would be a nice addition to any special occasion and seems like a great way to start creating floral jewelry.

    Reply
  15. Nicole T on

    The flower tattoos! I’ve often pondered the conventional method to show my love of flowers- but this way seems so much better and doesn’t include needles! I’m off to grow some succulents and pansies so I can try!

    Reply
  16. Claire on

    Asymmetrical flower crown has me swooning! Can’t wait to try.

    Reply
  17. Sara on

    I think the flower waist belt would be amazing to try since it could have a ton of applications! I could see myself wearing one to a play, or going out to dinner, or just walking around the farm with a smaller one wrapped around my straw hat. Congratulations on the release of this beautiful book!

    Reply
  18. Beccy Lanier Clark on

    Beccy Lanier Clark
    I especially loved the succulent ring, what a unique and fun design. Looking forward to a new way to share the magnificence of foliage!🌺

    Reply
  19. Kelsey Waite on

    The idea of a floral wig has me so excited; why has no one ever done this before? I want to make one for myself! Maybe also a dress, and just go full out flower ensemble! I’m intrigued at how to keep these designs fresh since they can’t use water (or can they?!?). Such a unique book😍

    Reply
  20. Suzanne Tom on

    Sexy, savvy succulents are rocking my boat at the moment. Those earrings and rings seem an accessible way to start…

    Reply
  21. Liz on

    I’m most inspired to try the amaranth dreadlocks! They look so fun and fabulous!

    Reply
  22. Rosemary on

    Oh my goodness this is my kind of accessorising!! 😍❤️😍 I know I should start simple but I would want to try the really epic body coverings. There was one you showed in an Insta story, yellows and whites framing head and shoulders 👌😍🤤 This whole book is just magic ❤️

    Reply
  23. Gaby on

    The flower necklace for sure !! Love it

    Reply
  24. Christina B on

    I enliven to make flower necklaces for my daughters! I think they would love any of the projects though.

    Reply
  25. Rosalie Andrews on

    I love love the earrings! I would be thrilled to wear those!

    Reply
  26. Aimee Enriquez on

    Floral jewelry/body art for sure, they are SO cool and gorgeous!

    Reply
  27. Beth Weidner on

    The full floral “sleeve” winding around her arm is fascinating! Looks like magic is keeping it in place….. new techniques and mechanics I would really enjoy learning.

    Reply
  28. Carolyn Hunter on

    I would like to make the necklaces and arm pieces. I want to wear and encourage others to wear them to special occasions besides just weddings, like prom, birthdays, and church on Easter, Mother’s Day, and Christmas! While growing up, every lady wore fancy corsages to church on these special days. The trend sort of died, and I’d love to revitalize it with the gorgeous wearable art in this book! Maybe I could even teach people to make their own for these occasions in a workshop. (After a lot of practice of course!)

    Reply
  29. Liz Bryde on

    I love your designs! I would love to make the metal cuff bracelet- just stunning. Congratulations on your book. If I don’t win a free copy, I will still be buying one :-)

    Reply
  30. Melanie V on

    I am so intrigued by the floral “tattoos” and the endless design possibilities. Beautiful!

    Reply
  31. Gina D'Apolito on

    I love the flower necklace for its beauty and depth of texture and color!

    Reply
  32. Jennifer on

    Wow! The flower tattoos are wild and would be fun to try!

    Reply
  33. Margaret Thorson on

    I love the amaranth wig. I love those flowers anyway but, oh, what an amazing thing to do with them.

    Reply
  34. Leah Morrison on

    The earings are beautiful, but it’s hard to beat that gorgeous necklace! The colors and textures are fantastic.

    Reply
  35. Abby on

    I would love to try the amazing dress!

    Reply
  36. Melissa on

    I’d love to make that flower necklace for a photo shoot! It’s so beautiful!!

    Reply
  37. Tammy Makoul on

    Would love to learn the floral necklace, the ring and of course how to perfect a corsage! 🤞🏼🤞🏼🤞🏼Looks like an amazing book and an amazing floral designer!

    Reply
  38. Angela on

    The rings and earrings!! So unique!

    Reply
  39. Jennifer Waite on

    I want to learn how to extend the cuff arrangement. I want to try to make it look like jewelry that goes up the arm. These ideas will be amazing for weddings!!!

    Reply
  40. Stephanie on

    Wow, what a beautiful book. I can’t wait to read about the mechanics of how Sue gets the flowers to attach to the skin and how one wears these works of art safely and comfortably.

    Reply
  41. Michelle E on

    Flower tattoos!!! And flower head dresses We made them with fake flowers last year and I’m ready to do it this year with real flowers!!

    Reply
  42. Millie Funk on

    I loved the floral necklace…and the earrings…and the wrist “corsage”…and the trailing arm “arrangement”! I’m curious to know the mechanics to making it all work.

    Reply
  43. Sharon Hoskins on

    I would love to wear the necklace at a summer party at my house! And how much fun would it be to wear the wig to an outside summer concert! The perfect accessories for summertime!

    Reply
  44. Stephanie on

    The necklace is gorgeous. I could also see the waist band piece taking off as a wedding trend!

    Reply
  45. Haylee on

    What an awesome idea. I’d love to try the floral earrings. Or a floral necklace for a special occasion – what a stunning and unique accessory.

    Reply
  46. Randi Carfagno on

    Floral Necklace!!! I’d love to learn the staples like crowns and corsages too.

    Reply
  47. Lola Higgins on

    The flower necklace is stunning! I could see a bridal party with that application, so beautiful.

    Reply
  48. Jennifer Brant on

    The amaranthus wig is amazing! I am looking forward to reading your book and possibly seeing you in Holland. Best of luck with your busy schedule !

    Reply
  49. Tacy Call on

    So beautiful, I’m so perplexed on how those flowers are sticking to her skin… I am not sure what the terminology is but skin flowers. I would like to try that🤪. So exciting to see all these incredible design books coming out!

    Reply
  50. Susannah Pern on

    It’s fascinating work, I’m interested in the construction. The pastel waist band on the bridal dress is stunning.

    Reply
  51. Courtney on

    Wow, so gorgeous! I would love to try to create a flower necklace, spectacular!

    Reply
  52. monica macpherson on

    the necklace which looks like it’s on the front is quite delightful. The concept is quite interesting, would love to see it catch on

    Reply

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