Art in Focus Spotlight: Maurice Harris, Founder of Bloom & Plume
Stepping into famed florist-designer Maurice Harris’ new installation at Rockefeller Center is like wandering into a lush, maximalist garden of portrait photography. A celebration of Black joy, Black excellence, and humanity, the exhibition’s imagery is primarily drawn from two of the Los Angeles-based artist’s photo series — Shades of Blackness Vol. II #untouched #nofilter #naturalopulence and Shades of Blackness Vol. III: Don’t Touch My Hair — which, as Harris explains, investigate “how we as people of color find our beauty and agency.” Now open, this installation is the latest in the 2021 Art in Focus series, produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.
Each portrait shown on the Rink Level, hallways, and lightboxes throughout the campus spotlights a person Harris knows and respects from his community. As a sign of reverence, the artist encircles many of his subjects in a golden halo or a profusion of blooms. In some photos, flowers appear as sculptures intertwined with the person’s hairstyle. “Our hair is really important to us [...] and is something we take pride in,” Harris says, who describes himself as a “big, Black gay man.” These images are a way of “taking the barber chair and reclaiming that throne” to blend everyday rituals with “a little bit of flower magic,” Harris says. He composed each photograph in the installation in his camera with special attention to the lighting quality. His images are not Photoshopped or otherwise manipulated, beyond a small amount of color correction.
When you look into each of the three brass-framed vitrines in the lobby of 45 Rockefeller Plaza, you’ll discover a carefully composed scene featuring Harris’ niece Elyse, with illusions of depth and dimension created from layers of cardboard cutouts. In one, with a warm palette of citrus hues, Elyse dons a ruffled lemon-yellow dress and waters flowers. In another, she grips a mint green parasol among a cascading downpour of white blooms. “It's almost like this nod to Norman Rockwell,” Harris says, “But it’s with a little Black girl, and it's looking at Black beauty.”
Beauty is a concept Harris explores throughout his expansive and expressive body of work, which encompasses the high-end floral design his company, Bloom & Plume, fashions for high-end clients, hosting HBO Max’s floral competition show Full Bloom, producing his own life-affirming TV show Centerpiece (initially on Quibi, now available for free on Roku), a variety of high-profile brand partnerships, and making art. He sees beauty as a versatile, alluring tool that’s inseparable from his signature medium. “Flowers are one of nature's most beautiful gifts,” Harris says. “Flowers are the sexual organs of the plant world. And there's something that's erotic, beautiful, natural, tantalizing, and enchanting about flowers that I love. There's this miraculous quality that’s like magic.”
Harris isn’t the first one in his family to find inspiration in flowers; his grandmother was also a florist, who worked in silk and also made church hats for women. The eldest of four siblings, Harris grew up in Stockton, California. He describes his family as highly creative and flamboyant. Their father was the pastor of their Baptist church, where their mother was the minister of music. “I have this firm belief that we are what we see in the world and what we're exposed to,” Harris says. “My family [members] are so boldly themselves; I think that gave me the idea that I could boldly be myself.” His electric charisma and warm humor are unmissable even through the screen in his television shows and Instagram videos. He seems to light up any space he enters, often bursting into song or dance, or both.
Before his floral design career took off, Harris attended art school at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where he cultivated his life-long creativity. After graduation, he got jobs designing window displays in New York City at Barneys and Juicy Couture, while designing flowers as an uplifting side project. Two years after the financial crash of 2008, he got laid off from his day job. After a series of odd jobs, it was the flower work that stuck and he started to pursue this direction more seriously. Eight years ago, he landed the studio space for Bloom & Plume in the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood of Los Angeles, and next door he opened Bloom & Plume Coffee, a community-oriented coffee shop, with his brother in January 2019. “I've made a lot of mistakes along the way,” Harris reflects. “It’s a classic ‘small business not knowing what they're doing, but being creative and fighting through it’ kind of story.”
Bringing his art and floral assemblages to Rockefeller Center is something of a return to the origins of Bloom & Plume. Since the seeds of the idea for the company were initially planted and fostered in New York City, the endeavor has grown immensely. Now, sometimes only private, high-end clients, like celebrities or luxury brands, get to experience the grandeur of Bloom & Plume’s floral designs. Harris says he started his photography projects as a way for more people to have access to his artwork. “It’s just the most exciting opportunity to have such a humongous platform at Rockefeller Center to engage with the public,” Harris enthuses. “Where art does a beautiful job is getting regular folks to think about things differently. And this is an exciting space to be able to do that.”
Harris’s invitation to visitors? “Stop and smell the roses!” The vinyl murals in the exhibition bring a larger-than-life spin to Harris’s photography that he hopes will intrigue passersby and draw them in to look more deeply. “Even though New York is historically a very fast-paced place, I hope that people can take a moment to slow down and take in the beauty and that they are able to see themselves in these installations in some way,” he says. “Hopefully the images start to get you to look at things a hair differently [and] captivate you in a way that adds a delightful touch to your day or warms your heart or makes you feel something. If I can contribute to encouraging folks to feel more, I feel like I've done my job.”
Maurice Harris’ exhibition opens throughout the Rockefeller Center campus on September 7 and will run through November 20. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.