Florist Friday: A Chat With Michigan-Based Floral Artist Susan McCleary

A friendly discussion with one of the most inventive florists in Michigan.

Michigan-based florist Susan McLeary blurs the boundaries between fashion photography and floristry. With a style that’s both modern and elegant, she’s created headpieces, flower crowns, and succulent jewelry from flowers and succulents. When she’s not designing floral jewelry, she’s preparing for a wedding, teaching floral design classes, or creating gorgeous photography concepts from the wearables she creates under the Passion Flower name.

McLeary’s jewelry pieces, which are are elaborate models of bracelets, necklaces, and rings, have been featured on Refinery29 and BuzzFeed and can be found on Etsy. To make them, McLeary takes the root of succulents and attaches them to a jewelry base with plant-safe glue. They’re meant for special occasion wear, but can usually last up to a few weeks. When they sprout, you can gently remove and plant the blooms.

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Though her work also has been featured on the cover of Fusion Flowers Magazine, Modern Wedding Flowers, Style Me Pretty and The Knot, Garden Collage had an in-depth conversation with McLeary about discovering her passion for floristry, her various sources of inspiration, and her innovative succulent jewelry line.

GC: How did you get into flowers? Did you grow up gardening?

SM: My mom is a master gardener, so there were always beautiful gardens growing up, and as a child, I played in nature as much as I could. But it was kind of by chance that I became a florist. I had a hobby of making jewelry, and I’d make jewelry for friends who were getting married. One of these friends hadn’t hired a florist, and as her wedding was approaching she was nervous about it and asked me to do her flowers.

When I was designing her flowers I realized instantly that this is what I’m supposed to be doing — it was an immediate reaction. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have discovered that.

GC: Did you have a gateway flower? For example, a flower you completely fell in love with that led to a larger love of flowers, or a flower that you tend to zoom in on whenever it’s in season?

SM: I named my company Passion Flower because years ago I was on a trip in Italy and the walls outside of where were eating were covered with blooming passion flowers. It was the first time I had really been entranced with a flower– they really made me stop and look. I love them because they are so unusual. Every time someone sees them they stop and ask what they are. It’s a great one to show people and make them appreciate how cool flowers can be.

GC: How do you keep your creative drive going?

SM: I try to take time off and do other things that I enjoy; I get outside as much as I can. I read a lot, and look at what other artists are doing and try to remain inspired— not only from other florists, but from clothing designers, chefs, and architects.

GC: What does a typical, say, Tuesday look like for you?

SM: Tuesday is a day off. Monday and Tuesday are not typically work days, so I’m usually with my young son who’s not in school yet. Most of my weddings are on Saturday, so I go to pick flowers up from flower farms on Wednesday, then Thursday and Friday are preparation for the wedding.

GC: What are some of your favorite local spots?

SM: Our whole family loves to go out to eat, and there’s a great new restaurant called Spencer in Ann Arbor. I like to go to antique shops, farmers markets, green houses, and parks for the kids. I go to Morgan and York, a cafe and wine store, a lot.

GC: Do you have a favorite garden?

SM: We have a botanical garden called Matthaei in Ann Arbor, and I go there in the winter. That’s definitely another place where I gather inspiration.

GC: How do you dress for summer weather? How does your summer style differ from your winter style?

SM: I don’t like shorts, so I always wear dresses in the summer. And as soon as it’s warm, I put on flip flips — I love having my toes free.

GC: How would you describe your style? How has it evolved over time?

SM: I guess my style would be natural and hopefully not contrived. I like to include things that aren’t expected. I want others to be excited by the piece– not just the client. I want another florist, for example, to see it and think, “That’s cool, what’s that?”

When I first started, I was really focused on trying to make what I thought people wanted. My style didn’t really have a voice– it was more the voice of each client. Over the years, I’ve tried to make what I want to make, and to draw people who enjoy that, so that I’m not changing styles every weekend. It took a while to find my artistic voice, and I feel each event has that flavor– but it took confidence, and I didn’t have that at first.

GC: What are your other floral design influences?

SM: I’ve definitely learned a lot from other floral designers, like Francoise Weeks and fashion designers like John Galliano, who do experimental fashion that borders on costume. Travel and spending time in nature as well as paying attention to how things grow naturally are definitely other influences.

GC: If you could travel to any one destination, floral-wise, where would you go?

SM: I’m very curious about Indonesia for the floral design I’ve seen coming out of there, so that would probably be my top choice. I’ve seen a lot of really intricate handiwork like floral jewelry and garlands, but it’s kind of mysterious actually, because you can’t really find a lot of books or design coming out of Indonesia.

GC: How does social media affect your business? How do you interact with it?

SM: It’s impacted me tremendously. Instagram especially has helped me test out new ideas and see if people will like them. For my succulent jewelry line on Etsy, Instagram was really my testing ground for that and the reaction I got from people encouraged me to open that shop. It also helps get the word out when I have new items in store. A lot of virtual meetings have led to teaching opportunities too.

GC: What’s your daily coffee order?

SM: A cortado. Or a short, two-shot cappuccino– not too much milk.

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