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Saying it with flowers Home: Susan Kershaw's creations set scenes for films as well as families. Flowers, she says, are a way of communicating.

In Susan Kershaw's eyes, a dried coneflower on a slender stalk is not a prickly brown husk, but texture to be added to a winter floral arrangement. An empty room is not simply a space to be filled with furniture, but an opportunity to create an environment. An old glass vase is not junk, but a unique vessel for flower art.

Kershaw, a creator of floral arrangements and interior designs, has fashioned environments for families and for films and television shows, for real life and for pretend. She is able to use flowers as both foreground and background, dominant centerpiece and small touch.

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"I've always been drawn to flowers, and I've always thought of them as a way of communicating," she says.

Kershaw used her expertise to help set the scenes in a film called "Washington Square."

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Directed by Agnieska Holland and set in in the 1850s, the film was partially shot last July and August in a 150-year-old Union Square rowhouse. Scheduled to be released next year, it is a remake of a Henry James love story that takes place in New York and traces the story of Catherine, a wealthy Victorian girl, from infancy to young adulthood.

Advance preparation

As the film's floral specialist, Kershaw was responsible for choosing and arranging the flowers that formed a backdrop to each scene. Weeks before the film was shot, she began to prepare. In her own garden, she planted vintage orange, yellow and cream zinnias, blue asters, baby's breath, pink and red celosia and Echinacea (coneflowers, then used by doctors to bolster patients' immune systems) -- all to be used in the movie.

From history and period design books, she learned how the upper classes of the Victorian era decorated their homes. And she researched what flowers meant to people living in the 1850s. "I tried to carry through on the concept of the language of flowers the way they did in Victorian times," she says.

For a scene involving childbirth, the Glencoe designer fashioned a luxurious arrangement that would sit on the bed stand and that would be "dripping with flowers, full like a woman heavy with child," she says. Its huge, pink, open roses symbolized motherhood, and its small, pink roses stood for the child. Nearby, Kershaw placed a teapot, cup and saucer (purchased at a local flea market) to hold the herbal concoctions that might have been offered to a woman in labor.

In the hallway, she put a huge arrangement of tiger lilies -- symbols of wealth and pride, and an allusion to the man of the house. To symbolize Catherine, the film's young protagonist, she arranged a bedroom bouquet of lilies of the valley, which stand for delicacy and purity.

And for a scene depicting a Paris hotel -- shot in the Peabody Institute's library -- Kershaw ordered flowers that would complement the reds and oranges of the Aubusson carpet. She filled two huge marble vases (borrowed from her church) with pink Livia roses, orange Perio roses and brilliant red Godisia roses and blue Canterbury bells.

The piece de resistance, however, was an arch and a Victorian kissing ball made from wire and lace. Designed by Kershaw and the film's horticultural consultant, Jay Stump of Spring's Nursery in Owings Mills, the two pieces took days to plan, thousands of roses to decorate and precision timing to pull off.

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A two-minute scene

Both arch and kissing ball were created to adorn the front exterior door of the Union Square rowhouse -- part of the background for a two-minute scene in which a wedding party drove up in three horse-drawn carriages and got out.

Because of the heat, however, Kershaw and her helpers had to wait until just before the scene was shot to put the flowers in place. "We had about 15 minutes to stick thousands of roses into the chicken wire arch," Kershaw says. "It was intense chaos."

But it was worth the effort, the designer says, smiling at the memory. The kissing ball was a grand success and, at the moment that the carriages arrived at the front door, Kershaw and her assistants tossed buckets of rose petals into the air so that they'd flutter softly to ground as the bride and groom stepped out. "It was beautiful," says Kershaw. "I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Bit by bit, Kershaw's film project last summer drew in family members: Her mother, Mary Bell Howser, assisted on the set. And, Kershaw cheerfully admits, if she couldn't find the flowers she needed in her yard, she simply stole them from her parents' garden.

No one in her family was the least bit surprised. "No garden is sacred around Susan," her mother says, laughing. "Even when she was little, she was always able to break the rules. She mixes things up and puts them together in ways you'd never think of."

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As a child, Kershaw was drawn both to history -- her family traces its roots in Maryland to 1632 -- and to flowers. About a decade ago, she began designing arrangements for Emmanuel Church, then for friends' weddings. Little by little, her reputation grew until in 1993, she formed Susan Kershaw Floral and Interior Designs. Now, she has expanded her business to include the sale of vintage garden ornaments and bulbs for 19th-century plants that she has obtained through a horticulturist in Colonial Williamsburg.

A few years ago, Kershaw began picking up jobs on TV sets such as "Homicide," and on movie sets, first as an assistant to other designers and landscapists, and most recently on her own. Her credits include assisting Stump on the to-be-released "Contact" (based on a Carl Sagan novel and directed by Robert Zemeckis).

Home and office

These days, Kershaw is likely to be found zipping from job to job, scouring shops for antiques, or shuttling her two daughters to school or play in a minivan outfitted with a computer, a printer and a fax machine. "It's a good thing I don't smoke: It all runs out of my cigarette lighter," she says, laughing. "I'm constantly on the road, and it's amazing what you can do in your car."

But her most creative moments come when she's at home in her stone-and-white Glencoe farmhouse, which was built in 1871 as part of the Charles Carroll estates, she says.

Perched on a gentle swell in the midst of sloping green and gold fields, the house is cradled by a winding dirt road and the curves of My Lady's Manor Creek. At an artesian well to the north sit the remnants of a springhouse built of gray stones that over the years have tumbled down until only one wall remains. To the west, two Jack Russell terriers cheerfully guard the front yard.

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Behind the house is the garden, lying in wait for warm weather, and a rambling red barn. Bunches of drying hydrangea and globe amaranth hang from rafters, sending soothing aromas below. The barn, which used to shelter creamery cows, now is filled with a hodgepodge of objects that seem as though they'd be more at home in an artist's studio or a stage shop. There are silk flowers for arrangements, a 19th-century wheelbarrow, old bricks salvaged from the farm grounds and saved to edge gardens, a white-frame trellis and arch, art-deco garden chairs, paints of many colors, an easel and a ficus tree.

To Kershaw, all are treasures -- wondrous items from vintage ceramic garden gnomes to French wire furniture from the 1860s -- purchased at estate sales or antiques shops to be used in her designs. "This is my favorite place on the whole farm," she says of her barn. "I can almost hear the cows mooing. It's almost spiritual."

'Rites of Spring'

Susan Kershaw's designs and those of eight other landscape designers will be on display April 11-13 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds as part of "Rites of Spring," a garden show with 31 boutiques held to benefit Union Memorial Hospital. Admission is $6, children under 12 are admitted free. For more information, call (410) 554-2662.

Pub Date: 3/09/97


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