Photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
Southern Flowers in Southern Pots
At Leland Little "Arts of the South" generally refers to Southern Pottery and Folk Art. But when we add Durham, North Carolina, photographer and florist Allison Donnelly to the mix, the definition gets a little more botanical.
It makes sense that as a photographer, Donnelly sees the world through an artistic lens. Her Instagram account, @allisonstray, is filled with otherworldly shots of her unique arrangements and floral studies that make flowers seem like as much of an artistic medium as oil paint or clay. Donnelly's photos live in that liminal place where it's hard to tell if it's the natural beauty or the creative interpretation that holds sway. As with most things, the magic likely lies in the harmony between the two.
Self portrait by Allison Donnelly
A Pair of Two Handled Vases, Attributed C. C. Cole (Westmoore Area, NC); photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
With the abundance of Southern Pottery in our recent Arts of the South Auction at our disposal, we called on Donnelly's talent to help us realize the full potential of a few of these already beautiful vessels. After styling the pottery with flowers from local North Carolina farms, Donnelly answered our questions about her creative process.
LLA: What drew you to shooting flowers as your subject? Which came first, the flowers or the photography?

AD: Photography is a quiet tool for slowing down and observing the moments of existence. It gives proof to what I see and experience, to remind me it is fleeting. I pursued street photography when I was in art and design school. When my kids were young, my camera was always with me, trying to capture their moving, playing and changing. So the act of observation was always there for me. It wasn't until the kids got older that my nurturing shifted to gardening and plants.

Flowers ask you to slow down and look. From gardening, I found myself wanting to bring them inside - to explore and understand their color and shape more. I enjoy the physicality of creating a bouquet or arrangement. It is a three-dimensional act, creating a sculptural snapshot of a moment in the season. Then the camera allows you to capture that slice of time in a different way. I like the shift between the physicality of touching flowers and then looking through the lens.
Large Presentation Pottery Basket (NC); photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
LLA: Both your photographs and your arrangements are beautifully specific. You seem to exercise admirable restraint in your creative choices. How do you choose what details to shoot or which flowers to include in your arrangements?

AD: I wanted to keep it as simple as possible and show how these objects inhabit our home and can enrich our connection with flowers and our surroundings. That's what the potter wanted. I was tempted to create elaborate sets with the vases, because there's so many possibilities with these classic forms. The flowers of summer lead me in a specific direction however.
LLA: From where do you take your inspiration for your photographs and arrangements?

AD: Edward Steichen is known first as a photographer, but he was also dedicated to growing delphiniums, and was entranced by flowers. The sensitivity of Imogen Cunningham. Gordon Park's color work and eye for composition. The styling of Irving Penn.

I'm fueled by color and can always deep dive into the work of Josef and Anni Albers, Matisse and Le Corbusier's paintings.
Large Shaped Rim Vase, Attributed J. B. Cole Pottery (NC); photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
I'm drawn to the handwork and observations of Mary Delaney, who created cut paper plant specimens, and I'm also moved by the images I've seen of how Japanese tea houses incorporate flower arrangement and pottery - it's something I want to understand the intention behind.
Photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
LLA: What was your starting point for the arrangements you made with the pottery from our Arts of the South Auction?

AD: I immediately reached out to my friends who grow flowers- Alice at Bluebird Meadows, Renne at Wild Scallions Farm, and Kara at Ebb and Flowers in this case.

They all grow at different scales and cultivate different varieties. Each thinks hard about what to grow in the space of a season. Late July is at an abundant phase with soft-petaled dahlias starting to come in, pineapple lillies with their architectural structures, and gladiolus towering.

One of the things that drew me to this assignment was that the pottery came from the red clay soil of NC, and I mainly work in and with flowers grown in our area. Both come from the same soil, both were created from hands in partnership.

There's a vitality to local flowers that speaks. Every ounce of their being, embodies the sun, rain and they display the force of nature. They themselves are a snapshot of existence.
LLA: Any sage words of advice for people creating arrangements of their own, perhaps in Southern pottery?

AD: These vases are objects of beauty unto themselves. They have a classic form that can be appreciated in any setting. They're objects of structure and strength. They aren't mass produced - they're a document of someone's effort. They're also asking you to use them. The artist is sending you an invitation to interact with them - here's how the earth and I worked together, now it's your turn to fill them.
Photo and flower arrangement by Allison Donnelly
Arts of the South
Thursday, August 12th
10:00am (EDT)

A Selection of Pottery from Arts of the South