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Turning Floral Arranging Into Art Form

October 31, 1986|ROBERT McDONALD

SAN DIEGO — There's a new "look" in town, "the John Snyder look."

It's not coiffure. It's not couture. It's not architecture, interior design or landscape design.

It's floral design. Snyder's works are more and more often being commissioned for major social events. They appear regularly at Java, the San Diego art scene's coffee bar/gallery, and in the homes of San Diegans who enjoy what Snyder calls "a reasonably priced luxury."

"People are learning that having fresh flowers in their homes on a regular basis is part of being cultured," he said.

A year ago he opened his shop at 721 8th Ave., appropriately the once-upon-a-time site of an art gallery and a design studio. He quickly established himself as a purveyor of distinctive floral arrangements, which resemble contemporary abstract sculpture rather than traditional floral artistry.

Now Snyder has moved to quarters at 825 4th Ave. in the heart of the city's flourishing retail district.

Why is he downtown rather than in the suburbs?

"There's so much vitality here. It has a metropolitan feel. People who come downtown are the ones I want for customers," he said. "They're cosmopolitan and open-minded. We're seeing that men, for example, are no longer reluctant to buy flowers for themselves."

To achieve his "look" in floral composition, Snyder uses all the skills and knowledge he acquired while studying painting and sculpture at UC San Diego. The strongest influence on him there was that of internationally respected artist Italo Scanga, who assembles and paints found materials in sculptures.

The principles guiding Snyder are a concern for the materials used, a fully developed synthesis of Oriental and Occidental aesthetics, and freshness--in the way the flowers are put together as well as in their newness.

The primary formal quality of composition that Snyder expresses with flowers is structure, which, for him, is determined by gravity.

"You don't contrive compositions," he said. "You don't force your materials to do things they don't do naturally. If they droop, let them droop."

Snyder also favors an absence of symmetry in his compositions, although there is always balance.

Finally, he likes to use things that you don't expect to see, to mix the uncommon with the common. For example, he may combine thistles that he has gathered in a field with hot-house blossoms. Or he may mix pieces of scrap metal with exotic foliage.

In his botanical sculptures, the 28-year-old entrepreneur unites visual arts and plants, interests he has had as long as he can remember. Precociously, he started collecting plants as a small child. Since the family moved frequently, he never developed an identity with a community or a strong group of friends.

"I guess I put down roots through my plants," he joked.

During his high school years, he became serious about his avocation and began to import exotic plants. While attending UCSD, he started a mail-order business.

His major at UCSD was neither botany nor art, but interdisciplinary studies in Chinese culture--language, literature, history, sociology, anthropology and religion. He had a double minor in visual arts and biology, however. During a monthlong visit to China, he collected orchids in Szechuan Province.

Reflecting the Chinese influence, Snyder strives to emulate the character of 17th-Century Chinese painting. He especially admires the work of T'ung Ch'i ch'ang.

"I try to create an awkward look," he explained. "I don't want a studied look like ikebana, which is too bound by rules. Plants don't follow rules and artists don't follow rules.

"I do, however, like the Japanese quality of wabi, or spareness. I like a minimal look in floral design. The important thing is the human touch. I want the look of improvisation. Flowers are the colors of my palette and my sculptural forms."

Snyder pointed out that his associate, James Partain, is influencing the development of the "look."

"James is experienced in the floral industry and talented in his own right," Snyder said. "His understanding of history, art and music affects the way he works with flowers.

"We feel that flowers are as much a part of civilized life as clothes, food, the furniture you live with and the music you listen to."

Snyder's ambition is nothing less than to affect the total culture of San Diego--in a very subtle and beautiful way, through flowers.

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