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Botanicals find a place in space

They may look like nature's castoffs, but seeds, pods and other plant materials are transformed into delicate mobiles by Kevin Inkawhich.

September 21, 2006|Christy Hobart | Special to The Times

CUT flowers wither, petals drop, bouquets droop then collapse. "They're beautiful for a while," Kevin Inkawhich says of the elaborate floral designs he sometimes spends days assembling. "Then they're cooked. All that work and artistry is gone."

To combat ephemerality, Inkawhich says he started looking at plant materials that were more durable -- seeds, pods, dried leaves, all bound by wire. The result of his quest: botanical mobiles.

"It was like a kooky science project," he says. "When things are still alive or in the process of decay, their weight shifts. I'd watch the subtle shifts in the way they'd move. There were never any chaotic crashes," he notes, still surprised. "Just smooth movement."

Inkawhich had been making mixed-media mobiles using found objects, photo gels, even his own hair. He continued experimenting with plant matter picked up from the gutters, in parks or wherever leaves and pods dropped.

"Eucalyptus leaves have lots of natural oils that keep them from decaying," says Inkawhich, who studied horticulture at Harvard-Radcliffe and at the Massachusetts Horticulture Society. He's found that brachychiton pods hold up well, as do those of liquidambar and cassia. Craspedia uniflora flower heads maintain their bright yellow color over time. Protect these plants from sunlight or humidity, he says, and they can last a long time.

People marvel when they see his work, says Michelle Wayson, an owner of Silho Furniture, the shop on La Brea Avenue that sells Inkawhich's pieces, most of which go for around $3,000, though some sell for $700.

"They all say, 'I see these things on the ground every day, and I never would have thought to use them this way.' " Some people don't realize they're looking at plant material. "They'll ask if the eucalyptus pods are metal."

Kitty Connolly knew exactly what she was looking at the first time she saw Inkawhich's work. The botanical education manager at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens says it's clear that Inkawhich "really likes and understands plants." She says he sees his material as pieces of nature, "not just as beautiful shapes."

Connolly commissioned a piece for the Huntington's conservatory, a soaring glass-and-steel pavilion that opened last year. Inkawhich scoured the Huntington's grounds , collecting almost 200 brachychiton pods for use in the pavilion's 7-foot-by-4-foot mobile.

"I love the contrast of this wildly imprecise work inside the conservatory, which is very precise and Victorian," Connolly says. "I love the balance and simplicity of Kevin's mobiles. He uses natural objects and keeps them natural. He doesn't impose some other value on them."

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HIS latest commission is for Esquire magazine's L.A. designer show house, which will be open for private charity events from the end of this month through December. The piece will appear in a dining room designed by Jane Hallworth that combines antiques and modern pieces in a gothic atmosphere.

"Kevin's work is very poetic," Hallworth says. "It's very dynamic but tragic at the same time."

Inkawhich's hand-knitted copper wire and brachychiton illuminated mobile will float over an enormous American walnut table by Tyler Hays for BDDW. "I've never seen a tree that big," Inkawhich says of the 11-foot-by-6-foot solid plank. "It must have come from woods around Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. I can't imagine where they'd get it otherwise. I can't wait to count the rings to see how old it is."

Inkawhich's love of plants and nature was fostered in the Adirondacks, where he grew up "surrounded by wilderness." It was there that his great-grandmother taught him the difference between potato tubers, which you can eat, and dahlia tubers, which you can't. He learned what could and couldn't grow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's planting Zone 4 and, years later, was "wowed" by what could grow in Boston, which is Zone 6.

Before formally studying horticulture, he earned a degree in business administration and fashion marketing at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. He later worked in fashion as a model, boutique manager, stylist and designer. But plants were never far from his mind: For photo shoots, he designed hats out of pine and hydrangea, dresses out of curly willow and a bustier out of fresh, black baccarat roses.

During a stint living in Paris, he befriended the owners of the floral shop downstairs from his apartment.

"I didn't speak French, but I learned the technique of bouquet and corsage work," he says. The method of manipulating a flower's movement with wax tape and thin wire came in handy when Inkawhich moved to Los Angeles from Boston six years ago and worked in floral design at Mark's Garden in Sherman Oaks and then at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. He now uses the time-intensive method in some of his mobiles.

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