Every Thursday the plan was to meet at Sally Roots. My roommate was the hostess at the Caribbean-fusion restaurant that night, and it became routine for our friends to keep her company as she dried glasses and filled carafes of water — and also to catch up with each other over cocktails.
The restaurant, on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Harmon Street, is a little slice of paradise in Bushwick. It’s tropical but not overtly, with pink walls and tchotchkes lined behind the bar. The lighting is dim and the drinks are superb, so when my eyes caught a grand monstera leaf, painted in vibrant shades of red in the back right corner of the bar, I assumed it was new. Technically it was.
Every week, artist Sophie Parker adds an extra dose of whimsy to Sally Roots with a new botanical installation. One week it may have a statement white fan palm leaf or terrazzo-painted flamingo flower or monstera that looks like it was dipped in the sunset. Or all of the above.
Parker lives in Ditmas Park and works out of a new studio in Ridgewood. She put up the drywall herself and intends to keep the walls white—it makes it easier to see how all the colors in her pieces work together. There’s a wooden swing in the middle, held up with blue rope; supplies and tools lying about, and many, many plants. For the last two years, she’s been working with plants as her main medium under her design studio, Wife. Before that, she was making 8-foot paintings of gardens on canvas and velvet.
Nature has always served as an inspiration. Parker, 31, was raised by a teacher and a painter in rural Missouri, in a town with a total of 72 people. With nothing and no one around, all there was to do was make things and “be out in the landscape and be happy with it,” she said. She never worked with people or “things,” a plant is perhaps the most representational element in her paintings.
Reversing the equation made perfect sense.
“I was like, ah,” she said, snapping her fingers, “this is like the vividness that I wanted in the paintings that always, no matter what, felt pretty flat. Even if you get them huge, 8 feet, filling your entire field of vision, there’s still a limitation there. But if you’re painting directly in something, painting inside of a sculpture that is alive, that’s really cool.”
And the flowers themselves alter a room, they change the mood. They’ve become more than objects that sit in a bowl, and in New York, they’re almost crucial.
“Something that has life to it is always going to make a space feel invigorated,” she said. “Living here I understand how we have to bring the natural world into our domestic world to help us remember that we’re animals and we’re beautiful.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, I sat on the swing and watched Parker create her weekly piece for Sally Roots. It’s among her longest commission, but far from her only client. She works with people and companies, such as John Hardy jewelry. And it’s been a busy month of showing her work. Just the night before she was doing an overnight installation for the Architectural Digest Design Fair, while trying not to freak out about it. The vines meticulously crawling along the floor got in the way of the cleaning crew and were simply picked up and moved. But don’t worry, someone assured her via text, “they were put back.”
“But did you…like I would?” she said, a bit incredulously. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to let go of it. It’s fine, it’s just a vine.”
A piece usually begins as a loose idea. You can’t predict how the plants, accessories, elements and colors will react together. Her piece for Sally Roots begins with a small blue-and-lavender painted monstera in front of a few allium flowers, purple bulbs with a curving stem and onion scent (all the reasons it’s her favorite flower).
“I keep looking at [the plant] like, what am I going to do with it? It looks kinda dorky right now,” she mused. “I think it needs some of this blue fern.”
She talks while she cuts a bushel of fern, already dyed turquoise. There’s no hesitation, she tapes them together and places them, talking despite my concern that I’m distracting her. She paints dark blue lines along the smooth bulbs of off-white calla lilies. The lines and the rope and her pants are the same cerulean blue. She adds lavender fern and takes a step back.
When it looks nearly finished, she moves the arrangement to the white stand by the window for a photo. But it needs more. She runs to her supplies and finds little white styrofoam balls, which she ties with thin white string leftover from a kite-making workshop. More allium are grabbed, placed and given a string, so it looks like they all have a dangling earring.
Then she takes it apart, only to recreate it when she gets to the restaurant.
“Sometimes the space asks it to change,” she said, plucking the stems and placing them in a large brown box.
We convince her studiomates to join us at Sally Roots, and Parker calls an Uber. We snag four chairs at the bar as she apologetically reaches over two friends sitting at the corner to grab the faded-pink box her last piece has been resting on all week. To our excitement, it’s still alive. She takes it apart, dumps out the water and begins to recreate the installation she spent the last hour imagining.
For the most part, all the plants she uses—many from the 28th street floral market—are alive. She saves the faux leaves and flowers for certain projects designed to last.
“By and large, especially with pieces where people get to interact with them, I want them to have that experience of recognizing that, ah it’s real!” she said. “That’s the magic of it.”
But that also does something to people. It makes them happy, but it also makes them sad — some become indignant when they realize the plants will die.
“You also know that this piece is not going to last forever. You only get to be with it in that moment, when you’re encountering it. It’s also fleeting,” she said.
I watched the bountiful bouquet we named “Worm Moon” come to life, bringing the promise of spring with its cool, light colors. And for the first time in weeks, my best friends gathered for “Sally Thursdays.”
All photos courtesy of Sophie Parker.
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