Tiffanie Turner: The Fine Art of Paper Flowers


{Image of Tiffanie in her studio in Dogpatch, SF}

Six years ago, back in the summer of 2011, a group of 12 women gathered in my San Francisco studio for a day of inspiration and learning. The brainchild of Danielle Krysa of The Jealous Curator, Girl Crush was an event held in the studios of different female artists’ across North America. The purpose of the each event was learning, sharing ideas for projects and getting inspired to lead more intentional and innovative creative paths.

One of the 12 women in my studio that day was Tiffanie Turner. Tiffanie had been an architect for two decades and was currently taking time off to be a mom to her then two small children. As we sat in the circle sharing our stories that day, I remember Tiffanie clearly, and perhaps more than anyone else there. She was bored being an architect. She wanted to express her creativity & artistic talent differently. There was a fire burning in her. She was gregarious and funny, passionate and determined.

Shortly thereafter, Tiffanie was diving into a new creative outlet: burlesque dancing. Fortuitously, she created a character for herself fashioned after Frida Kahlo. Of course, what does every Frida need more than a head full of flowers? It was in filling that need that Tiffanie’s journey into paper flower making began. Six years later, that seemingly random act has led to a burgeoning career as a fine artist. Her botanical sculptures have been shown at, just to name a few places, The DeYoung Museum, Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boston, The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and have been featured in Vogue Magazine and American Craft.

Tiffanies’ story is both a celebration of the power of synchronicity (how the confluence of seemingly random things in our lives can lead to new paths) and the “happy accident” (in her case, needing paper flowers for a costume leading to a thriving career as a fine artist). But hers, as you will see, is also a story of enormous discipline, devotion and ingenuity. What Tiffanie creates are technically complex and detailed works of art.

Lucky for us, Tiffanie has just published her first book with a set of instructions for making paper flowers that won’t take you weeks. In fact, some of them are quite simple. I am so honored to interview Tiffanie here in my Interviews with People I Admire series. The Fine Art of Paper Flowers is released today. I talked to Tiffanie about how she got started, her new book, what keeps her in the game of flower-making, the intensity of her work  and what she hopes is next for her future as an artist.

{Please note: all images here in this post reprinted with permission from The Fine Art of Paper Flowers: A Guide to Making Beautiful and Lifelike Botanicals, by Tiffanie Turner, copyright © 2017, published by Watson-Guptill, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Images copyright 2017 by Aya Brackett}

Lisa: Tiffanie, tell us a little bit about you. What is your background, and how did you begin making paper flowers?

Tiffanie: I am a licensed California architect, and worked in architecture for about 20 years. After I had my second child, Oliver, I was able to take some time off from working as an architect to just take care of the kids. But out of the blue a few months after Oliver was born, I went through a health scare that made me wonder how long I would have facility of use of my hands and eyes, and I decided to do something “crazy”. I signed up to study burlesque performing and began performing around San Francisco under the name “Yve Jobs”. For an art history themed show, I decided to perform as Frida Kahlo, and of course needed a pile of flowers for my head. I did some research online and couldn’t find a paper flower tutorial that seemed sturdy enough for a performance headdress, so I started to make them myself.

At that time, I was still struggling to figure out a visual creative outlet for myself, something more tangible or permanent than performance, which is when I met you at the Girl Crush seminar here in San Francisco at your studio. Hearing you talk as such a self starter in your field of art certainly was a perfect storm with where I was with the paper flowers, and gave me lots of tools and examples of how to turn it into more than just a hobby!

Lisa: You’ve delved into many creative projects in the past. What is it about making paper flowers that got you hooked in a way that nothing else has?

TIffanie: I’ve thought about this a lot, and it comes down to my love of the paper I use, as much as my love of flowers. I grew up in New Hampshire in the forest. I have always loved nature: trees, lakes, sand, moss. They are my lifeblood. But flowers have always appealed to me on a more graphic, visual level. They contain everything I need as far as patterns and textures and colors. I really started to study them through painting as a hobby, when I was in architecture school years and years ago, and became more and more obsessed with them over time. My friends who knew me all those years ago say “She had those flowers inside her this whole time and they just had to come out somehow”! The paper I work with exclusively is crepe paper from Italy, Germany and China. Before I discovered it, I’d never worked with a material that came in this many colors. I’ve been an architect most of my life, and these are just not generally the colors I’ve ever been drawn to. But it is like candy to me. So much of what hooked me in was being able to surround myself with these colors all day.

Lisa: The problem solving aspect of art is one of my personal favorites. Your flowers look incredibly realistic and I think that is part of what is so amazing about what you do. To what extent do you study actual flowers and what kinds of experiments do you do to get your paper flowers to look like the real thing? How does problem solving factor into your work?

Tiffanie: I spend countless hours looking at books, online, and going to the florist’s shop to find my specimens. If I need something in particular, I’ll ask the florist to look for it at the flower market for me. The realistic shapes and forms I get come from studying the flower and trying to create exactly what I see, not just what I think I remember that flower to look like. I can stretch the paper and manipulate it in many ways to get it to do what I want. With these life sized paper flowers, there is some problem solving as far as how do I find or create the proper color for a specimen. Sometimes I won’t make a certain flower at all if I don’t think I can truly capture its color. I also will spend time using a variety of different stretching techniques to be sure I can capture the petals. But to be honest, I’ve made so many flowers now, a lot of it just flows right out of me without much thought!

Lisa: The scale of much of your personal work in flower making is enormous, and there is even a chapter in the book on making giant flowers. How did you decide to work large? And what advantages and disadvantages does that create for your process?

Tiffanie: The giant flowers and how to construct them came to me in what I can only describe as an epiphany. I had been noticing three things constantly popping up on the internet at the time. Peonies, piñatas, and crepe paper. One day out of the blue I started thinking about how to make a peony piñata, and how I could invert the piñata balloon base so the petals could “grow” from deep inside the flower, and I jumped on it that night. I worked on them for several days, photographed and wrote a blog tutorial about them, hit “publish” and left for a long road trip without cell coverage with my family. I told my husband, “I think this might be big.” Several days later when I went back online, the flowers had been pinned and posted and shared so many places. It was pretty magical.

The advantages of working large is that it has allowed me to work on significant art pieces that have room to bring more meaning to than just room decor. I work with concepts about fading beauty, the destruction of our natural environment, about overt female body parts and with different natural genetic mutations the heads of flowers go through. Working large also catches people’s attention more easily, which I think has opened many opportunities for me in the few years I’ve been making this work. The disadvantages is that my work is absolutely exhausting. One sculpture can take four to six weeks of dedicated, nonstop work to finish. It is tough on the whole family as I near finishing a piece. I can’t be bothered with anything else, and that can cause a lot of problems at home, even with my incredibly patient family. Because the sculptures are made up of thousands of petals, and take so much time, I end up with a giant backlog of ideas: specimens, techniques, textures, colors, and experiments sitting in my head, waiting for me to try them. I always know what I am going to create next, because I have so much time to think about it while working on piece that comes before it. I select the flowers based on how well I think it will translate in paper, whether I can make an abstraction from it that still reads like the flower, even if it has hundreds of times the amount of petals it would normally have, and what the texture and color are. It can give me a lot of anxiety to think about all of the things I haven’t had time to create yet.

Lisa: Often when we discover our magic super power, as you have clearly done in flower making, we don’t want to share our secrets. But you have written and photographed an entire book showing other people how to engage in your magic. What led you to making a book?

Tiffanie: I have always wanted to share part of myself in an indelible way, like in a book, and I knew I had something inside of me to share, even when I didn’t know exactly what it was. When I found paper flowers, and saw the response to my work, I knew that eventually I would try to make a book about them. I didn’t want to self publish, because I also wanted the validation to come from outside. That someone else would take a gamble on my craft and my art. As you know, a publisher puts tremendous resources into getting your book made and then selling it, and that kind of endorsement of my work is what I was looking for.

When I started sharing my work online, the questions would come constantly, almost rudely. How did you do that? Can you send me the tutorial? So I knew there was a lot of interest in my style of paper flower making. Because I am self-taught and have a lot of techniques that only I use, I had a lot to share. There was also a niche open for a paper flower book that leaned more toward realism, like mine does, and I had to strike while the iron was hot.

Lisa: What was the process of making the book like for you? What was the most fun for you and what was the most difficult?

Tiffanie: As I say in the book, “it was sometimes so difficult, I wasn’t sure I was doing it right”. This book was the hardest thing I have ever, EVER done in my life. I had no idea. I went right from my residency at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in May 2016 to seven months of being chained indoors writing and shooting, followed by another two and a half months of editing, working truly around the clock. I loved it a little but mostly it was grueling. I couldn’t spare the time to drive to my Dogpatch studio (or drag the kids there all summer), so no one used the living room for six months while I made the flowers and shot the book there. It was like three projects in one. I wrote the book, shot the tutorials, AND made all of the extra flowers for the “beauty shots” (shot by Aya Brackett).

The very hardest part was dealing with word counts. Trying to fit each tutorial into 650 or 750 words, depending on the photo layout, was really tough. I’d have to scan over some tutorials twenty times in order to pluck just enough words from them to make them fit. One of my favorite parts of the process was laying out the book. Because I am an architect, I am good at putting little pieces together to make a whole. Organizing the book map was so fun, and again, took problem solving. I loved finding creative ways to lay out the chapters and what happened within the chapters, even the little details like where to put the petal templates, that might set the book apart from others of its kind.

Lisa: What is your favorite flower in the book?

Tiffanie: The rose on page 75 is my favorite. It is called “My Very Favorite Rose (or, A Very Large Rosa Perle d’Or)”. It is based on a photo of a rose I saw online when I was at my first artist residency in New Hampshire in September of 2015. It’s one of those flowers I saw and wanted to drop everything to make. It took me forever to narrow the identification down to three roses I think it might be, and I’m not sure exactly which one it really is. But it pushes all my buttons. The directions are bananas and no one may ever make it, but if they do, they will be happy. It’s so pretty!

Lisa: What is the most enjoyable thing about making paper flowers? Why should people give it a try?

TIffanie: Paper flower making is just rewarding. I love watching my students go from two hours with their heads down quietly cutting fringe for stamens and not knowing what’s going to happen, to that last hour when everyone is chatting again and starting to recognize the flower they are creating. If you spend the time and you stay observant, you can make something really beautiful. There are meditative qualities for me in paper flower making. I will struggle chasing the correct form for each petal I add to a flower, never quite getting it right. Then 200 petals later I’m on the way to creating something beautiful without even realizing it.

Lisa: Where has paper flower making taken your career, and is this where you will settle for awhile? What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Tiffanie: My career has moved as far away from architecture as I could take it, and I am so grateful for all the curators and writers and people who have paid attention to my work to allow this to happen. I am now represented by Eleanor Harwood Gallery here in San Francisco, a gallery I have been flirting with for a few years because I knew we could be a great fit, and I just signed with last month. I have commissions lined up through next March, at which time I will begin to build a new body of work to exhibit at the gallery in January 2019. I have wanted to know what having a gallery represent me would be like and what it would do for my career for a long time, so I am very excited to spend the next year or two seeing where this will take me.

But like many people, now that I’ve reached that goal I am setting new ones. My workshops have taken me all over the country and Mexico, but I’d really love to do some teaching abroad. If anyone has an old chateau in Provence they want to hold paper flower classes in, I’m your gal! I also have big dreams of being able to create and sell enough work to be able to go hide out in the woods with my family like Lee Bontecou, and come up for air and a show every five or ten years, or whenever I’m feeling it. That’s the 20 year plan. So far everything I’ve planted the seed for in my head has happened, so fingers crossed for this one.

Lisa: Where can people find you on social media?

TIffanie: Find me on Instagram at @tiffanieturner.

Lisa: You can purchase Tiffanie’s new book here or wherever books are sold.