A Chagall Legacy

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I INTERVIEWED BELLA MEYER at her shop, Fleursbella, on East 11th Street in early May, peony season for New York florists. “I just need two peonies [pronounced in French Swiss-German accent pe-o’-nies] to go into the refrigerator, because they’re open already? This one and that one. What do you think?” she asked her assistant.

Meyer brings a rich legacy to floral design. She’s a granddaughter of the painter Marc Chagall for whom bouquets had deep significance. She remembers giving him flowers as a child and he would paint them into his compositions: “Very early on he started to use the bouquet to visualize relationships, love, togetherness, home. It was the same way he would paint a tree, as though flowers and bouquets were a big tree, a tree of life, interconnected.”



Chagall’s canvases were receptacles for fiery color from his paintbrush, but Meyer’s palette depends on flowers themselves. “They’re ever changing and some flowers, you can’t figure out what color they are—it’s so mysterious and changes back and forth,” she says. Making art always has been in her life: “I loved sculpting, even when I was little. I took some clay and did things like this [batting air with her fists], and one of my fondest memories is with my mother who gave me my first oil box. One day she said, ‘We’re going to paint together.’ And so we sat in her bedroom in the south of France and painted a rose bouquet in a white vase on a table. She was a very harsh teacher: ‘You don’t need to have both legs the same color, never the same color.’ So she was good, I carried that inside me.”

Meyer trained as an art historian, designed costumes, then built puppets and masks, all of which inform her work today: “I always want something beautiful, something which tells a story. I’m asking myself, ‘Oh, is it this way? Can I tell the whole story like this? Or do I have to have it like that?’” Recently, working with the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the opening of the baroque opera Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, she used big white lilies, which, as she put it, “were singing along.”

Meyer selects her flowers from the New York flower markets; she had a beautiful bowl of pearl colored French peonies the day I stopped by. Forest materials—roots, pods, and branches—come from foraging in the woods. Recently, she’s used thistles, lichens, and bark for “ephemerals.” Her installations, sometimes twenty feet high, transform space like set designs with sculptural components. She says, “I’m always trying to figure out how I can possibly express the atmosphere of the evening in one big arrangement.” A huge moss lady, carved in wood and covered with plaster and chicken wire stands at the front of her shop. One of her most prized creations was an enormous angel that hung over the rotunda of the San Diego Museum of Art. She smiled at the memory, “That’s probably what I really liked the most.”