Flowers are probably the most beautiful things to come from nature. So beautiful, we adorn them in our hair and watch as they majestically bloom with every turn. They elevate our first dates and reassure us that we are just as special as we actually are. For some, they’re even an anchor, grounding those butterflies for that walk down the aisle. You remember flowers. That’s why the floral business is more than just play.
Maurice Harris, a native of “all over California,” currently lives in Los Angeles where he creates some of the most sought after floral compositions in the business. After working a few odd jobs here and there, Maurice launched Bloom and Plume in 2010. What started as a creative outlet very quickly became a full-time escape and passion for Maurice.
Maurice is my boy! Right away, our commonalities were at the forefront of our conversation. His energy no short of electric and his authenticity could be felt from miles away.
Maurice Harris: I’ve tried so hard to be other people. When I was younger I was picked on for being gay or not being masculine. I switched schools a lot and every single time I tried to be a different person; I’m going to hide. I’m going to be more masculine, and I was never really good at it. I was only good at being myself. So I had to get into it and figure it out.
My dad was the pastor of my church. My mother was the minister of music. I was one of the choir directors. I knew at a very young age that [being gay] was bad. So, I suppressed it in the most extreme way, where I pretty much became asexual and an extreme overachiever to overcompensate for this “flaw.” It’s how I dealt with it. It was my way to hide. ‘Oh, he’s really talented. Oh, he’s really good at this.’ Really it was a manipulative tool that I used to mask not feeling like I were enough. I always knew it was a problem. If someone were to make fun of me for [being femme] I would always think ‘whatever’ because I was so accomplished and well-decorated with awards. When I moved to Los Angeles to go to Otis College of Art and Design, I met my best friend, who I now call my gay mother. She was the first person that allowed me to just be me.
Keni Anwar: How did that feel?
At first I thought I had met the devil. [laughs] My parents told me that I needed to be careful moving to LA because people would try to “make me” gay and that the devil would be busy sending his demons to try and turn me out. I’m a 20-year-old kid thinking that this person showing me love is the devil. And not romantic love, but almost a “seeing herself in me” type love. She knew that I was hurting. She just let me be. I felt free.
I didn’t come out until my senior year when I was financially stable because I didn’t want to lessen my life because of their bigotry. I had no choice because my senior thesis was about gay identity and queer spaces that don’t look like queer spaces. For example, the Black church— I would assert that 90% of the music, the sound of gospel is created by Black gay men. It isn’t acknowledged. In fact, it is shunned. Cheerleading is another one. Cheerleading, in general, is hyper-feminine. But what you’d find is gay men teaching young girls what femininity looks like. We recreated several other gay spaces, men with mustaches and dresses— it was very gay and there was no way of escaping.
My mother asked if I were gay and told me how disappointed she was in me. None of my family came to see my show. I went from being the star grandson to the most disliked overnight. I tried enough to make my family happy and avoiding doing some things and protecting their feelings.
It’s such a task.
Right! Glad to say now our relationship has made a 180. It came from me realizing that my mother didn’t care about what I thought. And not necessarily in bad way. She didn’t wake in the morning thinking, ‘Oh Maurice wouldn’t like this outfit.’ So I realized why hide parts of myself that [really make up who I am.]
Exactly. Your problems with me are just that: your problems! Being also a Black Queer person, I’ve experienced similarities with my upbringing. Blackness and Queerness is still a topic most are too afraid to touch and I feel I always have to choose which one I am more of. Which leads me to the 2016 Shades of Blackness calendar you created for Bloom and Plume; it is very Black and contains some of the most ethereal, meticulous collection of photos I’ve ever seen. The varying Black beauties and flowers and compositions are a pleasant sight for eyes, for sure. What was your intention for such a striking piece of art?
Black men started dropping like flies. There was no justice. I felt a certain type of way. My feelings were complicated. Protesting seems archaic. You have to get a permit, there’s nothing disturbing about it. It feels like a dated way of activism. I don’t know what I can do about it, but I need to work through these feelings that I don’t quite understand. Being a Black gay guy, I had to question my own prejudices. I look at a few of those boys and I think back to the times I was verbally gay bashed and it was always Black people that did that to me and it was Black people that looked like [Trayvon] or someone we perceived to be a “bad guy,” I’ve been under that person’s wrath. So it felt very complicated. While I felt like I was oppressed by that person myself, the larger issue is that we are all being oppressed by this larger thing. So I started working on this project, that I’m still working on, that challenges the way we view the Black male figure. I do these Black male nudes in floral environments where I’m questioning masculinity, Blackness, hyper sexuality. I create these nudes where they are non-masculine and non-sexual and I use beauty to lure the viewer to strike a conversation about something larger. We are constantly reduced down to [the big Black man stereotype] which I think is the reason why we are constantly dying, people are afraid of us. I as a Black man wanted to challenge this. The idea of Shades of Blackness came up. We wanted to create a collection of photos that showed all the colors that Black people come in and we wanted to juxtapose them with flowers. It was important to [create this] because most of my clients that have a disposable income and can afford flowers which die very quickly, don’t look like me. We need to move beyond the other. Black is just like white is just like everything else. Doing this calendar was a way for me to put beautiful Black faces in everyone’s home. Just a reminder, ‘Wow this is just a beautiful person.’ On some subliminal level, I just want people to think about that in some considerable way. My ultimate objective is to rethink the way we look at people of color in the country. Normalize us in a way that is leveled, if that makes any sense.
I spoke with a young Black filmmaker a while back about Queer people and “hipsters” and we’re so used to folks telling us that we are different, but in actuality we are all the same!
The faster we [come to the resolution] that we are all the same, the faster we can evoke change. The oppressor systemically makes us all work against each other. And I have my own issues with this stuff. I struggle with being Black because I am a Black gay man. I am not accepted in the community that I was raised in. So it is really complicated for me. These are exercises I do to figure out how to love myself.
A brother in the floral business is not something I hear often, which makes what you do truly magical. How has being a Black man affected that?
It works to my advantage. You don’t meet a lot of Black florists that do what I do. If I were a white girl, I would be like anybody else. My experience of having a grandmother that made [those elaborate] church hats— she was a florist. The way she composed things were from such an interesting point of view. [Her work] influences what I do today. I have nonconventional inspiration, but it is through a Black filter. It informs everything that I do. Even in ways that I don’t think it is, it totally does.
Being a Black artist, it almost seems impossible to separate your Blackness from your art. We don’t have that luxury.
Art is a medium to do that. I think a lot of Black artists are exploring things that don’t make sense to them. I don’t want to be anything other than a Black artist. Art is personal and no matter what I do will always be filtered through my Black eye.
Floral arrangements went from you helping out a few people to a growing business in only a few years. What made you stick it out with flowers?
I realized that a job is a job is a job is a job. I often call jobs toilets: whether it is a bidet or a hole in the floor they are all processing shit. [laughs] So I realized that I would always have to keep a hobby; flowers became my hobby. My assistant at the time [at Juicy Couture] got me this wedding gig, but told me I needed business cards. So I came up with Bloom and Plume. Soon after comes the economic crisis, got laid off and I launched Bloom and Plume full-time with my severance package. It wasn’t easy. I quit for a while, but got back in it.
Flowers are very moody! How do you find inspiration to create an authentic piece? Do you listen to a song, watch a film or just go with however you’re feeling? What fuels your creative process?
I am a very intuitive person, works for me most of the time. I’ll just go to the market and [pick] whichever flowers speak to me. Being an outsider than never really fit in, I tend to draw to forgotten flowers or flowers that no one pays attention to or think they are weird. I like that kind of stuff. I like to pair them with things you wouldn’t think to pair them with which is because of my aesthetic of opposition, high and low, good and bad.