In the century or so I spent writing The Button Collector, I stumbled upon a veritable alternate universe filled with people who do incredible things with buttons. I figure it must be a deadly sin of some sort to keep them all to myself, so from time to time I want to use this blog to focus on a few of the more fascinating folks out there in Buttonlandia.
Today, I’m really happy to start this series off with Celia Barbieri, The Button Florist, whose studio is in the wonderfully funky, friendly, and all-around fabulous River Arts District in Asheville, NC. Recently I was able to spend several hours with Barbieri learning about her art and all other sorts of button related trivia.
The Button Florist, not unexpectedly, creates flowers out of buttons. This in itself is not as unique as you might think if you haven’t spent as much time as I have googling and tweeting and pinning and tumbling button stuff on the Internet. Just do a quick search for button bouquets—try Pinterest for starters–and I’m willing to bet you will be surprised at what a thing button flowers have become. I can’t say why for sure, but my personal theory is that the button flower market has heated up because it combines several broadly appealing vibes—vintage, boho, whimsical, steampunk—and has somehow blossomed (sorry!) into its own at just the right moment.
In this rich field, The Button Florist stands out thanks to her use of ceramic buttons that she makes and combines with vintage and upcycled buttons to create a product that is much more art than craft. She uses found objects of all kinds—bits of light fixtures, metal strainers, kitchen tools, seed pods, and more—to add texture and pattern to the ceramic pieces. She traces her appreciation for things cast off back to when she was a little girl and had that child-like ability to see little gems other people overlooked—keys, shells, pieces of metal. That’s not so unusual. What is unusual is the fact that she never lost it.
During our visit, Barbieri picked up an intricate metal disk and explained: “My grandmother died a year ago and I’d always loved this little hanger that she had on her wall—it was used to hang pictures but I don’t know what it’s called. Every time I use it, I think of her…..It’s like that with all these bits and pieces. I wonder who had them and what their story is.”
An equally distinctive feature of Barbieri is how her artistry has spanned her whole life. “I’ve been an artist from always,” she said. She was in high school when she first started the button flowers. “I saw a flower made of buttons in the Sundance catalog and I thought, ‘Those are so cool.’ And then I thought, ‘I could do that.”’ And so she did, giving her first bouquet to her sister. “My best friend and I were all about collecting stuff,” Barbieri continued, “so the buttons were a new little treasure to collect.” The girls started giving button flowers to friends when they were freshmen in high school. By the time they were seniors, Barbieri realized she could sell them, starting with a shop in her native Kansas City.
When she was in college at Warren Wilson Barbieri studied ceramics and began making her own buttons. “They’re my unique niche,” she explained. “I realized that all this stuff I had collected and didn’t know what to do with could be used to make the ceramic buttons….It unites the circle theme that runs all through my life.” She also began integrating her proclivity for science and travel into her work. “I majored in science and art in college. I had the mentality that the art would be something I did on the side.” It didn’t work out that way but Barbieri still follows science and sees the environment and nature as huge inspirations for her work. She has picked up items from travels to Ireland, Tibet and other places and incorporates them in her art as well.
On her website Barbieri describes herself as “1 part hippie, 1 part mad scientist and 1 part world traveler.” After getting to know her a bit, I’d say that’s an apt description except for one thing: it doesn’t come close to capturing the artistic vision she exhibits in everything she does. Today, Barbieri’s studio overflows with a medley of color, textures, and artistic ideas. She has recently returned to making ceramic dishware using vintage buttons to press a pattern into the clay. She uses old sweaters to make felt leaves for her bouquets as well as felt wreaths, collars and more. She uses glass beakers to mold tiny ceramic vases. She repurposes old blenders to hold a bunch of single stems. She works with copper wire to make ornaments. She creates wedding bouquets and cake toppers. She makes button earrings, single ceramic buttons, and button magnets.
Her art can be found in a variety of places in addition to her studio. She has pieces in shops sprinkled around the country. She also goes to a dozen or more shows a year, sells on etsy, and makes custom flowers for weddings.
Her market has a wide range, but she admits that one of her favorite customers is the little girl “with some pocket money to spend, who gets excited about buying a flower. . . . . I really like the fact that button flowers are accessible art. Even a child with a little spending money can find something. I may not sell anything that costs thousands of dollars, but I may reach thousands of people.”