As a kid growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Jane Godshalk was good at a lot of things, but never a superstar. Even as a young adult, she buzzed from this to that without putting down landing gear.
"I hadn't found my passion yet," she says.
Today, Godshalk is a lucky lady. At 61, she's blessed with good health, a happy marriage and family, and a hobby that, over 25 years, turned into a career that changed her life: flower-arranging.
That has a slightly frivolous sound, tilting toward the feminine - evidence, perhaps, of lingering stereotypes about the floral professions and what constitutes serious art.
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But to spend a few hours watching Godshalk work is to understand just how silly, how stupid, those stereotypes are. She is truly an artist, capable of transforming even the most prosaic of concepts - the holiday flower arrangement - into something breathtaking.
"Are you dazzled?" she asks. Indeed, you are.
On the kitchen counter of her Haverford, Pa., home, she's filled a sparkling glass cylinder with eight spider mums. Who knew lime-green mums could seem so sleek and astral?
On the dining-room breakfront is an elegant horizontal arrangement of Bradford pear branches, ribbons of aspidistra, Christmas-y red roses and slips of red tulips reaching for the light. All this in a metal urn left over from an antiques show event.
"The tulips are dancing. The stems are somersaulting. Hugely fun," says Godshalk, a certified floral designer in this country and the Netherlands, who teaches at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and has studied with Canadian designer Hitomi Gilliam and Gregor Lersch of Germany.
Since those first forays into garden clubs and flower shows more than two decades ago, Godshalk also has lectured extensively and won awards both locally and nationally and at the famed Chelsea Flower Show in England.
Though she can be tentative in other arenas, she loses herself completely in this one.
"When I'm on stage with maybe 300 people out there, you'd think I'd be thinking, 'What does my hair look like?' But this is when I'm the least self-conscious," she says. "It's a totally transcending experience."
It helps to use premium-quality materials, bought from wholesalers, but Godshalk insists inspiring designs can be fashioned from supermarket flowers and modest "found" or bought materials. Things like pine cones and birch bark, dried mushrooms and alliums, bare branches of pear or dogwood, and fragrant juniper or cedar boughs.
"Once you've chosen the colors, so much of design is the feel of it," she says, citing her penchant for shiny leaves, interesting textures and, for table designs, monochromatic bouquets of a single kind of flower. Besides callas and tulips, she likes heart-stopping Gloriosa or climbing lilies and ranunculus, which resembles a crepe-papery petticoat on a stem.
For a dinner-party centerpiece, Godshalk might fill three glass vases with tulips. Very minimalist, exquisitely clean. "Too many flowers confuse me," she says.
And she's positively ruthless about cutting stems to suit the design. But wait. Aren't long stems the prize on roses and all else? Long stems and buds as tight as chocolate kisses?
Godshalk actually pulls those rosebuds open, petal by petal. She loves the open-eyed look.
But, you whine, now the arrangement won't last.
"They're here and gone. That's what I like best about flowers," she says. "It's about the 'aha' moment. It's about taking your breath away."
Too often at this time of year, we hold our breath (and noses) over store-bought potpourri, those bizarre collections of designer colors, unnatural objects and headache-inducing smells. But Godshalk's seasonal potpourri is fresh, familiar and simple.
She fills the most ordinary of vessels - 6-inch rose bowls, available at craft stores and flower shops - with juniper snippets, lemon peel, cinnamon sticks, bay leaf and white rose petals. Or cinnamon, whole cloves and allspice, orange peel and pine needles. Or cedar and pine, red rose petals and pine cone bits.
None is filled to the top, so you can get your nose in there and inhale. All have a delectable scent and a twig protruding "to lead the eye into the bowl." Great for living room or den, and quite nice gifts for friends.
Another fragrant holiday effort is less conventional: the bridge, or two-container, design, which is asymmetrical and features one side's flowers reaching out to the other side, carrying the eye with it.
Into two low moss-green pots, Godshalk places floral foam overlaid with chicken wire to hold everything in place. She deftly installs red-twig dogwood, glossy galax leaves, slivers of aspidistra, sprigs of cedar and juniper.
She's got shine, texture, smooth, rough. Now for the flowers. She chooses enormous velvety-red roses, brutally snipping their arm-length stems to stubs, puffing out the petals "to give them power" and stacking them one behind the other.
"I want them to make a sweep," she says grandly, "like they're all greeting each other." She adds smaller spray roses, also a ho-ho red and, on a whim, orange nandina berries from out back.
"Now, we have branches, greens, focal flowers, slightly off center, and accents. Are you dazzled?" Godshalk asks again, going on about this being "total play, total pleasure."
We are. And it is, totally.