Susan McChesney came from Maine to WNC in 2014, having spent 40 years teaching others to draw. “A spinal injury left me with a shaky hand,” she confides, “and that’s why I got into pressed flowers when I came here. Instead of just pressing them, I use them like strokes of paint.” McChesney didn’t personally know anyone using flowers that way, but she taught herself through research into the centuries-old Japanese tradition of oshibana [pressed-flower art].
“One thing I learned,” she says, “is that it’s oxygen, not sunlight, that is the primary stealer of color.” To prevent fading, she seals each piece between a thin sheet of metal and a piece of glass or UV acrylic. She applies a bead of silicone sealant around the edges, vacuums out the air through a straw with a pump, and then frames the art.
Because leaving Maine meant leaving behind her gardens, McChesney actively cultivates close working relationships with Buncombe and Madison County flower farmers. After the laborious process of collecting, pressing, and placing the flowers into transparent protective sleeves, she sorts them for storage. But rather than archiving them by species or variety, she organizes them by tonal value. “I spread them all out and then pick dark, medium, and light values. If people point to a flower and ask me what kind it is, I have no idea. To me it’s yellow.”
Her farmer friends also supply flowers for weddings, which led McChesney to create her most recent body of work, “Petal Passages.” She presses wedding bouquets and other special-occasion flowers “in the spirit of the original bouquet.” Just before sealing those pieces, she’ll photograph them to make photo prints and cards, and brides often use the cards as personalized thank-you notes.
“I have my hands in a lot of different things at different times,” notes McChesney. “I used to find seashells the size of the palm of your hand, and I use felt to create landscapes inside of them — sunrises and sunsets in little shells.”
Prior to the Covid era, McChesney taught workshops at Asheville Art Museum, showing how to combine drawing and watercoloring to make writing journals. During the pandemic, she wrote and illustrated children’s stories for her grandchildren, to keep those connections strong. “Now I’m feeling calmer and more hopeful about the future, and am back to gluing petals again,” she says.
“I just kind of can’t stop — it’s what keeps me alive.”
Susan McChesney, Marshall. The artist’s originals and prints are carried by Flow Gallery (14 Main St., Marshall, flowmarshall.com); prints are carried by Miya Gallery (20 North Main St., Weaverville, miyagallery.com); and cards are sold at Carolina Flowers Mercantile (62 South Main St., Unit 1, Marshall, carolinaflowers.com) and at Madison Natural Foods (101 North Main St., Marshall, 828-649-2100 and on Facebook). McChesney will be teaching a pressed-flower workshop this summer at Asheville Art Museum; for more information, see mcchesneyart.com and on Facebook and Instagram: @mcchesneyart.