Circles of Celebration

Florence Rewinski’s smile tells the story during a LongHouse workshop. Durell Godfrey

Wreaths - circles of wintertime greens with their sharp, bright balsam smells, or vines wound into circles and braided with flowers or herbs - are symbolic of the circle of the year, the turn from darkness to light, the strength of life overcoming the forces of winter, of victory and celebration.

While once worn as crowns, wreaths evolved to become hangings for doors — used in Europe, reportedly, to identify particular houses, like house numbers do today - and as decorations marking the harvest and holiday seasons.

Florence Rewinski, a Southampton native, learned to make wreaths as a teenager, when she worked at the now-defunct Frankenbach’s Florist and Nursery.

The knowledge was handed down to her from Winston Pettaway, who headed the nursery’s landscaping crew.

“In the back of the greenhouse, he taught me the art of roping, boxwood Christmas trees, wreaths - anything that had to do with Christmas decorations.”

“He did wreaths that nobody did at the time,”  the kind she still does today, she said, though hers have “become a little more elaborate.” Using a balsam wreath as a base, Ms. Rewinski adds sprigs of blue spruce, boxwood, juniper, holly, or other greens.

To those she adds dried flowers and natural things she harvests from the woods or along the shore: sedums, rosehips, berries, sea lavender, and live-forever, for example.

But from each plant she takes only a few. “We have to remember that these fruits and these berries are there for wildlife,” Ms. Rewinski said.

She pointed out that one’s own yard, garden, or herbaceous border can provide plenty of material.  Starting at the end of the summer, “I start snooping around, where I can find pockets of things. It’s a renewable source, because I just harvest the dried flower, I don’t harvest the plant.”

Armed with a stack of burlap cut into 4X4-foot squares, Ms. Rewinski heads outdoors, and amasses her collections, putting her finds into the burlap pockets, which she ties with string.

At the wreath-making workshops she leads - the next will be on Dec. 6 at East Hampton’s LongHouse Reserve - Ms. Rewinski said she teaches the how-to, but not necessarily the art. “My class turns around the mechanics of wreath-making. I teach people the bones; the structure. Because the art comes from within.”

At this time of year, Ms. Rewinski puts together as many wreaths as she can, and sells them at Lynch’s Garden Center in Southampton. Kept out of direct sun, they can last “up until Valentine’s Day, plus,” she said.

 Though each year she contemplates giving the art and practice of wreath-making up, “when the season starts rolling around, I can’t help it,” she said.

Growing up, she lived with her family on the National Golf Course in Southampton, where her father worked. A love of nature and the outdoors was instilled, she said, into all their children.

Besides making wreaths, Ms. Rewinski does decorating with natural things, creates organic vegetable gardens, and is among a group of “Green Guerrillas” who teach classes on topics from composting to soil and water.
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An East Hamptoner who sells her handcrafted wreaths under the name Peace of Nature, Donna Cuomo, said, “Everything is from nature.” That’s because her specialty is a peace sign wreath, often with grapevines encircled with moss and cinnamon sticks for the peace sign within the circle. They come in all sizes, from small, 6-inch symbols, to large, like the one she made several years ago for the American Legion Hall in Amagansett, with flag adornments.
 

Baskets of raw materials line Ms. Cuomo’s kitchen and living room in a house at the edge of farm fields. A floral designer who once had a florist shop in Amagansett and still does arrangements and decorating for clients, she works during the summer at a Shelter Island nursery, and takes up wreath-making in the down time.

Ms. Cuomo grows some of the flowers she uses and is looking for land on which to expand. But much of the raw material is culled from the outdoors, a little snip here or there.

“I love ‘shopping,’ ” Ma. Cuomo said with a laugh. She described her walks in the woods and visits to family property. “If I see something, I’m going to stop and cut it.” 

A piece of a pruned white lilac tree is a perfectly straight and smooth branch that she uses. Also ready to use are dried hydrangea cuttings, white or yellow willow twigs, and grapevine culled from stock at her late mother’s house.

 “This time of year, we never can eat at my kitchen table,” she said. “I’ve got pine cones, cinnamon sticks, and I cut my fresh herbs for making herb wreaths. I’ve got berries..., “ she said as she  showed her palette for the decoration of her dried natural wreaths, such as dried pomegranates, oranges, and apples.

Hung outside, the wreaths with dried fruit provide a snack for deer and other animals. But she also puts out “food for birds” by hanging pine cones with suet and seed. She sells her wreaths and the bird feeders by special order and at fairs, such as the holiday bazaar at the Hayground School in Bridgehampton on Dec. 6.

“It’s just so peaceful,” Ms. Cuomo said of her work. The peace wreaths are “a nice little gift because everybody needs a little peace in their life.”

Diana Conklin’s Everlastings by Diana, the dried flower wreaths she has been making for more than 30 years, begin in the soil of her family farm in the Hayground area of Bridgehampton and Water Mill. There, she grows cockscombs, nigella, amaranths, gomphrena, and other flowers, which she dries and uses.

Her father was a potato farmer, and after attending art school at Pratt, Ms. Conklin came back home. “I combined the agriculture and the art, and this is where I am,” she said recently, “a dried floral designer.”

Like Ms. Rewinski and Ms. Cuomo, she does “a lot of foraging” for grasses, vines, bark, seashells, and other objects. To make her constructions, in pots or in arrangements to be hung, she contemplates  the structure of the materials and lets those elements guide the creative process. “Between the container and the plant material I have, I kind of let them tell me,” she said.

During the holiday season, Ms. Conklin also teaches wreath-making, which she will do at a holiday workshop sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust at Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton on Dec. 7.

 


The creativity involved in the craft of wreath-making, and the satisfaction in making one of your own, are shared at local workshops every year by Florence Rewinski, Donna Cuomo, and Diana Conklin, who are profiled here. The women and children in last year’s photos on this page are happily engaged at Marders Nursery and Garden Shop in Bridgehampton, the Peconic Land Trust’s Bridge Gardens, also in Bridgehampton, and Jack Lenor Larsen’s LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton. Give them a call, if it looks like fun.