By Rachel Breitman
Bella Meyer picks the rainiest, cloudiest, most miserable days to do her graffiti. She rises before rush hour, joins an elite swat team of coworkers and volunteers and prepares her artistic materials. Armed for the day’s task, they descend on the subway and downtown streets. Their goal: to beautify forgotten corners of Manhattan and add a blush of color to people’s lives. Their tools: tiny bouquets of flowers.
Starting this past summer, Meyer, granddaughter of Marc Chagall and founder of the floral design studio Fleurs Bella, came up with the idea of using her arrangements as public art. She selected particularly humid July and August days to hand out the flowers in the streets and subways near her Union Square office and around City Hall. She also used larger arrangements to brighten piles of construction rubble, public telephone booths, and parked cars.
On one unkempt street corner underneath a sign that read “connection for Fire Department,” a vivid rainbow-colored arrangement of white calla lilies, pale green hydrangeas, yellow, red, and peach roses, purple violets, red chili peppers, and a pink Caribbean pineapple camouflaged the littered sidewalk and peeling paint.
Her prime targets for flowers are the grouchiest, most downtrodden folks she can find.
“I like to do it when times are harder. When it’s cold and raining, people need more little joys than other days,” reflected Meyer. “I like to get on the subway Monday morning and give a little joy to commuters.”
“Mostly, you have to be able to disarm people because their natural reaction is to say no,” said Meyer’s office manager Nana Dakin. “Over the course of doing it, you build up a little bag of tricks like smiling, making eye contact. Then people are more likely to take a flower.”
Sometimes passersby are too ill-tempered to accept the present, but on other occasions, the most needy recipients are the most appreciative.
One homeless man who was covered in a garbage bag was particularly happy to get the flowers. “He told us, ‘You made my week. This is beautiful,’ ” Meyer recalled.
Though her street corner designs are not as grand as the recent large-scale arrangements she created in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life for a Human Rights Watch benefit, Meyer nonetheless takes great pains to make her street art memorable. Preparations for each graffiti foray take two to four hours, as many of the final details are assembled at the last minute.
Flowers are only the most recent medium Meyer has experimented with after a lifetime in the arts. Born in Paris and raised in Switzerland, she obtained a Ph.D. in Medieval Art History from the Sorbonne. Besides teaching art history, writing academic papers and delivering lectures on Marc Chagall’s work, she has worked for the Visual Arts Cultural Services at the French Embassy, designed costumes, built masks, and created her own puppets. But since her earliest memories, Meyer has enjoyed picking and arranging flowers. At first they were a present she would use to decorate her grandfather’s workspace.
Today, her own studio is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books about his art.
Though she has pursued very diverse artistic endeavors, there are similar motifs that run through all her creations.
“There is a common style, and a unifying theme of playing with textures, and using surprises. There is definitely a mischievous aspect to all my work,” says Meyer, who smiles as she reflects upon her memories of her grandfather’s studio. “Sometimes people who don’t know we are related say that the colors in my arrangements remind them of a Chagall painting.”
Her light-filled office is dotted with sharp bursts of color, either from flowers, swatches of cloth, or the neon yellow birds that sit in a cage across from her desk. They were a present from Meyer’s June wedding. Though their chirpy songs occasionally irritate her assistants, Meyer loves the bold hue of their feathers. They bring to her office all the excitement and surprise of the brilliant presents that she likes to donate to the city’s streets on rainy days.
“I totally accept that someone would see it as a naïve approach to life,” says Meyer. “But there is nothing more important than to bring a little kindness and beauty into the world.”
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