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If You Go

What: Bouquets to Art

When: Tuesday to March 18

Where: De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

Tickets: $28 adults, with discounts for youth, students and seniors

Information: 415-750-3600, deyoungmuseum.org/bouquets

Glen Ellen floral designer Natasha Drengson is facing perhaps the greatest artistic challenge of her long career.

She’s creating a museum-worthy display inspired by her courageous mother, Susan Braito, who lost her home in October’s firestorms.

The piece, “Phoenix Rising,” will be on display during the annual Bouquets to Art exhibit March 13-18 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a fundraiser highlighting the talents of more than 120 of the most innovative floral designers in the Bay Area and as far away as Tokyo.

Drengson, 56, has been a featured designer at the event the past 24 years, missing only once when she’d already committed to doing floral work for a wedding. Semiretired, she’s now planning her final exhibit piece.

Like fellow designers, she typically creates an arrangement inspired by a work in the de Young’s permanent collection of paintings, objects and sculptures, or the unique architecture of the building.

Because she landed an “amazing placement” in the entrance this year where there isn’t a nearby piece from the museum collection, Drengson was free to find her own inspiration.

She’s planning an arrangement maybe 10 feet tall, reaching skyward, with a mythological phoenix rising in regeneration from within floral flames.

Debris from the ruins of her mother’s Glen Ellen home will be incorporated into the design of ginger, phalaenopsis and anthurium orchids, birds of paradise and other flowers, possibly enhanced with cellophane.

“It’s indicative of the fire, not exact,” Drengson said. “It’s about the strength my mom has now.”

Drengson said her mother’s actions were selfless the night the Nuns fire raced toward her rural O’Donnell Lane neighborhood. “She saved six of her neighbors. Instead of packing up her car, she went and banged on doors,” Drengson said.

She is dedicating her final museum design to her mother, something she would have done “regardless” of the fires.

Drengson started out with Bouquets to Art assisting a sculptor, using flowers and grasses to create a Monet-inspired waterfall, bridge and pond.

“That’s how I got my foot in the door, and I never let it close,” she said.

Primarily a self-taught floral designer who struggled from undiagnosed dyslexia before leaving high school without a diploma, she took one course in the foundations of design, worked at a Sonoma garden center, and took jobs at floral shops in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, where she developed her skills.

“I made my rounds, even if it was for one day,” she said. “I’m a natural. It was a gift. I was given a gift.”

She eventually opened her own businesses in Sonoma Valley, Tasha’s Floral Design and Tasha’s Flowers, and later worked independently from her garage.

Drengson met her husband, Jason Jacobsen, also a floral designer, at a flower show in San Francisco. She later worked with his mother, owner of Flaxx Floral Design in The City, traveling to locales such as Miami, Mexico, the Bahamas, New York City and Washington, D.C. to create floral designs for high-end “destination weddings.”

Designing for Bouquets to Art has provided Drengson with a new challenge and opportunity for creativity — year after year. She doesn’t have to collaborate with clients but does have strict rules to adhere to working in the state-of-the-art museum.

The free-spirited Drengson isn’t one for following rules artistically speaking, but recognizes why certain materials can’t be used — nothing that could compromise the fine arts museum in any way.

“It’s very strict,” she said. “You can have blooming branches, but not a stump. No mossy old wood with worms or whatever. No feathers or things that can harbor insects.”

She’s always found clever ways to work around the restrictions, once using eye makeup to add shimmer in replacement of glitter. Her designs can take anywhere from eight to 45 hours, sometimes requiring the meticulous snipping and gluing numerous flower petals.

Her displays have ranged from dramatic floral arrangements to designs of a life-sized chicken and rooster, a cow of redwood leaves and a larger-than-life peacock. She created a colorful floral mandala in Aztec tradition for a stone Colossal Head piece; Drengson wove branches and orchids in a large display matched to an African tapestry formed of whiskey bottle tops wired together.

One of her favorite designs accompanied an artwork called “Mother Nature,” of a nude painted on a silk tapestry. Drengson created “Mother Earth’s Fairy House,” complete with a window spectators could peek through to view the tapestry. Only after it was installed did Drengson realize the window’s viewpoint showed the most erotic part of the nude. An elderly viewer playfully scolded Drengson, “You naughty girl!”

The fairy house was immensely popular, though. “It was one of the most talked-about pieces that year,” Drengson said.

She’s worked with budgets as low as $200 in her early displays to a top figure of $1,200 donated by supporters. The cost of flowers has risen dramatically but even so, Drengson can’t place a price on the joys of working with Bouquets to Art.

Now in its 34th year, the weeklong event (also featuring luncheons and lectures) has raised more than $6 million and drawn nearly 800,000 visitors.

“The reason why I do this is it’s celebrating the arts,” Drengson said. “Art is important in our lives. It’s healing, it’s subjective, it’s so many things.”

Bouquets to Art is just one of many creative pursuits for Drengson. She also designs for the Sonoma Community Center’s springtime Trashion Fashion runway show of attire made from repurposed materials; hosts a Dia de los Muertos Bouquets to the Dead observance every Nov. 1-2 with public altars and artists’ designs in Sonoma’s historic Mountain Cemetery; and is planning a debut art show, “Celebrating Art,” Aug. 11 at the Sonoma Plaza to showcase her watercolor paintings.

She and her husband now spend half their time in Laughlin, Nevada, where they have a home, so Drengson has decided it’s time to open her Bouquets to Art spot to another designer.

“Phoenix Rising” is her farewell.

“It’s my last piece,” Drengson said. “I want it to be spectacular.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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