PHILADELPHIA — Siblings Thi Lam and Ngoc Lam-Mathis, who immigrated from Vietnam to Philadelphia as children, have always have always found something beautiful about voting.
“Voting is very important to the both of us,” Lam-Mathis, 36, said. “We respect the right to vote.”
But this year, the brother-and-sister florists — co-owners of Floraltology in the city’s Elmwood section — have watched as politicians and pundits alike have dragged the voting process through the dirt (and not the nutrient-rich kind that’s good for growth).
“The action of voting this year has been cast over with a negative connotation in terms of the integrity of the vote,” Lam, 29, said. “We wanted to do something but we are not the most eloquent speakers and we don’t have a lot of political pull.”
What they do have is flowers — a lot of them. So in an effort to highlight the beauty of voting and nip the negativity in the bud, they’ve teamed up with 15 other florists across the Philadelphia region, New York, and New Jersey for United by Blooms, a nonpartisan outdoor floral installation event aimed at promoting voting.
“By incorporating it with flowers, we bring back a positive connotation to the actual process of voting,” Lam said.
United by Blooms is the brainchild of farmer-florist Kate Carpenter, co-owner of EMA (East Mount Airy) Blooms. Participating florists and growers, who donated their time and flowers to the project, were asked to provide a positive public experience while raising awareness about voting. Designers were encouraged to put their installations near mailboxes or ballot drop boxes (but not on them), to highlight voting by mail and the necessity of the United States Postal Service, which has faced its share of heavy criticism this year, too.
“It’s an opportunity to thank the postal workers, who are essential workers, and to get the community engaged about participating in our democracy,” said Carpenter, 35. “Plus, it gives growers and designers the chance to take their talents to the streets of Philadelphia and give people something to enjoy right now.”
Carpenter’s design, which she created with her business partner, Courtney Jewell, was inspired, in part, by the rainbows people placed in their windows for children’s scavenger hunts during the height of quarantine. Several rainbow-colored chalk paths lead to the installation at Green Street and Carpenter Lane in Mount Airy, where flowers crawl up a stop sign and flow out from underneath the mailbox nearby. A QR code at the site takes visitors to a map with the locations of the other installations.
“Nothing has cheered me up in the last six months like seeing this,” said Claudia Raab, 70, who lives a block away from the site. “Flowers are glorious and the mailbox is our most important weapon right now.”
At 58th Street and Elmwood Avenue in Southwest Philly, the mother-and-daughter team of Nicole Griffith and Domino Mack from DNA Floral incorporated the very weeds growing under the mailbox at that corner into their vibrant floral design. They used magnetic letters to spell out the word VOTE on the mailbox and included a large Black Lives Matter sign too.
“I think that it’s culturally important, especially with me being an African-American floral designer, I am a minority in this industry,” Mack said.
Their installation’s location was carefully picked as well. Mack’s grandmother, who lives a block away, still uses the mailbox around which they designed.
“It was very important for us to go to a low-income community. People don’t do large installations like this with floral, especially on this corner,” said Mack, 31. “I think it’s important to see an African-American girl on 58th Street playing with flowers.”
Lam and Lam-Mathis of Floraltology wanted to use their installation to encourage immigrants to vote, so as part of their design they used flowers to spell out the word VOTE in four languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Mandarin.
“There’s a lot of immigrants here and they may not understand the rights they have,” Lam-Mathis said. “Our goal is to tell people to vote in different languages.”
They chose to do two installations, one at their shop at 2601 S. 63rd Street in Elmwood, and another on the gate outside of the Francis Scott Key School at Eighth and Wolf Streets in South Philly, where the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC), has participated in weekday food distributions with other area groups since the pandemic hit in March.
Lam, who also works as the operations director at SEAMAAC, wanted as many people to see the floral voting displays as possible.
“For folks who are most disenfranchised, they will be able to understand the importance of their vote,” he said. “We want to give them dignity while they collect their meals and help them understand the power that they do have.”
Greg Hammond, 61, who lives nearby, was floored by the massive design and its multilingual message.
“It really gives an example of the diversity of Philadelphia,” he said. “It really shows a huge cultural explosion that’s not only reflective of the city but of where America is headed.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer