Winters in Pittsburgh can be a gray affair but one local arts group—the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh—is doing their part to brighten our days.

Their idea? Plant oversized, colorful and handmade flower displays throughout the city. Right now and until March 8, Arsenal Park blooms with the first bouquet.

The Lawrenceville display is the test run for the Guild’s big event—the Fiberart International 2016, a conference that is held every three years. For the 2016 gathering, the plan is to have several neighborhoods around the city feature these giant splashes of flowers “to draw attention to the conference,” says Susan Swarthout, co-director of the Pop des Fleurs project and president of the Fiberarts Guild.

The Guild has not yet selected which communities—nor how many—will feature these pop-up gardens for winter 2016. First, they wanted to focus on the test installation.

“We wanted to see how the structure will hold up, how the flowers will withstand the weather and we wanted to go through the city’s permitting process,” says Swarthout.

Lessons were learned, such as this one: The leaves in the Pop des Fleurs’ display—paper bags painted green—were waterproofed with paverpol, which as it turns out, doesn’t like the cold. After exposure to the frigid temps, all the green leaves turned white as if they got frostbite.

“It was like the Pittsburgh winter striking back—Oh! You think you’re going to make it nice and bright? Ha, ha, ha … I’ll trick you,” laughs Swarthout.

The Guild’s last outreach project, Knit the Bridge, did make the city nice and bright—plus it garnered all kinds of press for Pittsburgh, including international. These fiber enthusiasts don’t think small.

“Knit the Bridge took it to another level,” said Swarthout. “It became an entity itself.”

From start to finish, the Andy Warhol Bridge installation took 18 months and the power of 1,800 fiber artists. “That project drew people together,” says Swarthout, “and still continues to have a life.” Knitted or crocheted panels that covered the bridge were laundered and given as blankets to people in need. Other pieces that cloaked the bridge’s railings were given as scarves to area shelters.

Response to the project “was huge,” says Swarthout. “Well, the bridge is huge,” she says with a laugh.Not surprisingly, Knit the Bridge won Mayor Peduto’s 2014 Award for Public Art.

From that project, local artists and others expressed enthusiasm to participate in the Guild’s future events—and that fervor now fuels Pop des Fleurs. Since October, Pittsburghers have been learning how to knit and crochet flowers from plastic yarn, weave freeform wire flowers and create puffs from plastic bags. All the materials used for the flowers are repurposed—think plastic bottles, bottle caps, donated yarn, plastic bags, wire hangers—and brightly colored.

The idea for Pop des Fleurs resulted from a call to Guild members asking the question: “How can we brighten the gray, dark winters?”

The answer came from a place faraway from our three rivers—in the land of fjords.

Guild member Annette Sandberg, who was born in Oslo, Norway, tried to recall how her friends and family remained “upbeat and connected” during the Scandinavian winters.

Sandberg remembered her family home filled with flowers and warm conversation—and she imagined “bringing delight to Pittsburghers by creating huge flower displays installed in various locations around the city during the cold, gray season.” Her dream of warm conversation was realized when Pittsburghers came together to make the flowers. Workshops were held around the city and involved all age groups. An upcoming workshop—March 3—at the Carnegie Library, Lawrenceville is aimed at tweens.

“There is such enthusiasm for this type of project,” says Swarthout. “And it’s not just because it’s big in scale—it’s because of the community involvement.”

Many communities have expressed interest in being chosen to feature one of the installations during the 2016 Fiberart International—but one group on the South Side decided to jump in and try their own test installation this year.

The South Side Community Council’s Green N’At Committee asked for the Guild’s help, and are hosting flower-making workshops on February 24 and 26—check here for details. Their bouquet is set to bloom March 1 at the Carnegie Library—South Side.

“We are now realizing this could be like a tidal wave,” says Swarthout “And we don’t want to dampen that enthusiasm—if it’s catching people’s imagination, let’s let it bloom.”

If it’s caught your  imagination, sign up to make flowers here—because there’s more work to be done for next year. “We’ve only made a drop in the bucket,” says Swarthout. “Next year, we’re going to explode all over the place with flowers.”

If you’d like to check out Pop des Fleurs, Arsenal Park is just off the 40th Street Bridge and the bouquet is visible from 40th St.

As one passerby said upon seeing it: “It’s just one more thing to love about Pittsburgh.”

Lauri Gravina

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore...