Inspiration in Unconventional Places: The Creativity of Local Florist and Artist Katie Gabbard

Editor’s Note: I’m excited today to share with you a piece from one of the most creative and talented artists I know. Katie Gabbard is the owner of The Ivy League, a small shop on our charming downtown main street. Her main trade is making floral arrangements for all occasions, but her shop also peddles antiques, unique home decor, hand-crafted accessories, and more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shop like it, and I’ve never met a florist who puts more of her own personality into her work than Katie. Everything she makes and arranges is both completely unique and yet always tasteful and classy. She’s a gifted artist, and I recently reached out to her to ask if she would be willing to write something about her artistic drive, her inspirations, and how she blends business acumen with a perpetually fresh creativity and passion. She agreed, and I’m pleased to share her thoughts with you today. Enjoy. – David N.

By Katie Gabbard


flowers 5Cracking open the plastic casing on a new tin of oil pastels is the thing I remember most about “Introduction to Art 101.” It was an eager first day and a pack of colored pastels meant I was just moments from pouring out an emotionally brilliant abstract. I was very wrong because the pastels were supposed to be black charcoal sticks for life drawing. There was no room in that class for color. In retrospect, that initial stumble could easily summarize my entire track record over the course of my art degree pursuits. I’d always fancied myself a creative sort and even wore the “most artistic” label given to me by my classmates in high school, so art school seemed like destiny. But I never felt firm footing on that path. I always showed up with paints when I should’ve had pencils and newsprint paper instead of canvases.

It took a long time for art and creativity to fall back into my line of sight.  The idea of having a shop wasn’t even on the horizon yet but I had an appetite for learning skills that were hands-on and raw, and could be categorized as pieces a craftsman would create, rather than an artist. I volunteered time at a community art center in Oxford, Ohio, and loaded up on workshops and courses in my free time. I soaked up photography classes, silversmithing, pottery, and mixed media.  While working in a bead shop in Oxford, I learned how to design jewelry and, amazingly, how to blow glass.  I think this assemblage of skills and lessons continues to build my confidence and has the most bearing on my work.

flowers 7It was merely by coincidence that, a decade ago, I opened my shop for business on the first day of Spring. I had fallen in love with the lines and quiet demeanor of the building and how the arched glass window invited in the sunlight. It was modest and narrow but had lofty ceilings so I signed the lease. I had just finished a two year span for another florist down south and I was confident my design perspective was unique enough to embark on my own. My aspirations as a budding entrepreneur were to open a shop filled with flowers and carefully curated goods, all imprinted with my own signature style.

Call it ridiculous, but there’s truthfully a smile on my face as I drive the 35 miles to my shop each day. I genuinely adore how I get to spend my days. There’s a sort of busyness to running any flower shop but my shop is a rare breed simply because there are constant short-term deadlines, creative endeavors, and big-picture projects all evolving at once. It might sound like Hell to some, but I thrive on pressure and tight deadlines. The counter-balance to stress is being able to tackle challenges while being enveloped in nature.  Flowers are a dream to work with because they appeal to a multitude of senses. The perfume of lilacs in mid spring is trumped only by the sweet scent of peony hedges in June. The surprisingly soft touch of thistle or the sea-urchin quality of scabiosa lends a texture that stirs curiosity and begs to be felt. Nothing can perk up a soul quite like a tumbler of canary yellow mimosa and a tangerine dahlia. Being able to select from this stockpile of materials and plants is the way I’m able to embrace art. Carefully balancing a poppy against hydrangea and clusters of tulips is more like orchestrating a dance than merely plopping stems into a cup. Choosing moss and myrtle to layer against daisies is a task that requires a keen eye for contrast so all ingredients in a bouquet are appreciated.

“Nothing can perk up a soul quite like a tumbler of canary yellow mimosa and a tangerine dahlia.”

flowers 3Though my surroundings are full of fresh, blooming materials and seasonal color palettes, I still need refills in my “creative well.” I tend to find inspiration in unconventional places. I rarely flip through floral design books or browse Pinterest because I want to veer away from ideas that aren’t my own. I think creativity is a muscle that can be fine-tuned but, by turning it off to insert another’s ideas, it can get rusty. Though I’m definitely in the minority, I feel nothing stomps out my own confidence and creativity more than scrolling through Pinterest. Instead, you’ll find me looking at materials that are completely unrelated to flowers. I have a weakness for graphic design magazines like Print because they partner font, layout, color, and construction all in a single place. These are endlessly beneficial in getting me to think of things in a non-flower-shop kind of way. I love Canadian (yes, Canadian) interior design magazines because they embrace open space and combine patterns and colors in surprising ways. I often find a glimmer of an idea in the patterns and colors of textiles so I pay visits to craft stores just to browse the bolts of fabrics.  Dutch paintings of spilled fruit and flowers make me believe everything was presented a bit more thoughtfully in the past and so I love scouring art history books. Though they don’t have impact on my wardrobe, fashion magazines like Vogue are a shower of ideas for flower projects because they compile thoughts and attitudes about current colors, accessories, and layers. More than anything else, I find incomparable refreshment in being absolutely alone. Solitude is a necessity for my creative health and I’ve discovered going too long without it leaves me cranky. It’s time when I daydream, sketch, plan, and write. I believe it’s more rejuvenating than anything else.

“I feel nothing stomps out my own confidence and creativity more than scrolling through Pinterest.”

flowers 2This is a tired metaphor, but planting a garden and starting a business are one and the same thing. You start out with the highest of hopes and plant your seeds in tidy rows. You can’t gauge what will sprout or how much your patch will yield but your fingers are crossed for heaps and heaps. I had no idea the doors my shop would open and the avenues I would have the opportunity to explore.  Weddings top my list of favorite projects and I’ve been hired for weddings across Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. Interior design is the most recent addition to my roster of offerings.  I am drawn to interiors that read like a story and I believe patterns, paints, and accessories should all fit like a puzzle to reinforce pride of place. Interiors challenge me because, unlike fresh flowers, the results of a space cannot be fleeting. These are layers, details, and perspectives a client will have to live with for years. I spend a monumental amount of time with a concept to let it marinate before pushing forward because I never want to fill a space with an idea I’m only flirting with. Interiors need to look grounded, interesting, and feel like there’s a history or sentiment attached to every component. It simply takes time.

In the sidelines of interior design, flowers, weddings, and everything else Ivy League, there is a small, joyful project I continue to stoke. Since opening my shop, I’ve had a long-running love affair with visual elements that establish character in my space. It’s intoxicating to be able to influence the way someone feels in my shop simply because of the surroundings, colors, and energy. To engage a visitor’s interest in a display and capture their imagination is priceless. I’ve always had such a small space for merchandise, thus there’s an emphasis on making unforgettable impressions with guests. My infatuation for displays, visual merchandising, and atmosphere has evolved into a weekly-posted blog called The Display Case and an Instagram journal. Teaching and sharing my philosophy with other retailers, artists, and makers has pushed me to create a series of lively speaking programs entitled “Shop Class.”

flowers 6With all of these irons in the fire, it would seem unlikely I’d have room for extracurricular activities, but, alas, I’m a person who likes to have busy hands so I always have a project on the side of my side-projects. I go through a pile of ink pens in a week because I write regularly. It’s my hopefully-on-the-horizon goal to have a non-fiction book about displays published. I often find myself bobbing back to the skills I learned at the art center in Oxford and revisiting ideas and experiences like glass blowing and jewelry making.  I think it boils down to pursuing what brings joy to my life. I can’t say I live a life of luxury and I can’t tout a long list of travels, fine meals, or extravagance but I am surrounded each day with the lifestyle and experiences I consider hugely valuable. I embrace being happy with the life I’ve built.

You can find Katie and The Ivy League online at the following links. Please click through and take a look around at her Instagram feed, her blog, and the website and Facebook page for The Ivy League, and follow them to get ongoing updates and creative inspiration!



Instagram: Katie Gabbard

Facebook: The Ivy League

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