Artist Ronni Nicole Robinson Preserves the Beauty of Flowers with Impeccable Detail
The visual artist's floral plaster reliefs invite viewers to sit in quiet contemplation, untethered from the demands of time.
Growing up in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Ronni Nicole Robinson was always looking down. Fascinated by the plants that blossomed in the borders of the sidewalks and cracks in the streets, she would frequently pause, staring at the petals and details on the stems. It happened so often that she often landed in trouble with her grandmother, who, not realizing Robinson was no longer walking with her on the way to church, would have to double-back to retrieve the observant soon-to-be artist. Sometimes Robinson plucked the flowers—dandelions mostly—and put them in her Bible. And though the church that Robinson's family attended closed over a decade ago, Robinson's enchantment with flowers remained.
"I remember my grandmother telling me, 'When you get older, make sure you work with your hands. You're really good with your hands,'" Robinson remembers. Her grandmother frequently held arts and crafts time in a large open field across from the church, teaching children to work with whatever was on hand (often plants and paper) to create meaning and add substance to their days.
However, it took years for Robinson to find her calling as a visual artist. When she and her husband, David, decided to put down roots, they made their way back to Philadelphia. Inspiration struck one day while standing in the art collection of the Barnes Foundation. "There was this big, bas relief in front of me, but all I saw was a very small section at the bottom of it. It was a floral relief. I was like, 'Oh, that's what I want to do,'" she says. "It captured the details—it captured everything. I'm pretty sure it was a collage of different things, but I only saw the flower, and that's the lightbulb."
She began thinking of ways to work with flowers in a format that preserved them. And in 2016, on a quiet sunlit morning in her 650-square-foot apartment, her company Ron Nicole was born. Robinson's early predilections—looking at the bright spots, and studying small, intricate details, combined with her penchant for daydreaming—can now be seen in Robinson's plaster artwork, a substance known for highlighting details in a permanent form.
To create a new piece, Robinson starts with a piece of clay. Over four to six hours, she spreads it out until it's even. Then she places fresh-cut florals onto the surface, leaving an indentation of the rapidly deteriorating bloom. Once the clay is covered in plant life, she delicately removes the detritus with tweezers. Depending on the size of the flower, the process can take up to a week.
In these moments she daydreams, seeing shapes for future pieces, meditating on the path her life is taking, and creating an ode to the season. Lastly, she paints the impressions with white plaster, eventually covering the entire frame in a complementary background color. The result: ethereal, elegant lines etched into plaster.
Sometimes her offering is paired with a crisp neutral or a dreamy pastel. Robinson's also been known to frame her offerings in matte black, the plant life stark against the dark backdrop. Hyperrealistic, the only thing missing is the fragrance (and perhaps the pollen). In this way, she suspends time not just for the flowers, but also for the audience who happens upon her work.
Although many artists embed flowers into plaster, Robinson's work stands apart thanks to her ability to shape her subjects into a frame with an eye for modern minimalism. Her aesthetic is light, refreshing, and contemporary.
Robinson has recently added new materials to her collection, too. Sometimes she substitutes cotton paper pulp in place of the plaster, forming fossilized paper reliefs. By collecting the featured flowers, she is taking a snapshot of the season. When she imprints her findings, she memorializes them, elevating these simple elemental jewels into art.
Although her work has gained artistic acclaim, failure is a constant companion. "It took trying a hundred different types of clays," Robinson says. "I spent tens of thousands of dollars to figure out what works for me—it's just a lot of trial and error." On her Instagram, she is candid about the fact that her time-intensive temperamental projects sometimes don't turn out. "I thought everyone was doing everything in life right—that's not the case. We're all failing every day. We're mostly failing, we just don't really talk about it. I fail way more than I succeed." Her penchant for sharing her process, the result, and speaking candidly about the art world has earned her a dedicated following on social media, where, as of this writing, she has more than 40,000 followers.
The Robinsons now live on two acres in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. In her farmhouse, the walls of her living-room-turned-studio are daffodil yellow. On her worktable, hellebores, bleeding hearts, poppies, anemones (her favorite), and vines of jasmine spread out, escaping their vases, waiting for their turn to be memorialized in clay.
In the early days, back in 2017, she walked the streets of her city, knocking on the doors of strangers, asking for garden clippings. No one ever turned her down—often homeowners gave her a tour of their garden. Now Robinson gets flowers from a variety of sources, including those she grows in a space between her house and her neighbor's alpaca pasture. She also collaborates with florists to create special collections, which she releases at certain times of the year.
Every flower is hand-placed, and every artwork handmade, so there is a limit to how many pieces can be created. Unable to keep up with demand, the Robinsons release the plaster and paper pieces at various times throughout the year and would-be-collectors can sign up on the Ron Nicole website to keep up with forthcoming collections. The couple does their best to keep the process democratic, so that one person cannot buy every offering, leaving others empty-handed. The most recent Ron Nicole release, March 20, marked the first day of spring.
For an artist adept at pausing time, Robinson is looking forward to the future. After a year of minimal contact with fellow nature-lovers due to the pandemic, she will embark on a self-constructed garden tour, visiting gardens all along the East Coast this spring. While there, she plans to create a collection of reliefs from found clippings. In this way, her work will be a study in regional diversity, and storytelling through botanical documentation. Once home, the couple will move to a new studio, located in New Hope, where they will continue building their community of gardeners and art lovers and creating artwork that captures a moment in time.