Lucky, who she rescued from the streets of Greece 13 years ago, heads toward his bed as Marina brings out an elegant bouquet, an ode to rosy roses, red orchids and creamy carnations. It’s spiked with gold-spray-painted monstera spears to match its shiny brass bowl.
It may be more coincidental than calculated, but the bouquet cannily complements Marina’s hair, bright red lipstick and white blouse.
Although Marina opened Paint by Flowers in 2017, its roots reach deep into her childhood.
Marina was born on the Upper East Side, where she lived until the family moved to Flushing when she was 8.
Her mother, a divorcee, was raising two children on her own when she met Marina’s father. A year after they wed, Marina was born.
Marina’s father, who worked as a florist’s helper until he opened his own shop, filled their home and yard with plants.
“Our house was like a jungle,” Marina says. “We had all kinds of fruit trees and jasmine and hibiscus.”
Although Marina sometimes helped her father man his Manhattan shop, she didn’t consider it as a career possibility.
She liked to draw and was, she admits, “all over the place” regarding what she wanted to do with her life.
After graduating from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, her creative side asserted itself, compelling her to earn a two-year degree from the New York Acting School for Film & Television.
She played the Astoria Greek theater circuit and when she was in her early 20s, returned to art.
“I showed my first piece to my dad, and he told me he didn’t believe that I had drawn it,” she says, calling it up on her smartphone. “He thought I had taken someone else’s work and pretended it was my own.”
After a series of jobs that included waitressing, she decided to go to Greece for a short stay.
“It was on the outskirts of Athens by the beach,” she says, adding that her sister lives there.
While she was refining her art, she worked for a clothing importing company, tutored students in English as a second language and acted in English-language shows.
“What started as a summer turned into three years,” she says. “When I came back, I started doing scenic painting and set design – I like to be behind the scenes and let my work speak for me.”
Around this time, her father decided to retire and move back to Greece, so Marina took on his long-time clients and opened Paint by Flowers.
It’s tiny – it’s in a former garage – and somewhat of a novelty – it’s surrounded by houses.
Coming upon its striped black-and-white awning and flamingo-pink lights in such an incongruous setting is like seeing a bird of paradise in full flower at the North Pole.
“I used to kill every plant I came into contact with,” Marina says, “but plants speak a language, and I am starting to speak it, too. I’ve started being sensitive to what they need to survive and thrive.”
Entering Paint by Flowers is like walking into a rainbow: The front display window is filled with a jungle of green exotics, and the white walls are adorned with Marina’s colorful paintings. A portrait of Lucky, complete with the brass bell on his collar, hangs in the center of the shop.
“I love bright color,” Marina says. “I’m actually a tetrachromat – I have four color cones instead of three in my eyes, which bumps up the saturation and contrast so I see color in a fourth dimension. I’m very sensitive to the energy of color.”
In addition to bouquets like the red one Marina just made, the shop sells exotics like the sago palm, designs arrangements for large events and provides landscaping.
“Creating arrangements is like doing a painting,” she says. “The flower market inspires me, and once I choose a flower, I find ones that match it, and the design builds on itself. I try to capture the energy of each client.”
Marina, who shares a small space up the street with a roommate, concedes that starting a business was far more difficult than she thought. Her work tends to be seasonal, so she and Lucky have become used to pulling all-nighters.
“I had to figure out how to run the business on my own,” she says. “It’s like I threw myself into the deep end, and I’m learning to swim. I sometimes think about going back to waiting tables because somebody always wants something from me all the time, and I always want to be there.”
When she isn’t busy, Marina paints, using the shop as her studio.
“Surrounded by plants, it makes it easier to paint,” she says.
Once Paint by Flowers gets off the ground, Marina wants to move to a bigger, more prominent location in Astoria so she can open when she calls a “flower coffee shop,” where people can come to hang out to enjoy all the arts just as much as she does.
“I want everyone in Astoria to know I’m here,” she says.
Lucky rests his front paws on the top of his bed and gazes up at her.
Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling