By Leisel Joel-George
You may have noticed a gorgeous floral backdrop while watching Mass via Trinity TV during Easter last year and this year. Perhaps you were at a wedding which he decorated or viewed the pictures from such a wedding. Regardless, one thing is for sure, there is no denying Derek Lee’s obvious marvellous talent when you view his floral creations and decorations.
Derek Lee grew up in a Catholic household with his parents and their nine children in Duke Street, Port of Spain. The eighth child, he recalled his childhood as being very fun due to the mixture of personalities and activities that surrounded him. His family would regularly attend Mass at Sacred Heart RC Church on Richmond Street, Port of Spain. At age 10, Lee became an altar boy at the church and eventually, the Head Altar Server there. As Richmond Street started becoming more commercialised the “flower ladies” in the parish were phased out, and so, every Saturday, he and the other altar servers had to assume the flower and clean-up duties. In so doing, Lee at the young age of 14 started dabbling with his artistic media of flowers and foliage. At this point, his concerns were merely about putting them together to be presentable for Mass, which led him to utter these words that would change his life: “Our Lady, tell your son to better my hands and it will get better.” Apparently, his request was granted because he did get better and from that day onwards, he kept differentiating himself as an extraordinary floral artist, who admittedly gets help via some heavenly assistance.
BECOMING A FLORAL ARTIST
At the time Lee’s artistic abilities were awakening his family suffered a great loss. His father died and his mother had to manage the family on her own. She did so with great strength and by putting God first and honouring her husband’s memory. Wanting to help his mother and never liking school much, propelled Lee to leave school early to start working at a flower shop. He was then able to earn money and gather more experience in his art. He worked for two flower shops for brief periods and the owners were fascinated by his self-taught skills in floral design and decorating. In recalling the best and most beneficial parts of those times, Lee said, “I learn the business part of it. How to order flowers from away, bring them in and ship them”. This would prove essential when it was time to run his own business, which he did at the age of 16, after saving $10,000. It was a considerable achievement at that time. Lee was now starting to fully honour his “gift from God” and building determination to make it his lifelong mission.
DEREK LEE WEDDINGS
Lee recalls, “My first wedding experience was over 40 years ago with toilet paper flower arrangements and pew ends at Sacred Heart Church. It was exciting and beautiful at the time”. A lot has changed since then. Presently, at the age of 60, Lee has attained many successes through perseverance and trust in God. He is a husband and father of two, as well as the owner of Derek Lee Weddings and has done the decorations for many local weddings by creating luxurious and stunning floral decor.
He still enjoys and lives for the challenge of being creative and making something from nothing and particularly likes doing so by using only foliage. “Foliage is mainly the thing I like because it is so much in abundance locally that you can take all different types of greenery and arrange it. It is cost effective – as it can cost you nothing as you can just go by your neighbour’s yard and cut some, and it also looks very beautiful and natural looking.”
Lee also acknowledges and attributes his success to God because when he creates, he goes into a creative trance-like state, where even he is not sure of the outcome until it is done. He firmly believes that God guides and inspires him to produce during such trances.
He admits at times he may become anxious before a job but time and time again, God has shown He is in control and sees him through. Even with his biggest challenge of ensuring that foreign flowers arrive on time for an event, when the odd occasion occurs, Lee has been resourceful and made the best of the situation. He and his small staff did so for his own wedding and supplemented local and silk flowers to get a lovely effect. According to Lee, he was not too concerned with that but rather more interested in the sacrament itself and finally claiming the love of his life as his wife. Similarly, when it comes to decorating churches for special occasions, his focus is on having the decor in line with the liturgical significance, being uplifting to parishioners and not distracting from the Mass in any way.
Lee would advise other aspiring floral artists to go over and above to truly meet the customer’s needs, be humble, and mentor others. According to Lee, “I did not have anyone to mentor me … I always tried to mentor people myself such as the altar ladies in many parishes and workers who showed interest in floral work. Some have since moved on to do their own little business in this line of work. I always try to encourage others and I believe that gifts should be shared and not kept a secret”.
These principles that Lee holds dear have also kept him resilient, especially during the pandemic as he is forced to alter his business approach due to the halt in gatherings. He explained, “I had stopped doing individual arrangements for maybe 15 years, focusing more on weddings, parties and other events. My wife and I began working together and we make a very good team. She does most of the background work – all the social media advertising, gets the jobs, and I do the arrangements. We focus mainly on local flowers and in so doing we been able to assist different local growers as well.”
Through it all, Derek Lee has managed to stay motivated and grounded in God. Quite possibly this momentum will help him achieve his biggest dream of decorating for the Vatican and doing so with only local flowers. Like many of his previous creations, if this dream is realised the outcome should be spectacular to behold and all made possible through the guidance and inspiration from God