It's 10:15 a.m. when Barbarajo Kuzelka and her daughter, Kate Sobraske, arrive at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, willing to wait for a ritual that doesn't begin until 5:30 p.m.

They are not the first in line.

That would be Janice Swanson, who beat them by 15 minutes.

"But once we determined that we weren't choosing the same piece of art, we were OK," said Kuzelka, of Carver.

Drama may be too strong a word, but there are fervent feelings around Art in Bloom, the museum's annual event where ordinary people vie for the chance to interpret paintings, sculptures, artifacts and the occasional piece of furniture as floral arrangements.

You doubt? Consider the year when two women showed up, flowers in buckets, each thinking that she had chosen the same Gauguin.

"It became a flower fight," said Ken Krenz, who calls himself the art flower police. "They were beating each other with acanthus."

Krenz, who's actually the associate registrar for the permanent collection, spelled out the various rules of the event to more than 200 people who gathered in late January to choose their muse.

"What's more important: our art or your flowers?" he asked, to predictable laughter. Yet he somberly shook his head: "You won't believe how many people don't know."

Art in Bloom, which runs April 26-29, can be a curious event. Some arrangers use flora to carefully duplicate colors and shapes, while others are more interpretive, prompting reactions that range from an appreciative nod to a puzzled "Wha'?"

But it's popular. Last year, its 52,000 visitors made Art in Bloom one of the largest of similar shows across the country, as well as the biggest fundraiser for Friends of the Institute.

Opening day is weeks away, yet work already has begun.

Art in Bloom is, notably, open to all comers. Pedestal floral artists, or PFAs, have included mother-daughter teams, school classrooms, backyard gardeners, trained florists and curious first-timers. There are 160 pedestals available for the annual event.

Swanson, of New Hope, signed up for one after viewing the show several years ago and seeing how someone represented the Skyscraper bookcase by Paul T. Frankl. She had a different idea, "and so I said I'm going to do it."

Just laid off from her job, she also had time on her hands. The experience inspired her to take classes in floral design at Hennepin Technical College; she now does some flower arranging and the occasional wedding.

In her seventh year as a PFA, Swanson enjoys the annual reconnecting with others, but also seeing how certain popular pieces of art are interpreted year after year. This year, she's tackling "Cock or Chanticleer," an iron sculpture by William Hunt Diederich.

Mostly, though, "you just do it because you need to do it. There's an energy. It's spring! You need the flowers."

By 5:30 p.m., the line had grown. Staff members distributed colored sheets of paper, a different color for each group of 10. Then each group was called to boards with photos of the art. Each person made a selection by taking the photo of the piece of art he or she wanted to represent in flowers.

Those waiting saw several of their choices snapped up. Mab Nulty and Jane Slade of Edina, who've teamed up for several years, once had to go with their 12th choice.

"Now we just show up and see what's left," Nulty said, laughing.

First-timer Kristi Spoolman of Minnetonka was 90th in line. "When my friend and I found out this was open to anyone, we thought, 'We could do this.' "

She didn't pick out her favorite pieces of art in advance, figuring that flowers don't have to replicate the art, "just be an interpretation. But with my luck, I'll get a table."

At 7, Violet Wilson was another novice, although she's watched her mother, Britta, of St. Paul, participate for several years.

Violet was among the early birds, intent on securing the Danish modern Wire Cone Chair by Verner Panton.

After days of thinking about the piece, "I finally had an idea of what I want to do," she said. Her mother added that while Violet will arrange the flowers herself, Dad will assist with building a support structure "because there will be welding."

Catch a whiff of spring

Art in Bloom, in its 35th year, is in many ways the last thing an art museum should countenance.

"We're lucky [the museum] still lets us do it," said Katie Remole, this year's president of Friends of the Institute.

Not every world-class museum would allow people to bring in plants, water jugs and the occasionally leaky vase.

Participants must remove the stamens from their flowers to prevent floating pollen from adhering to art. Glass marbles anchoring stems must be hot-glued together to thwart curious little fingers from flinging them.

The event remains free and public; funds raised come from various events before and after the exhibition.

Remole added that the timing of the event is part of its success: In April, winter is on the wane, but snow shovels are kept handy.

"People remark that you can smell spring when you walk through the doors," she said.

This is the second year as a PFA for Kuzelka. Last year, she was far back in line and ended up with El Greco's "Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple," a rather severe and highly symbolic painting.

But she so enjoyed the process that she enlisted her adult daughter, and together they'll tackle "Young Woman in Undergarments" by Wilhelm List.

The painting isn't as cheeky as it sounds. "When you'll be living with a piece in your head for weeks, you have to be comfortable with it," Kuzelka said.

She said she's been encouraged to let her floral imaginations fly. Why not?

The rare acanthus fight aside, "No one's going to get hurt."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185