A Fine Medley - Afield
In yet another stunning show of the beauty with which nature blesses us, we're honoured to be sharing an interview with sustainable florist Jessica Hunter, who owns and operates a small boutique floral business called A Fine Medley. Jessica speaks eloquently about the importance of seeking integrity in the flower industry by encouraging a shift away from lackluster, carbon heavy imported blooms and sourcing homegrown bouquets instead—Jessica gathers hers from local sources, among them is local flower farm Sweet Gale Gardens run by Jessica Gale (Jessica Gale and her flowers are shown here). Jessica paints a vivid and evocative picture and I guarantee you'll be inspired, especially when indulging in the absolute splendor of Lauren Kolyn's accompanying photography.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO WORKING WITH FLOWERS? HOW DID YOU LEARN YOUR CRAFT?
It’s funny because I sort of fell into flowers. In a sense, they found me. Although an unexpected path, it’s been a natural career to adopt. My grandfather was an artist and he painted with oils. Landscapes mainly but sometimes, the odd moody portrait. A fisherman hangs on my living room wall. When he passed away he gave me his paints. For years they collected dust and I couldn’t touch them. I think I wanted to preserve, so leaving them unused was my way of doing that. Needless to say, I am not much of a visual artist although I dabble from time to time. I am, however, a colourist and a naturalist at heart. Growing up in the countryside of Southern Ontario, the landscape seeped into my being and I found myself craving the comfort of nature when I set-up home in Toronto during my late teens. I would fill my ever-changing spaces, home and office, with plants and fresh flowers from the local florists or wayside foraging. I always planted a garden wherever I was, whether in a second story apartment with only a balcony, or a large yard in the West end, the space would eventually get filled with herbs, bulbs and seed.
When I moved to Hamilton three years ago, I knew I wanted to work on my artistry more but didn’t know what it would look like to do so. I began experimenting with flowers, designing for friend’s birthdays and small gatherings, mainly using varietals from my garden. I’ve been practicing urban landscape design for years and my love for flowers began in my mother’s plot as a child, transferring it to my own as an adult.
I am completely self-taught. When I was starting out, feeling nervous and under-qualified I would read the work of Constance Spry and found solace in her words – “Do what you please, follow your own star; be original if you want to be and don't if you don't want to be. Just be natural and light-hearted and pretty and simple and overflowing and general and baroque and bare and austere and stylized and wild and daring and conservative, and learn and learn and learn. Open your mind to every form of beauty.” She was a courageous, unconventional, revolutionary woman who was also a self-taught botanical artist. Beauty was her teacher and her love for learning her companion. This I had, so I decided that I was just going to start and see what happened. And here I am, still learning and growing and evolving in my craft.
Left, Jessica Hunter of A Fine Medley, Right, Jessica Gale of Sweet Gale Gardens
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU AND YOUR FLORAL BUSINESS (BEYOND SIMPLY YOUR GORGEOUS AESTHETIC) IS THAT YOU HAVE PUT CARE AND CONSIDERATION INTO HOW YOU ATTAIN THE FLOWERS YOU USE. WHAT COMPELLED YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE TO FIND BETTER OPTIONS THAN SIMPLY IMPORTED BLOOMS, WHICH CARRY A HEFTY CARBON FOOTPRINT?
Thank you. It comes down to two things for me: Quality (aesthetics) and Environmental Impact (ethics).
I noticed the incongruence between flowers in the garden compared to flowers being sold at the grocery store. I adored the effortlessness of garden landscapes but when I saw stiff stems and unbendable tight blossoms, packaged in cellophane at the store I felt such sadness. This isn’t how flowers grow! It’s so contrived – forced! I wanted to see ease, to follow the particular movement of a stem and emphasize the distorted shapes, which garden flowers offer. I wanted even more to awaken memory with scent. There’s no emotion in overly packaged flowers, they are straight, uniform and lack fragrance.
After studying International development in school, I recognized how important local agriculture is to a society and economy. We were seeing this shift happen in the food industry but the floral industry was way behind. When I began AFM, I wanted to be 100% local but many designers discouraged this at the time. “People won’t want that.” “It’s all good to want to be local but we live in Canada.” “Beautiful designs require imports.” And the thing is, there’s some truth to all of this. It was really difficult to find local farms that will sell directly to a designer at first and at the wholesale markets they aren’t always completely up front about where they source their flowers. Most are imported from Europe or South America. It took me about a year to find my rhythm and rely on nearby growers to source from. In the meantime, I balanced it with growing my own. My first year I worked about 50% local, by year two I was working 80% and hopefully this year I will be moving closer to 90%. There’s just no comparison. Local flowers have a longer vase life as they aren’t travelling for weeks at a time by truck or air to then be roughly handled and put in a freezer until purchased for use. They also smell like heaven. I mean walking through a patch of sweet peas can make me weep with happiness. Last summer, an eighty-year-old visual artist at my studio smelt a vase of garden roses I had on my table from my garden patch. She closed her eyes, drank in the perfume and said: “this is how they smelt at my grandmothers growing up. This is a ROSE!”
Last year, all the world’s nations combined pumped nearly 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of oil, natural gas, and coal—all the fuels we use to power our consumer economy and in turn to power the making of stuff we tend to throw out a year later. Flowers are perishable, compostable, beautiful, and, they can be grown here. Why are we having them packaged overseas in non-biodegradable materials and shipping them in? The wedding industry is overrun with waste and carries with it a massive environmental cost. To read more about this I recommend looking into Debra Prinzing’s The 50 Mile Bouquet!
One person buying local blooms and educating others doesn’t seem like that much in the global perspective, but we must start small, with our everyday choices, with our lifestyle. And as we do, we impact others to do the same. I know I will always want flowers in my life, so I decided I wanted to influence change in the industry.
TELL US ABOUT THE SWEET FARM THAT YOU'VE PARTNERED UP WITH DURING THE GROWING SEASON?
The name is Sweet Gale Gardens and it is run by Jessica Gale. She is an absolute doll and truly one of the sweetest, soulful humans I have ever met. Jess and I bonded over botanical art and our love of Mary Oliver when we were working on the Detroit Flower House project. One evening, after our flowers had a late arrival, I felt a little pressed for time and overwhelmed. Jess stayed late to help us place hundreds of white mums into a bathtub’s chicken-wire construction. She’s just that kind of a gal!
It was a serendipitous union and one I am forever grateful for. Our love for beauty and feeding the soul is a common ground we meet on over and over again. We carry a similar ethos in our work. I soon discovered that Sweet Gale was a small, ecologically focused farm growing in Toronto but she was planning to move to Hamilton and expand her practice in Flambourough. This had me dancing for weeks. I was wishing for this kind of relationship for over a year and it just presented itself in my lap.
Basically, Jess is a full-time farmer who likes to keep her hand in artful design while I am more of a designer who wants to keep my hands in the dirt. So we formed an exchange, where I would farm for her a day a week and she’d assist on design when I needed help with large events. Since then we have branched off and dreamt up a couple other pilot projects all while running our separate businesses. Our latest is a natural dye venture that we are super excited to launch later this year. Who knows what else 2017 will birth? It’s such surprise!
WHAT IS THE MAIN DIFFERENCE THAT YOU'VE NOTICED WORKING WITH JESS'S FLOWERS AND ULTRA-LOCAL BLOOMS? WHAT HAPPENS IN WINTER?
Jess uses the best ecological growing techniques to feed the soil, pollinators, birds, and also to feed all of us who get to enjoy her blooms. The main thing I notice with local flowers is the integrity and love they carry. A day on the farm is hard. Blood, sweat and tears tough, but it’s so incredibly rewarding. The flowers are fresh, they last, and the scent is divine. There’s nothing like it. And when I’m out in the field with her and we see a hummingbird flying through we always stop to take it in. There are so many other creatures we’re connected to that are being fed with a jar of local blooms. This is the difference. It’s not simply about individual indulgence; it’s about a larger ecological footprint. It’s about honouring the ancestry of our land while conserving it for future generations.
In winter, I work part-time contract work to float me through that doesn’t have to do with AFM. I write. I read. I meet with clients and book events for the warmer months. For Valentine’s day I will do a pop-up at the studio and this is generally where I am not working as locally as I’d like, but I try where I can. I do take on winter weddings but a limited amount.
ARE YOUR CLIENTS AWARE THAT THEY ARE PURCHASING LOCAL FLOWERS? DO YOU THINK THAT IT INFLUENCES THEIR DECISION TO PURCHASE YOUR SERVICE OVER OTHERS?
It depends. I have been incredibly lucky at times to have clients who care so deeply and have faith in my vision, allowing for me to be as creative as possible. Mostly people come to me because they are seeking something different and they connect with my approach to botanicals. That said, if they aren’t aware at the time they fill out an event form, then they are by the end of a consultation, as I make sure to discuss where I will source their product and the benefits.
Working local has both pros and cons but I still believe strongly in holding integrity. I have lost clients because they want specific flowers that aren’t in season and that they’ve seen in wedding magazines or on pinterest. That said, I’ve also gained clients and trust as a designer because of my uncompromising approach. It’s a balance, and I generally strive to work closely with people to educate and help them see the advantages of local flowers, providing similar alternatives where needed.
READ: PART TWO—IN STUDIO
CONTRIBUTORS & CREDITS:
LAUREN KOLYN, Photography: Lauren is a lifestyle and editorial photographer based in Montréal and Toronto, Canada. With a documentary approach to her photography, Lauren is a visual storyteller with a unique ability to capture the essence of the moment. Drawing much of her artistic inspiration from the natural environment, Lauren's photographic work explores the modest yet powerful beauty of her surroundings. She is also currently part of the Pure Green editorial team. View her work, follow her on Instagram.