EAST PEORIA — Most artists buy some form of pigment to bring color to their artwork. Kira Santiago grows hers.
Yellow, purple and burgundy flowers swayed in the summer wind recently at the East Peoria farm where Santiago lives and works. In business for about four years, Kira’s Flowers provides a locally-grown option for brides and flower lovers. Santiago sells cut flowers at area farmers markets and through flower subscriptions, and creates elaborate floral designs for weddings. She recently took her design work to another level by creating a fine art display for the McLean County Arts Center in Bloomington.
“A Practice in Permanence” features the work of eight artists. The exhibit opened Sept. 7 and will run through Oct. 19. Santiago’s flowers, which were picked the day of the show’s opening, will be left to the natural processes during the display — they will droop and dry, and their colors will fade.
“All of my floral art and sculptures is ephemeral, as is life itself,” said Santiago, who created four pieces primarily from flowers and wire. Two are wearable, and two are flower sculpture.
“All of them are about thinking about the impermanence of things. Life and death and everything in between, and how it’s a cycle,” said Santiago. The artist talked about her work while sitting at a picnic table outside the antique farmhouse where she lives with her boyfriend and business partner, Evan Barry.
Santiago grows flowers organically. While the farm is not certified organic, Santiago and Barry, who owns Down River Farm and grows vegetables, use only organic materials to enrich the earth, and they don’t use pesticides. Each time a bride-to-be visits the farm, Santiago educates her about what that means.
“Do you know there are countries where they still use DDT?” she said. “They do not have the same regulations we have.”
Visitors to the farm step back in time. The 1867 farmhouse, which boasts little modernization, stands near a Sears & Roebuck round top barn. Old growth trees provide shade and a noisy flock of free-range chickens complete the picture.
Though Santiago grew up on an organic farm in Eureka, she never thought she would become a farmer. While attending college in Iowa she tried out several majors, including art, but couldn’t decide what she wanted to do. After a few years she dropped out and moved to Boston, where she worked a variety of jobs. The last was at an organic farm, where she realized how much she missed that way of life.
“I always had this farmer’s mentality,” said Santiago. “Working at the farm in Boston made me realize how much I knew, and I missed it.”
Around the same time, Santiago learned about a successful flower gardener in Seattle.
“I always loved flowers — I did flower arranging in 4H — but I never thought you could make a career of it.”
After four years in Boston, Santiago moved home and rented property from her uncle.
“I didn’t know if central Illinois was a flower-buying culture, but it is. Things went very well that first year. And then, the next year, this property just plopped in my lap.”
Santiago rented the 2-acre East Peoria property from an organic farmer who lives in Bloomington. She moved in by herself after Christmas three years ago.
“It was overwhelming,” said Santiago. “It was a big endeavor.”
Because she hadn’t yet installed a greenhouse, Santiago started seeds inside the house that first year.
“I had 90 trays of seeds in every part of the house,” she said.
Every year Santiago has acquired something that made the work easier — the second year she had the greenhouse, and this year she got a new tiller. She met Barry last summer, and the pair work together to make their individual businesses a success.
This year, when Santiago was asked by a friend to participate in the show at the McLean County Art Center, she was ready. Though she had created headpieces before, she had never done a full dress. It was a tremendous amount of work that had to be done in a very short period of time.
“I picked all the flowers that morning,” said Santiago. “All the flowers came from my farm except the dahlias.”
The skirt is festooned with goldenrod, sorghum Sudan grass, amaranth, dahlias, zinnias and many varieties of sunflowers.
“Then, on the top part of the dress, I just went a little crazy,” said Santiago. It's covered in status, scabiosa, ageratum, globe amaranth, verbena and sunflowers.
Because the flowers are attached to a chicken wire frame, the dress was so heavy the model had to sit on a stool during the gallery opening. She and the second model, who wore a crown of flowers and posed surrounded by the bounty of late summer, visited with guests as they walked through the gallery.
The endeavor has sparked more ideas, said Santiago.
“Did you know tulips continue to grow after you cut them? Up to 7 inches. It would be neat to do a dress and watch it grow,” she said. “I’m excited. I have all these ideas on how to keep breaking the barriers of traditional flower design.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.