Growing in Illinois State University’s Horticulture Center’s vegetable garden—a living canvas of leafy greens and vibrant heirloom tomatoes—a slender, fingerlike purple pepper caught Jalen Cunningham’s artistic eye.
“What’s that one?” Cunningham asked Horticulture Center Director Jessica Chambers ’93.
“It’s a buena mulata pepper,” Chambers said with a smile. She pulled one from the plant and handed it to Cunningham.
“I didn’t know vegetables could look that cool,” he said. “I really want to draw these.”
A senior graphic design major, Cunningham spent the summer designing an original clothing line inspired by the Horticulture Center which he’ll showcase at the center’s Autumnal Festival, Saturday, September 10, and Sunday, September 11. Cunningham’s “Horticulture Collection” includes several pieces of apparel—from T-shirts to jackets—featuring three of the center’s gardens: the Vegetable Garden, the Herb Garden, and the Moon Garden.
Chambers and Cunningham connected during a graphic design internship fair last spring. Chambers was impressed when Cunningham pulled a colorful jacket he had designed out of his bookbag. “That’s amazing. What if you did a piece of clothing that represented the garden?” Chambers proposed.
Cunningham loved the idea, and in June, he began traveling to the Horticulture Center every few weeks from his home in Steger, 35 miles south of Chicago.
“Jessica showed me around and had me observe everything—and I’m glad she did, because I think if I was just using images on Google, the final result would not have been as good,” said Cunningham. He took photos of the gardens throughout the summer and even picked some vegetables to bring home. The purple peppers, which Cunningham incorporated into his vegetable garden design, were “super spicy,” he said.
After creating a mood board for inspiration, Cunningham made more than 20 pencil sketches, and Chambers provided feedback. “Maybe you should add some more vegetables,” she suggested. “Oh, you’re right,” replied Cunningham. He created final versions in Photoshop and uploaded his designs into online templates for various garments. Cunningham adjusted his design to account for sleeves and pant legs.
“It can be a very tedious process, but I think it ends up looking good toward the end,” Cunningham said. “It’s well worth it.”
Cunningham’s Horticulture Collection is available online through his recently launched design company, Sol Clothing. “I like to put my whole soul into the design,” he explained. Cunningham relished the opportunity to wear vibrant clothes in college after attending a high school where uniforms were required.
During his junior year at Illinois State, Cunningham started designing his own bright, colorful wardrobe. He credits Vitoria Faccin-Herman, instructional assistant professor in the Wonsook Kim School of Art, for inspiring him to grow as a graphic designer.
“She’s been fantastic. I don’t think I would’ve gotten to this point if she wasn’t my teacher,” said Cunningham. He aspires to earn a master’s degree so he too can teach graphic design while designing apparel on the side.
“I wouldn’t have thought a year ago that I would actually be able to get an internship doing this,” Cunningham said. “I’m really appreciative of everything that’s happened to me.”
Chambers said she is amazed by Cunningham’s Horticulture Center-inspired clothing line. “This was the coolest project,” she said. “Him doing his thing, designing clothes, and being able to tie them to the gardens.”
Cunningham said he hopes people who see or wear a piece from his Horticulture Collection gain a better appreciation for the different flowers, herbs, and vegetables at the center.
“I did a lot of observation, and the vegetables and plants can be really cool looking,” Cunningham said.
“If you’re wearing it, people are going to see it. And they’ll see the Horticultural Center logo, so hopefully they’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s the type of stuff they have over there. Maybe we can check it out one weekend.’”