by Charles McGuigan
Shana Stewart, owner of Sassy Snapdragon Florals, stands before a large table that is bare save for a single pair of straight blade pruning shears and a large green vase adorned with the portrait of a woman. Around the table there are several five gallon buckets that contain flowers and greenery. What she produces over the next hour and a half is not a cookie cutter arrangement, but rather a work of floral art. “Like a blank canvas in painting, you’re manifesting something from nothing,” Shana says gesturing toward the vase and its wide, empty mouth. “The creator creates out of nothing.”
Shana grew up in Brandermill and, while attending Clover Hill High School, took every class in art she could.
“All my electives were art,” she says. “Sculpture, photography, and crafts. That was the first time I ever used clay on the potter’s wheel. We also learned hand-building with coils, and how to make pinch pots, but we also threw clay.”
After graduation she seriously considered attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, where a friend of hers studied. Instead she worked at Ruby Tuesdays and Applebees as a hostess. From a bartender she heard about Maharishi University of Management (formerly Maharishi International University) out in Fairfield, Iowa. Shana’s spiritual side led her to the Midwest. She became vegetarian, learned transcendental meditation, and ultimately convinced her parents to visit the college in the middle of Iowa. “So that’s where I ended up getting my bachelor of fine arts in ceramics with a minor in education,” says Shana. “Art is my meditation. And I love ceramics because it’s more three-dimensional and I’ve always been a tactile learner.”
As she talks, Shana grabs a handful of broad-leafed greenery called lemon leaf, checks the height, and snips three or four inches off of the lower stems, then thrusts them as a clump into the mouth of the green vase. In among the lemon leaf, she artfully places complex branches of eucalyptus, and as the leaves gently collide there are short bursts of a smell that combines pine and mint and honey.
“This is what I use as my base,” Shana says. “All the little stems hold the flowers in place, so I make like a grid. I get this big cluster of greenery together, nip off the stems to get the right height.” Her pruning shears crunch through the eucalyptus stems. Then, Shana begins shoving much taller stems of curly willow in the rear of the arrangement. “These are my tall elements to give it height, to make it a little showy,” she says.
After graduating from high school, Shana went on hiatus. She moved out to Corvallis, Oregon in the lush Willamette Valley where she worked for about six months on an organic fruit and vegetable farm. With the money she saved, Shana moved further west just outside Pahoa on Hawaii’s Big Island. While there she visited a self-sustaining organic form that embraced permaculture practices. During her ten months there, Shana made drawings and learned the basics of glass-blowing.
She returned to Richmond just three weeks after 9/11, settled in the Fan, worked in the gift shop at the VMFA for a time, ran some kilns in Nga Nguyen-Weaver’s studio and then got a job with Vogue Flowers, where she worked at their various locations for about a decade.
“For part of that time I was just a minion working in the front there helping customers, which is what I love,” says Shana. “I’ve never had a desk job, I’ve never worked for corporate America.” While at Vogue, she learned basic elements of design, as well the names of flowers and how to tell the difference between a larkspur and a delphinium. “I learned things like the stair step effect that you get when you have some flowers cut short, some medium, some taller,” she says. “You want it to look visually appealing for your eye to move from the bottom to the top.”
After her stint with Vogue, Shana took a job with a mother and daughter shop on South Side called Flowers Make Sense. “They were from New York, and were very much into weddings and also style and fashion, keeping up with what’s new and trendy,” Shana says of Flowers Make Sense. “That’s where I got the majority of my wedding work experience. Not only was I doing the wedding work behind the scenes, I was helping customers, and sitting with brides-to-be, learning what they wanted. That’s where my wedding experience from start to finish comes from. Where I would sit with clients at the consultation, make the stuff, and even deliver it.”
Not long after that, Shana received her certificate in massage therapy and worked at James River Massage Therapy off Hungry Springs Road, and later for Sense of Serenity off of Mountain Road. And she worked two years at Lavender Fields Herb Farm in Glen Allen.
About five years ago, sitting at her kitchen table with a notebook and pen, Shana began drawing up plans to start her own floral design business. She wrote down a series of possible names for her new company, ultimately deciding on Sassy Snapdragon Florals. She liked the alliteration which matched that of her own name.
“So I went to Henrico County and got a business license,” Shana says. “And I already had established relationships with some of the florists around here, and had done a few weddings on my own over the years.”
In the intervening years, her business has flourished. “Now the flower business runs itself, and it’s slowly growing,” says Shana. “I only hire one or two people as needed and that allows me to keep my prices very competitive. I typically only do one wedding a weekend, whether that’s a six or seven hundred where they’re just getting a few bouquets, or five thousand dollar wedding where they’re going to the Country Club of Virginia and getting huge centerpieces and decorating their carts.”
Along with other special events, from corporate functions to anniversary parties, Shana also offers a flower arrangement of the month. “People can pre-purchase flower arrangements that they can send to their clients, or have in their office or in their homes. That’s an aspect of my business that I want to develop more. It’s going to be the designer’s choice and seasonally I try and use whatever is fresh local. I have three local, organic flower farmers out toward Montpelier (Hanover County) that I deal with.”
Shana pulls forth a number of heather-like stems called Boronia and begins to thrust them into the growing floral arrangement. “I don’t always have a vision for design,” she says. “But for this one I wanted to do a garden style, because I’m going to cluster all the similar things together because that’s how it grows in the garden.”
Next come the parrot tulips whose blooms mock the head of a tropical bird. After stripping away the leaves, and giving the stems a fresh cut, Shana carefully presses each delicate stem into the vase. It is all coming together now—a work of art unto itself. She begins adding small clusters of button-like flowers—neutral in color, textured and incongruous.
“I really love the sculptural aspect of floral arrangement, and combing the organic with the inorganic,” says Shana. “I do like texture, and want to have all the different elements come together. Elements of interest and surprise. It can be incorporating fruit or cutting open a pomegranate and having that in there, or putting kumquats in there and making it look very lush and full. And of course I think fine arts correlate with floral design because it’s all about composition, line, color, texture, all that stuff.”
And then she grabs a half dozen roses, fresh-cutting the stems, and then stabbing them into the arrangement as the just the right places, stepping back to look at her work like a painter at her canvas, moving forward and readjusting a stem or filling in gap with greenery. It is almost entirely done, and you realize it couldn’t be made any other way.
“Process is what it’s all about,” Shana says. “An art professor would often say, ‘Let’s take a look at these bowls you’ve made. We’re going to get rid of all of them except for one.’ I think what he was teaching is that it’s really about the process. That is what we love as artists.”
Shana Stewart then approaches each of the roses which are the color of the flesh of a peach. She brings her lips close to them and puffs out a slight breath of air, and the petals open, just slightly, and now the arrangement is done.
Sassy Snapdragon Florals