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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

‘It was this purple pepper:' The crudité that inspired an ISU student’s new clothing line

A young man with dreadlocks and sunglasses smiles at the camera and makes a peace sign. He crouches next to a colorful flowerbed that matches his vibrant, zip-up jacket with abstract herbs on it.
Lauren Warnecke
Jalen Cunningham wears the jacket he designed with inspiration from the Horticulture Center's herb garden. Cunningham will sell his new clothing line at the center's Autumnal Festival Saturday and Sunday in Normal.

A major part of Jalen Cunningham’s summer internship was watching vegetables grow.

Cunningham is a senior graphic design major at Illinois State University, originally from the south suburban Chicago town of Steger. He was tasked with creating a new clothing line inspired by the ISU Horticulture Center's grounds. The result is a series of graphic T-shirts and jackets that will be on sale this weekend at the center’s annual Autumnal Festival.

The event is Saturday and Sunday at the Horticulture Center on West Raab Road in Normal. Tickets are $5-$10 (free for children under 2), with proceeds benefiting the center.

Established in 2005, the 18-acre Horticulture Center serves as a living classroom for the ISU and surrounding communities to learn about plants and enjoy nature. It was center director Jessica Chambers who suggested Cunningham’s summer project. Chambers strolled the gardens with Cunningham, identifying plants and answering his questions.

Cunningham’s garden-themed clothing line will be tucked among various festival vendors and exhibitors. And family-friendly fun will be scattered throughout the grounds, including new sculptures added to the Pinetum, Prairie Grove, Shade and Children’s Gardens, plus fall-themed activities like rotten fruit-throwing, gourd hunts and a hayrack ride.

Cunningham’s first foray into fashion design began about a year ago, on a recommendation from his brother.

“He was like, maybe you should find ways to advertise your artwork more,” Cunningham said, so he put his drawing skills to use in a new way and eventually launched SOL, his clothing company.

Cunningham’s latest designs, largely inspired by bi-monthly trips from Steger to the Horticulture Center throughout the summer, are abstract depictions of the vegetable, herb and moon gardens.

But it was a single plant that kicked off the project:

“It was this purple pepper,” said Cunningham.

At first glance, he saw little more than green things — not dynamic enough for his typically vibrant color pallet.

“I can’t work with just green,” he said. But then he glimpsed a deep purple pepper taking shape in the vegetable garden. It was all Cunningham needed to get started on the new line.

“I thought peppers were just red, orange, yellow — but I’d never seen purple before,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, 'OK, I have some inspiration. I can actually go with this.'”

Cunningham was anxious to show me the fruit that kicked off his project, as though it was his first time there. Allowed to tour the grounds during festival preparations, we dodged sprinklers and waved at Chambers weeding a flower bed.

Eventually, we found that purple pepper — plus sunflowers, herbs and more flora that found their way onto Cunningham’s jackets, sweatpants and hoodies.

“It was that one pepper that got me,” he said. “It changed my whole attitude towards (the project).”

Cunningham's clothing line and more plant-forward wares will be on sale at the Autumnal Festival, Saturday and Sunday at the ISU Horticulture Center on West Raab Road in Normal. Tickets can be purchased online at www.about.illinoisstate.edu/horticulturecenter.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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