The name of Melbourne artist Shahn Stewart’s floristry practise, Alchemy Orange, feels like a tailored response to the pandemic.
“Alchemy [signifies] the process of transformation, combination and creation,” says Stewart. “When we were coming into Covid in 2019 and 2020 and the associated uncertainty, I also went through some pretty significant changes in my life. I left my previous job to focus on Alchemy Orange.”
She can even trace the three pillars of alchemy to her decision. “The ‘transformation’ was me levelling up in all aspects of my life to start this business and give it all I had,” she says. “The ‘combination’ was the fact my original intention was for my [studio] to double as a gallery space for artists of all nations to work and exhibit. And the ‘creation’ aspect is that I create for people. The alchemy is bringing all those things together.”
And the orange? “It’s the best colour ever,” she says simply.
As a Yorta Yorta woman, Stewart uses her work to explore both her heritage and connection to Country. “I’ve only just started delving deeper into my Indigenous heritage and how it correlates with my practice,” she says. “I forage a lot of my materials, and I try to shine a light on materials that are not often used in commercial floristry so people can appreciate the form, shape and texture.”
Stewart founded Alchemy Orange in 2020 as a way to explore ideas she’d found difficult to follow in previous commercial jobs.
“I’ve been doing floristry for 11 years and I think my style has grown and developed over time,” she says. “I’ve always been quite an arty person – painting, weaving, as well as floristry. But working for other companies and businesses I was a bit restricted in how far I could push my creative freedoms. So the business is really delving into what I want to create.”
The initial plan was to operate out of a shopfront on Lygon Street in Melbourne’s inner north. “Yeah, I naively thought, ‘What a good time to start a business’,” she says, laughing. “I just jumped in headfirst. It went from zero to 100 real quick.” But then, of course, everything changed. “My initial plan for the business was to do events,” she says. “But as the pandemic continued I had to change my model to do contactless deliveries and pick-ups from the studio to keep money coming in.”
Eventually, the continued lockdowns meant she had to abandon the Lygon Street space. “I moved the studio home in August,” says Stewart. “I find now I don’t get out as much as I did. I’m working a lot and it’s challenging finding a work-life balance.” Like many, she also lost significant amounts of work. She describes one “shattering” job that took “months of planning and was abandoned four days before [it was supposed to happen]”.
On the flipside, the pandemic underscored to Stewart the importance of digitally documenting her work while appreciating the everyday.
“During lockdowns the only way to stay connected to our audience has been through documenting our studio practice and foraging trips,” she says. “I think our audience has come to like that. Giving people the context of what goes into our designs — documenting foraging on Yorta Yorta country, or sharing photos of us out on country getting inspiration from the bush — is really helpful in bringing our practice back to its core values.”
This documentation has become essential to keeping people engaged in the growth and evolution of Alchemy Orange says Stewart, both “to communicate our signature designs, show the direction we’re heading in and get people excited about the future.”
And the most epic moment of this post-lockdown future so far? “The set designs we recently created for the Kathmandu AW22 collection, due to be released February 2022,” says Stewart. “Because Kathmandu is an incredibly eco-friendly and sustainable brand, it was important for me to use minimum market-bought materials and maximum ethically foraged and native materials. And in the lead up to the photoshoot the radius restrictions had finally eased, so we took the chance to spend some time on Yorta Yorta Country. It meant we could forage a bunch of elements to add to the sets, as well as get some quiet and reset.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Samsung Galaxy S21 – the ideal phone for capturing everyday epic moments.