EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books
Nika Vaughan, SHOP OWNER
Interviewed by Toni McElrath
Nika Vaughan is the owner of Plant Salon in Chicago’s West Town area, encompassing the neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Noble Square, among others. She opened the business during the pandemic as a means to increase income while her other company, Nika Vaughan Bridal Artist, lost revenue.
Plant Salon is a place quiet in terms of noise but loud in life and color, with the sound of soulful music playing. The plants of the shop are arranged the same way a museum would arrange its works of art. The smells and colors create the sensation of being immersed in a jungle. On the first pass of the shop, the plants appear the same, but no two things are alike. Everything is unique and eye-catching, especially the large twelve-foot monstera that visitors pass under to enter.
Vaughan herself is a bright, colorful, smiley, intelligent, passionate woman of color. She conducted this interview on her couch during February 2021 with nothing but laughs, smiles, red pajamas and a sense of hopefulness.
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Plant Salon was my “by-appointment-only” space, like a studio space. We had couches and things, so it was definitely comfortable. And even now with all of the plants and beauty products in a retail space, people just like to look. It’s not like an in-and-out errand-running kind of spot. It’s a spot. You do one pass and then another. Then you debate, Do I need some candles? Do I even need this?
I always liked thinking about that when I would go shopping to places like Anthropologie or just going downtown and in and out of stores: How do I tend to shop?
Back in the day, I spent the most time at places where I always got the most creative bang for my buck. A store like the old Barneys. We’d go in with braces and a backpack. Yeah, I was that person in high school. It was like visiting the museum, the same way you go to the Field Museum104 and might stop and take in the little different exhibits.
It was a department store where you would buy the $10,000 suit that had burned holes in it. Going to a shop like that and seeing these amazingly high-end batch designers, but then being able to go into the soap bar or plant section, to be able to get all the needs met in one place, that was fierce, you know? And then you might go home and be like, My plants look lonely. I need to get some sticks or something to make more of a motif.
It’s not very often that you can find shops that don’t just treat bath and beauty stuff as this little add-on. Barneys was more focused. So, I always thought, Why isn’t that a thing I can do? How do you tie beauty and plants together? And that’s how I think you start to make that little world at home. Because you were inspired by your favorite places.
There’s this thing called biophilia. It is a really neat way of having that marriage between how people interact in their space and the effect of nature on that person and their own sense of growth. It’s bringing nature and nature’s effect on the human experience. It’s having nature in your living space.
There’s a wonderful TED Talk from Bryan Stevenson, who helped design The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the museum down South displaying the history of lynching.105 Every aspect of the space is designed to impress upon you the weight of lynching, the culture, pain, and history. It’s heavy. Even the way they designed the landscape so that as you approach the museum, it is surrounded by these posts coming out of the ground that symbolize trees and cast shadows in certain ways, shadows used to symbolize the number of bodies.
People try to bring biophilia into interior design and into interior decor, so you truly feel like you are inside of nature. Hilton Carter106 is a great example of that. He tries to bring more into decor as a plant influencer. Like, how is this plant going to grow and interact with space there? He would say that if you enjoy this plant being on its side, put it on its side and enjoy the path of watching it grow.
I am very familiar with touching and manipulating materials in a space. I have a BFA from the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago] in materials studies. You take classes through sculptures, through ceramics, patch theory, a lot of fashion theory classes about how the body interacts with space.
Going into makeup and bridal arts, to me, was a nice extension. I have had three years with my other company, Nika Vaughan Bridal Artists. Instead of working bigger with sculpture, you’re working smaller and finer. This very thin substance over another substance that has to interact between the two of them.
In the wedding world, you’re helping someone curate an event that has a high emotional value. So they should have a lot of say in what this looks like and it needs to project some part of them. And so, they hire the venue, and they hire hair and makeup, and they hire floral and event designers. It’s almost like they’re fabricating an environment.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nika Vaughan Bridal Artists was doing national events. We were doing about two hundred weddings a year. Ninety-nine percent of my clients were white. And they were having $100,000 weddings.
I think when you’re a Black person in that world you start to have this weird servitude, a déjà vu. Like, I need to set some clear boundaries because something about this dichotomy is a little messed up. The way that you speak to me is not as equals. And it’s one thing when you are at someone’s wedding and it’s the best of the best. You cry with them and you’ve seen three thousand billion weddings, but still, this is beautiful.
Other weddings, you are the help. You are literally the help. And you’re like, this is not my job description.
People asked me if I was ever going to sell plants in my bridal business. But, I thought, No, that’s weird. Not my thing. I had only done these small plant pop-ups because plants make babies, and you need to get rid of some or you run out of space.
And then the pandemic came. The writing on the wall was that weddings were not coming back anytime soon. Then I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent with just the wedding business.
So in April of 2020, I opened Plant Salon in the West Town area. I was so basic naming it. I was just like…Plant Salon! It actually was a little bit of a plant district already. And that was very freeing for me because I felt safe exploring the whole self-care-beauty-Black-plants thing. Plant Salon is much freer. I have more of my own voice in it. I am the owner.
Plus, I can’t take these plants home. I own a Prius!
I have a large monstera plant in the window at Plant Salon. People would roll in and go, “Oh, I want this, I want this, I want this. Yeah. I’ll take one of those.” And they’re pointing to my Monstera. So, I was like, “That’s ten grand,” the exaggerated 2020 pandemic price. That’s being generous. And they pause. And you should pause!
I got that tree from an estate sale, maybe three years ago at this point. I don’t even think it was that old. The diameter of the original pot was like fourteen inches, if that. [The owner] had a bunch of rocks in it to help pull it up, but it was only like three or four feet tall, and it was rolling sideways because she lived in this dark little bungalow and the poor thing was just looking for light. I literally could lift it with one hand and put it in my Prius. I potted it vertically in my space. And it was probably about as tall as me when it was in the pot. That’s about five feet maybe .
And, oh, it grew. We had to repot it twice. Now it is in a thirty-inch pot, and it reaches our ceiling at about twelve-plus feet. The one that I got just happened to be very large from the process of air layering, which means propagating a new plant from an established plant. And instead of just taking a cutting and sticking it in water or dirt and going, “Please, I hope roots grow,” layering is a great way to ensure it survives.
It is a very expensive plant to me. So yes, it’s definitely a [seller’s] market for that baby. She’s mine. Even if I had to move. I don’t know where or how I would move it, but she is gonna be with me for a minute.
When you’re an entrepreneur who lives and breathes entrepreneurship, in maybe a not-so-healthful way, you plan innovations for when you take over the world. You’re still dumping the garbage yourself. You’re still all hands in. And that to me has been huge.
The Black Lives Matter protest, with the focus on violence against Black people and the marches, had a huge impact on Plant Salon. Our biggest fear was when they were breaking windows in the riots. And luckily, I think a lot of the people that were engaging in that in our community were trying to, at least in their rage, be discerning of small businesses, you know? I had people who knew that I sold plants. ’Cause I’m like, it’s a plant shop. I cannot do this.
Then all of a sudden, the attention turns to how do you support Black Lives Matter. With signs? Maybe you don’t really have a connection? They were literally using Black Lives Matter signs as “Don’t break my window” signs. And so, I didn’t put anything up in my window because I was like, “I’m the one sweeping the floor here. You should know that. I’m on your side. Me, I’m your sign.”
Being located where we were was a path for a lot of protests and marches that went up and down the community. On Ashland, they had thirty thousand people.107 And we had people come back saying, “I saw this when I was marching, and I said, I’m going to come back here.” All of that really helped fuel the momentum of people paying attention to our shop.
I’d say it’s a blessing and a curse, because then you have people who want to do something. They want to shop at this Black-owned business. I would have people come in and pick up plants and then go, “Are you the owner?” “Yes, I am Black, and I am the owner.” And for them that was the whole point of shopping there: I am open, and I am Black.
I had friends that were very bothered I was open to the public, saying it’s not safe. I was like, “Look, if this is not the activity for you, then there’s curbside pickup.” But if their one excursion outside of their bubble is going to be Trader Joe’s and the nearby plant shop, and then they’re back in their house for two, three days, I felt safe with that. That felt OK for me. But that was definitely a conversation.
When I opened Plant Salon, I worked there 24/7 and even overnight. I was there by myself. I would sleep there, and it was just all-consuming to the point where your family gets concerned. I’m eating a lot of fast food in my car, and I’m kind of always a little bit in pain. I’d be at Plant Salon watering plants and stuff, thinking I had to hire some employees, because remote learning was coming back. I do have two 8-year-olds.
Before the pandemic, I could work early and had all the time to go meet the school bus. Oh, how inconvenient. I have to be home by three in the afternoon now. But now it’s comical. I mean, with the pandemic, we had like a tent of blankets and chairs in the back of my shop and the smell of McDonald’s wafting.
One of the battles of dealing with COVID and being a parent is you have to participate in your world. I have friends from the wedding business who had been out of work. Like, they’ve just been out of work this whole time. I couldn’t imagine. There’s a whole other life besides just the project you’re working on. It’s already hard when you’re an artist and you want to do what you do 24/7. But then your partner or your family go, “Hi, remember us?” Your pets are like, “Hi, it me!” That’s how bad this is.
I’m recognizing I need help. Checking in with a therapist, just even when it’s like, “We got nothing to talk about today. Tell me what happened this week. ’Cause I know something did, and it’s so much to process.” And I will try to do things like sit in my own shop and have that experience with it when no one else is there.
I sent [my kids] back to school because I thought that was what was best for them. There are only two kids who’ve chosen to go back at this time in each classroom. So, they’re one of two kids in their own classroom.
I think it’s a benefit for them. I wanted them to ease back into it a little bit. That’s been our big lesson: not pretending that even though we all are talking about this new normal, that this is the new normal. It’s still awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling, and stressful.
I talk about it with them. “You’re probably going to remember this time period for the rest of your life, and it’s weird.” When they had their first day back officially, it was super inconvenient. Like, how do you work? How do you come and go with that? But we’ll check in and ask, “How do you feel today? ’Cause it was weird. You don’t have to pretend it wasn’t.”
We talk about that as a family. We have a crisis. There’s the getting through the crisis and then there’s once the crisis is over. That’s when you process the crisis. Right? So, at some point this is going to feel over. And then the real angst of it is going to hit home. And the stress of it is going to hit.
The most impacted were people that have not left their house still. That was odd because it’s like part of your network and part of you, the people that I checked in with who are like, “Nope, I’m done. I’m in my house.” “Nope. I don’t see people and I barely Zoom.”
And when you would see them, you can just tell looking at them that like, No, you never got sick, but I feel like COVID got you some way.
104 Chicago’s natural-history museum. https://www.fieldmuseum.org/
105 The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. https://museum andmemorial.eji.org/memorial
106 Hilton Carter is an influencer and interior designer known for featuring plants in his décor on Instagram
The interview above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!
BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · November 2022
Header image— Electron Microscopic Image of a Coronavirus: Original Image Source— U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases
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