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With floral candles, Hmong sisters honor parents’ farming legacy

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Xee and Pachia Vang show candles made with flowers made from family's farm
Artist sisters Xee (left) and Pachia Vang (right) created homemade candles using flowers from their family's farm to accompany this year's Hmong American Farmers Association Thanksgiving share.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journala nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

By Becky Z. Dernbach

Sisters Xee and Pachia Vang didn’t want the unsold flower bouquets at their family’s farm stand to go to waste.

When the sisters were invited to create a piece of art to accompany the Hmong American Farmers Association’s Thanksgiving farm share, they decided to preserve their family’s flowers in candles.

“Growing flowers, we don't want any of our flowers to go to waste,” Pachia said. “For us, it's a way of preserving flowers in a different, more creative way that people can enjoy.”

“Even when it’s not summer,” Xee added. “People can enjoy flowers in a different way.”

The art share that accompanies HAFA’s Thanksgiving produce box is now in its third year. Each year, a Hmong artistic work is available to purchase alongside produce grown by Hmong farmers.

This year for the first time, the art comes directly from a HAFA farm.

Oskar Ly, one of the founders of the ArtCrop program, said the Vang sisters’ floral candles have brought the project “full circle.” They’re an example of the innovation second-generation Hmong Americans can bring to farming, she said.

Xee and Pachia grew up helping out “here and there” on their parents’ farm, though they were always more drawn to art.

Xee, 30, went to school for fashion design. Pachia, 25, said she has “always been her [sister’s] assistant in a lot of things.” Their work, under the label V.Florals, includes photography, corsages, floral decor and prom corsages and boutonnieres.

When their parents decided to make a business out of farming four years ago, the sisters started helping out more. Their mom suggested growing flowers in addition to vegetables.

"From my parents' perspective, they wanted to see if flowers were a profitable income for them,” Xee said. “But for me, I wanted to see if it could be successfully incorporated into what I'm doing as an artist."

Candle art for Hmong American Farmers Association Thanksgiving farm share
The Vang sisters mold the candles by pouring soy wax in PVC pipe, adding statice and strawflowers on the second pour, and melting off excess wax to reveal the flowers' texture.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

At first Xee and Pachia imagined the flower field as a backdrop for photo shoots. But as they saw unsold bouquets go to waste, they started to think of ways to preserve the flowers. 

When Ly invited them to create an art piece for ArtCrop, they decided to create candles featuring flowers from their family’s field.

Xee and Pachia spent months researching and experimenting on candle design. They tried using snapdragons, peonies and roses in their candles before settling on strawflowers and statice. These dry flowers retain their visual aesthetic in the candles, Xee said.

The sisters mold their candles with PVC pipe, first pouring an inner core of soy wax around the wick before adding the flowers in the second layer. The trickiest part is the final pour, when they melt off excess wax to reveal the flowers’ delicate textures.

The ArtCrop share is a way of “bringing together the harvests of the year,” Ly said. Farming and arts have historically been intertwined for Hmong people, but coming to the United States the practices have become more separate, she said. ArtCrop is a way to bring the two crafts back together.

“A lot more second generation Hmong Americans are craving ways to reconnect to culture,” Ly said. “Art and food really is a way to do that.” It’s also a way to share Hmong culture with people who are not Hmong, she said.

The art share’s timing coincides with the Hmong New Year, which in Minnesota is celebrated the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s a time to gather with family and friends, celebrate and wear Hmong traditional clothing, Ly said. “Bringing an art piece to the dinner table is another way of celebrating our culture,” she said.

The limited edition candles are available as an add-on through HAFA’s Thanksgiving shares. Monday is the last day to sign up.

Going forward, Xee and Pachia plan to experiment with different ways to bring the farm into their candles, perhaps using beet dyes or scenting them with herbs. They also want to expand their work as flower providers.

More than half of produce vendors at Twin Cities farmers’ markets are Hmong, according to HAFA. But fewer and fewer farmers’ children are following their parents’ paths, which could lead to future issues in supply.

Ly said when she interviewed Hmong farmers two summers ago, most of their children were not interested in carrying on the family business.

The Vang sisters represent a way the next generation can put their own mark on family farming traditions, said Pakou Hang, HAFA’s executive director.

“What’s needed is for many of our young people to come back and claim their cultural inheritance that celebrates the resilience and power of community and the power of their parents,” she said. “You don’t have to do it like your parents. You can build on what they’ve given you and direct it toward your own aspirations or your own sense of the future.”

“We would not be able to just create flowers like this ourselves without our parents,” Xee said. At the same time, she said, the daughters’ support of their parents allowed the family to experiment with growing flowers.

“We’re not just doing this for ourselves,” Pachia said. “We’re also doing it for them.”

“Farming is not just labor work. It’s a creation,” Xee said. “I hope we’re able to express that in a way that people can actually see that.”