Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wanda Fleming, Artisan Soap Maker, Tells Her Story

Once Upon A Bubble

The moment of this gesture makes it all worthwhile: A young woman walks to the table which is piled precariously high with soap--- circles, rectangles and squares, all redolent with heady scents. She carefully eyes the entire landscape, and then plucks a favored one. Holding the bar, she inhales it, closes her eyes and sighs. In that moment, I am in heaven.

Love in the Time of Van Gogh

When I was a young girl I wanted to be a spy and detective of superhero note, a White House pastry chef, and a writer—all in no particular order. Today, I create a line of over thirty artisan soaps in my River Girls Soap studio. My work reflects the nuances of each of those once fantasized careers — the persistence of a detective to find a blue azure dye that recalls sea glass; the tenacity of a chef to design and redesign the best recipe for a salty air scent, and the wordsmith laboring of a writer to describe just so, a fragrant soap and the experience it evokes. 

River Girls Soap reflects my personal intersection of a wish for a life of quiet work and the daily chance to create for others a heady slice of simple joy.

Artist Contortions or Multitasking to Nirvana

Soap crafting is a vocation that requires a great deal of patience, an impeccable nose sense like those perfumers of ancient times possessed, a designer’s eye for hue, and an ability to brainstorm names.

Confetti Betty

The extraordinary marriage of science and art is what makes it interesting. Making it work as a business is an entirely different animal. In a given day, the process may encompass everything from the vital drudgery of lifting and chopping heavy blocks of plain glycerin soap to grating pounds of fresh chocolate scented cocoa butter, to measuring and blending fruit and nut oils. Perhaps the most jubilant and time-consuming task involves perfume blending and fragrance creation.

From an eyedropper, I squeeze droplets of scents onto paper strips. I am forever hoping to create something unusual or provocative. For every attempt that falls flat, surprises invariably arrive. Sometimes these creations will sit in the dark for days and weeks to cure.

Ginger Kisses

My studio armoire houses over 200 amber glass bottles of fragrance and essential oils – all wanting to be blended and tinkered with. These oils may come to me from as far away as Egypt or sunny California. They may smell of rose geranium or blood oranges. When I cannot dream of anything fresh and new, I lie on the wood floor, open bottle upon bottle, and simply close my eyes.

The Utter Surprise of It

The act of unmolding or cutting into a loaf of soap is the most satisfying of all. It is the Christmas equivalent of tearing wrapping paper from a gift. I never know what will greet me until the suction push from the mold’s cavity or that first press of a cold steel knife to a loaf.

Every bar and loaf is different. Like a sunset or fireworks display, the appearance can never be truly replicated. How the design appears, the manner in which swirls fall and weave, and what colors choose to pop or recede are a one-time show. Now you see it; now you don’t. Indeed, you can never make the same bar twice -- ever. To me that uniqueness embodies the craft’s highest beauty.

Meant to Bee

Naming Names

The naming of soaps often involves a trigger. Triggers arrive whenever they wish, perhaps after a thunderstorm sweeps through the backyard, in a cellar box of forgotten letters, or in a patch of pulpy sweet blackberries.

Each batch I pour maintains its own mood and character. Its name must reflect that. Artisan’s soaps should suggest who they are and what they might be in that long hot shower ahead. Often, it is not enough to say simply, Rose soap, for indeed, what kind of rose? Is it the kind the first person who broke your heart recalls? The rose of the backyard bushes of childhood barefooted hide and go seek games? Or could it be the rose left anonymously drying between the pages of an abandoned flea market book?

Cobalt Doves

P.S. Love Your Craft with No Apologies

The most challenging part of being an artist is clarifying foremost to yourself your work’s worth in heart, not hard currency. Why do you do what you do? The answer is most imperative not for the world, but for you. I was never trained for the soap crafting I engage in daily, yet I love my work. It sprang from accidental interest, and turned earnest with an unexplainable intensity. I dream persistently now in scents and colors.
In the early years, I felt embarrassed by the deep resounding joy my pursuit gave me. After all, I held two degrees so shouldn’t I be advising some rogue politician how to get your vote, or hunkered down in a lab, discovering the cure for what ails you most?

More than a decade later I can say confidently that an education is for all of life’s pursuits be they commercial, scientific, artistic or family. I think when we send our educated out only in the pursuit of corporate and material gain, then it sends a message that artistry -- be it painting, literature or artisan endeavors -- is of is of little value in our society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, it is the beauty in such simple things as a shower, eyes closed, with fragrant soap that offers the brief serenity for the arduous hours to come.

Peony '63

In June, River Girls Soap celebrated its 15th anniversary!

Beatrix & Peter

This is Week 27 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. To see more about Wanda’s soaps, please visit her website and her new blog. Thank you for reading and sharing Wanda’s story today!

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