Making art has always been an integral part of my life, although I did not actively identify as “an artist” when I was younger. In fact, I prefer not to distinguish art from life... I have always loved the alchemy of candles. Turning the solid wax into a gas through the magic of a beautiful glowing flame is both elemental and transformative.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CANDLE MAKING
Candles have been made and used by essentially all human civilizations around the globe for centuries. Some of the earliest candles reported have been in existence as early as 3000 BC in Ancient Egypt and Rome. Ancient Rome is credited with creating the model for what we now know as the wicked candle (a candle with a wick, not an evil candle) by taking rolled papyrus, a paper-like material, and repeatedly dipping and soaking it in either melted tallow or beeswax. Tallow, or rendered animal fat, was long the primary go-to for creating candles until during the colonial era. Western women found that sourcing wax from melted bayberry bush not only shined brighter but also did not smell as strongly as did the tallow. Despite its benefits, the bayberry bush was soon abandoned as the go-to for candle wax, as gathering the berries and rendering them to wax was highly time-consuming.
Further into the 18th century, alongside the bustling whaling industry, whale fat came to fill the need of candlemakers. The spermaceti wax was a less smelly and easier-to-source wax. During this new industry's bustle, women again found themselves at the forefront of candle making. It was a traditional setup for the husbands to venture into the waters in search of whales while the wives tended to the home, which now crucially involved illuminating and brightening the space. During this time, the scientific unit "candle power" was termed. According to Save the Whales, hunters in America killed 292,714 whales between 1835 and 1872. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling.
As is evident from the perspective of contemporary 21st-century society, relying predominantly on rendered animal fat, over-utilizing plants, and hunting whales for both sport and materialistic utilitarian purposes is not necessarily the most environmentally-friendly approach. Nevertheless, our desire for candles hasn't slowed. Luckily, the candle making industry has ventured strongly into the realm of sustainability. Today, it is not uncommon for candles to be made from alternatives such as soy wax and beeswax.
Soy wax comes from soybeans, a crop already in mass production in our agricultural system, and can be made once the beans are cleaned and processed into flakes. The soybean oil can be extracted and consolidated from these flakes to form wax. A unique step in promoting sustainability within this process is that the discarded flakes produced from the soybean processing can be used in animal feed, ensuring that this process remains as closed and un-wasteful as possible.
Beeswax, as a candle source, has a much longer history than soy wax. Nonetheless, its significance as a more environmentally conscious alternative to paraffin wax and wax sourced from animal fat is not to be overlooked. Like many modern-day niceties and essentials, beeswax can be traced back as a prominent feature in ancient Egyptian societies. It was used for everything from embalming fluid to coffin sealants and ornamental perfumed cones to light sources. It has also been reported that ancient Romans utilized beeswax to create sculptures of themselves and other objects they held dear. In contrast, ancient Greek societies frequently used this source of wax in combination with natural pigments to paint. Just as beeswax had many uses throughout our collective human history, it remains today a multi-purpose source for creativity– beeswax candles, homeopathic remedies, waterproofing, natural furniture polish, skin moisturizers, and more.
Beeswax comes from Bees, an animal byproduct considered by some not to be cruelty-free or ethical. Synthetic beeswax is created in a lab using fatty acids; however not regarded as natural. Chandlers (candle makers) are becoming more informed about where their beeswax is sourced along with working with local Beekeepers and small batches. With all this in mind, Candles sourced from these wax alternatives are more sustainable than most other candles, typically made today from paraffin wax, wax from petroleum (oil!). Therefore, Beeswax candles when. burned don't release the same harmful toxins and carcinogens. As is not surprising, women are leading the charge in this movement toward sustainability within the candle making industry.
CHANDLER: HOPE BRYSON in OAKLAND, CA 2022
Hello Hope! Please tell us about yourself - where did you grow up?
Hi! I grew up in Albuquerque. Both of my parents were born and raised in NYC, and in the early 70s, they became enchanted with the big open skies and the possibilities of “alternative lifestyles” that they found in New Mexico. My father was an M.D. who switched gears from traditional medicine to pursue holistic health and my Mama focused on organic gardening, cooking, and raising me and my sister. After their divorce, however, when I was 8 years old, she went back to school (as a single mother) to become a doctor. They both were avid art collectors. My Dad collected contemporary art and my Mom gravitated towards crafts like ceramics, glass, and textiles.
My childhood home was filled with art. There was a mural of my mom’s naked backside on our living room ceiling replete with rainbow stripes running across it. Living with art and with artists was an integral part of my development. We had an unconventional household and almost always rented out a room upstairs as well as the basement to others, and more often than not they were artists. I learned to bake bread, make puppets, work with clay, and modern dance at an early age from our “housemates”. I was in a children’s theater group and my earliest ambition was to be an actor. I was also very athletic in my youth. Gymnastics was my first passion and in high school, I was on the swim team, tennis team, soccer team, and basketball team.
You have a long history of being involved in the art & creative worlds, please elaborate and highlight some of the artists that have inspired you.
Making art has always been an integral part of my life, although I did not actively identify as “an artist” when I was younger. In fact, I prefer not to distinguish art from life. In college, I studied cultural anthropology but also took ceramics classes on the side. I had a phase of sculpting with Fimo clay and would sell my little creations at campus craft fairs. I also loved watercolor and collage. In my late 20s, I began a relationship with a guy in San Francisco who had previously started a contemporary art gallery in his warehouse. Pretty soon he suggested that we start a new gallery together. It was called LINCART and we ran it with one other partner together from 2000 to 2010. We did some interesting shows over the years with both local and international artists. One of our first shows was with Yayoi Kusama, the most renowned Japanese female artist living today. My roles in the gallery were to develop relationships with the artists, and the collectors, write the press releases and plan and facilitate the events. We had amazing and memorable openings, often with live music and exceptional snacks. My favorite part of working with the gallery was getting access to the world of the artists through studio visits and getting to know them personally. My job also included doing a multitude of art fairs not just in Miami, NYC, and LA but also in Vienna and Mexico City. It was a fun and enriching time.
How did you get into candle making? And why candles?
I have always loved the alchemy of candles. Turning the solid wax into a gas through the magic of a beautiful glowing flame is both elemental and transformative. I also love that humans have been using candles to light, heat, and celebrate their lives for centuries. I find it is really cool that the technique of making dipped and poured candles has remained essentially the same throughout history. My partner and I host many dinner parties and a key component of the ambiance that I cultivate includes lighting a lot of candles. Beeswax candles are the only kind I use because they smell yummy, are made from nature and flowers, and by bees! Bees are amazing creatures for so many reasons and we should never forget this.
About three years ago, my good friend Sarita showed me how to make hand-dipped beeswax candles over a stovetop in a cozy cabin we had rented for a weekend getaway with other women where we planned to do witchy things together. I was mesmerized by how rudimentary it was to make the candle, and then how magical it was to burn it and to see it actually work. When I returned home, I showed my stepdaughter Isa how to make a pair of candles and she got really into doing it in our kitchen over our stovetop. That’s when my partner Paco Prieto stepped in and created a production system in one of our downstairs studios to streamline the process. He’s a woodworker and a builder by trade and pretty quickly he developed a system where I could crank out multiple pairs of candles quite efficiently. Before long, I was selling candles to friends and getting orders from local stores. Another thing I love about candles is that they are utilitarian items. They make great gifts because everyone knows what to do with a candle and after it is used, it is gone. No residue, no trash, nothing to throw away.
Tells us about the process of candlemaking.
Making any kind of candle, of course, involves first melting the wax. This is usually the most time-consuming part, as the wax needs to be heated slowly and always in a double boiler to make sure it does not burn. For my taper candles, I use a custom stainless steel container, 14” tall and 10” wide for the wax, and heat it in a giant stock pot full of hot water. While the wax is slowly melting, I string my custom dipping paddles with the 100% cotton wicks, size 2/0, and attach split washers to each wick end to act as weights to help the candle form as straight as possible.
Each paddle can hold 6 pairs of candles and with my 14 paddles, I can crank out 84 pairs of hand-dipped candles in about 2 hours. I also have an additional pot of melted wax simultaneously available because as the wax is pulled out and layered onto a dipped candle, it needs to be replaced so that the level of the wax in the dipping pot stays consistent. For the pillar candles, I melt a smaller amount of wax in an electric double boiler and then pour the liquid wax into pre-made molds. Regardless of what kind of candle you are making, one of the trickiest parts is getting the right size wick to match the diameter of your candle so that the candle burns down at the right speed. If the wick is too small, the wax pool will drown out the flame, and the flame will tunnel into the middle of the candle and leave a lot of the wax unutilized. If the wick is too big, it can liquefy the outer walls of the candle and cause a big mess.
Tells us about some collaborations you have done with other Artists.
Since this last fall, I have been hosting pop-ups for my candles at the studio compound where I live in West Oakland. I did a few events over the holidays with my candles as they are perfect for entertaining and for gifts. This spring, I had a pop-up where I collaborated with a handful of other artisan friends Michael Bondi, Shawn Lovell, David Baker, Amanda Kanter, Roshan Prieto and Rebecca Goldfarb, who made candlestick holders, candle snuffers, and pillar candle dishes from different mediums including bone, ceramics, found objects and wrought iron. It was super fun and satisfying to apply my past experience running a gallery and curating shows to an event at my own home. I loved sharing the space with other artists and it made it much easier to promote as I was not just promoting myself.
Advice to our readers who want to get into candle making.
Beeswax is the most expensive of all the candle waxes for good reason. Bees need to visit 30 million flowers to produce a pound of wax. It is a precious commodity and an incredible creation worth the extra cost. In addition, beeswax burns the longest, produces the most beautiful flame, pulls toxins out of the air, and creates no soot. There are many sources of beeswax available online, but try to source it locally if possible.
For my bulk orders, I like to use Crystals Honey.
For candle-making supplies, wicks and molds, I like Waxing Moonshine. The owners are very helpful and will answer questions about things like what wick size you should use.
For molds and Supplies, I suggest checking out Mann Lake.
Here is a video I recommend to show you how to make taper candles.
For fun, a vintage candle-making film!
Books/Films that have inspired you!
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss / Film: Harold and Maude
Hope's Spotify Playlist for WITHITGIRL!
Interview by withitgirl. The short history of candle making co-created with Nessie!
Nessie Navarro, an Associate Editor at withitgirl, grew up in La Jolla, California, always finding ways to maximize her time at the beach and under the sun. When she moved up north to San Francisco for college, her Environmental Studies major helped to deepen her relationship with the environment and the communities most impacted by global climate change. She is now living in New York City, working towards her Master’s degree in an individualized study program at NYU.
Photos of Hope by Claudine Gossett
Hope Bryson Instagram
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