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sunflowers platter pottery judie beck

Beckoning Sunflowers — Pottery by Judie Beck

sunflowers platter pottery judie beck

An array of sunflowers adorns a pottery platter with handles by Judie Beck.

Oftentimes, parents groan when their child comes home from school with a “project.” We know, although some teachers apparently don’t, that there will be hours of parent-time required to help, and the very prospect is daunting.

But for Judie Beck, her son’s school project, years ago, made a major change in her life.

“His class was studying American Indians, specifically the Cherokee,” the Richland, WA, pottery artist remembers.

“He wanted to make a traditional house, in which the Cherokee used saplings that they wove together, plastered with mud and roofed with bark.

“We lived in Tennessee at the time and our soil was red clay. So we dug up clay, found some nice bendable twigs that he used as the saplings, and I helped him construct the house.

“Now I don’t garden because I hate getting dirt under my fingernails, but I thoroughly enjoyed helping him manipulate the clay.”

sunflowers mug pottery judie beck yellow happy

Mugs and bowls are among Judie Beck’s favorite pottery items to make. Sunflowers mug by Judie Beck.

So pleased was Beck by the experience that she mentioned it to a friend, who replied that she (the friend) had always wanted to take a class in pottery making from a local artist at the Oak Ridge Art Center in town. Two days later, after Beck had signed herself and friend up for the class, the friend’s response was,

“Oh my gosh! I was thinking I’d do it after the kids were grown!”

Functional Pottery with Sunflowers Design

Why wait? was Beck’s opinion, and she hasn’t stopped getting clay all over her hands ever since. (As an aside, her friend is now an instructor at the center, teaching pottery.)

Working out of a studio built into a section of her garage, Beck creates functional pottery from serving trays to lidded butter crocks, “just what I like, basically,” she explains.

“I’m always making mugs. And bowls — I love making bowls. Everyone needs bowls. Bowls hold just about anything.”

sunflowers spoons pottery serving judie beck

A series of small pottery spoons, with the sunflowers motif, by Judie Beck.

Beck’s main challenge doesn’t come so much from working with the clay — which potters know can be “fussy” during the kiln firing, when pieces can explode under the high heat — but rather, from the designs she incorporates onto the finished work. Describing herself as a person who couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler, Beck credits her friend, Irina, with the latest design of a sunflower.

“Her initial reply was, ‘Just draw one; it’s easy,’ at which I laughed. So she drew one for me to use. She’s a fabulous artist and it probably took her less than five minutes to draw the original sunflower that I am now using on my work. I call it Irina’s Sunflower.”

Patience and Persistence

Transferring the image onto each piece is time intensive, Beck says. After finalizing the design, she effectively creates a transferable decal by tracing the image onto newsprint paper, then applying multiple layers and colors of underglazing, each of which needs to fully dry before the next application.

french lidded pottery butter crock judie beck

A French lidded butter crock with sunny yellow design by Judie Beck

When the transfers are finished she then makes the pottery pieces onto which the designs are to be applied, for example, the mugs. She throws multiple mugs, lets them dry to the proper stiffness (leather hard), makes the handles, trims the mugs, and then applies the transfers. It all takes patience, precision, and persistence.

Beck has sold her work throughout the country, including Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Arizona, and of course, Washington. Her work has been juried into the Allied Arts Gallery at the Park in Richland, where she sells through the gift shop. She also participates in festivals and fairs, focusing on three events per year: an April and October bazaar in Patterson, WA, and a November event at the Calvary Chapel in Kennewick, the Make a Difference Bazaar. Throughout the year she brainstorms on what people will buy for spring, fall, and Christmas, with some of her regular customers offering suggestions on what they want her to make.

Happy Pottery and Sunflowers

Beck also teaches classes, one on one, in her studio. Between the teaching, the three yearly events, and, of course, the actual making of pottery, she keeps plenty busy. It is a busy-ness that is satisfying, and crowning that satisfaction is knowing that the people who buy her work have an opportunity to enjoy it every day. That’s her goal: making people’s day better through pottery.

“I want my work to make people smile,” Beck says. “I want it to make them happy, every time they use it.”

That’s a good goal. And it all started with one of those school projects . . .

Wenaha GalleryJudie Beck is the featured Art Event at Wenaha Gallery from March 1 through March 28, 2022.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Friday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

 

 

artisan soap scent bars biker b bathworks

Scent with Love — Artisan Soap by Biker B’s Bathworks

artisan soap scent bars biker b bathworks

An array of artisan soap scent and color by Biker B’s Bathworks, owned by Meredith and Gene Bretz of Dayton, WA.

It’s pretty easy to guess what a soap named Pine Forest will smell like. Ditto with Apple Pie, Pumpkin Spice, Red Rose. Sea Breeze is more challenging, but your mind takes you there.

But what does a soap named Naked Man smell like?

Long ago, artisan soap maker Meredith Bretz confronted that question, and when she reached the answer, she found herself with two products that resonate with customers — Naked Man and Naked Lady soaps.

“There are flowers called Naked Ladies, and the scent is a light floral with powdery notes,” the Dayton soap artist, who co-owns Biker B’s Bathworks with her husband Gene, explains. “We started making it for about a year before some people were saying we needed to make a Naked Man soap.

bath salts truffles scent biker b bathworks artisan soap

Bath salts and truffles add a sense of luxury to one of the best parts of the day.

“We were selling in an indoor market at the time, so we had a contest. ‘What should a soap named Naked Man smell like?’ we asked our customers. They could submit their suggestions and then, at the end of the month, we picked the prominent scent that was suggested.”

It turns out that a Naked Man — after the bath, not before, Bretz emphasizes — is redolent of lime with a bit of cinnamon and touch of patchouli.

“Both of the Naked soaps are very popular,” Bretz says.

Just for Fun

Bretz and her husband began making soap in 1997, just because they thought it would be fun. With no intention of forming a business of it, they made a batch and shared it with friends and family. Soon there were requests for more, and after that, custom requests. For a long time, they didn’t even have a business name, because they didn’t consider themselves a business. When a vendor at a craft fair asked for their business license, they were in a state of surprise.

“We didn’t realize we needed one,” Bretz remembers.

Shaving kits for men include a mug, badger haired shaving brush, and a soap with a masculine scent

“The next thing we know, we’re at the office applying for the license and they ask us what our name was. We had no idea what our business name was.

“So Gene said, ‘How about Biker B’s?’ We both ride Harley-Davidsons and our last name begins with B. It sounded right.”

And so, a business was born. Living in Seattle at the time, the couple — who were both still working full time at the Seattle VA Hospital — created chemical mastery with little more than oil and lye, a stove and a sink. They started selling in Farmers Markets in Kent, then added Issaquah, Sammamish, and North Bend. From there, they added regional craft fairs and selling online.

They have moved a number of times since 1997, and are now retired in Dayton, but, Bretz says, “Though we are now retired from working away from home, we are definitely not retired.”

Experimenting with Scent

In addition to soap, Biker B’s creates reed diffusers, soy wax candles, bath salts, tub truffles, roll-on fragrances and other aromatic treats for the bath. Because the couple has never lost their desire to have fun at what they do, they are constantly experimenting, especially with scents.

soy candles scent color biker b bathworks gifts

Candles are an excellent way to add scent, and light, to one’s life.

“Boredom can set in, making the same things all the time, so we try to work along with the seasons.

“We have certain scents that are all year long, then we try to make season-related soaps, such as pumpkin in the fall, fruit scents in the summer and fall, to add to the ones we have all year long.”

The research and development for new scent blends, she says, is especially fun, and those ideas can come by taking a drive in the mountains, window down, and smelling the trees.

Custom Scent, and Names

“We try to custom blend our own scents, and the idea comes from something we smell, which we try to recreate. or, it can be that we see an interesting name somewhere and wonder what a soap of that name would smell like.”

Speaking of interesting names, they focus on those, going back and forth until they find the perfect nomenclature for their custom blends: Happy Hippie, Zen, Woodstock, Rasputin, Pacific Rain, Walk in the Woods, Palouse Falls, Nature’s Bath.

“The names of the soaps can be a conversation starter.”

Like, say, Naked Man.

Quality with quirky — it’s a chemistry that works as well as the saponification of oil with lye. Bretz and her husband have fun creating a unique, artisan item, and customers enjoy an affordable luxury item that isn’t stamped out from a machine. That human touch — it matters.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits of purchasing handcrafted soap: you know who made it and what is in it.”

Wenaha GalleryBiker B’s Bathworks is the featured Art Event at Wenaha Gallery from February 23 through March 22, 2021.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Friday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

 

candy nuts toffee chocolate mama monacelli gift basket

Candy Is Dandy — Artisan Sweets by Mama Monacelli

candy nuts toffee chocolate mama monacelli gift basket

From sweet candy treats to savory nut snacks, Mama Monacelli says, “Eat caro, cara, eat!”

It’s no secret that most people don’t like to see photos of themselves. (Especially candid ones!)

But most people do not have the unique situation that Nancy Monacelli has. The Walla Walla candy maker, who creates artisan toffees, brittles, chocolates, and snacks, needed an image for her packaging logo, and, in her own words,

english toffee candy chocolate mama monacelli

The English Toffee candy that started the flunking of Mama Monacelli’s retirement.

“I couldn’t abide the thought of looking at my own face all day.”

So, she and her graphic designer put their heads together, and went looking for a suitable face.

“I told him I wanted an older, Italian-looking, ‘How you gonna get a wife; you’re so skinny,’ kind of woman,” Monacelli recalls.

“He found a public domain image and said he thought he had just the thing if I didn’t mind being associated with a perfect stranger. I told him, if she was perfect, what more could I want?”

It Started out as Christmas Candy

So Nancy, as she is packaging up her many handcrafted treats for sale, does not have to face her face. And she can focus on what she really gets excited about: making candy using recipes that she has developed over decades.

“Basically, my business started as ‘the Christmas candy,” Monacelli explains.

“For years, I made baskets for family, friends, and co-workers, as well as to take to gatherings to donate to events. My kids told me for decades that I should ‘sell this stuff,’ so I finally listened to them.”

chocolate candy bark flavored sweet snack mama monacelli

Nine flavors and counting: Mama Monacelli works on new candy innovations in the winter

At the time, Monacelli was winding down a 30-plus-year career in general manufacturing, manufacturing software, and consulting, and she thought that candy making would be a pleasant diversion for her upcoming retirement. In 2017, less than four months after she made this decision, she was not only licensed and running, but well beyond the dabbling or hobby stage. She found herself with a business that was taking on a life — and a very robust and growing one — of its own.

“Basically,” Monacelli wryly observes, “I flunked retirement.”

Expanding Offerings

Now, Monacelli spends her days at the Blue Mountain Station in Dayton, where she operates a commercial kitchen in back and retail store in front. Fridays and Saturdays from spring through fall, while husband Richard minds the candy shop, Nancy heads to the Walla Walla and Richland Farmers Markets. In the winter, she focuses on new product development. This is an endeavor that not only stretches creativity, but the waistband as well.

bobpop candy snack popcorn mama monacelli

Bob the family dog was instrumental in the naming — and the research and development — of Monacelli’s candy popcorn treat, BobPop

“I generally do new product development in the first quarter of the year, when things are slower, so I tend to gain weight after the holidays, unlike most folks,” Monacelli says.

“There is a fair amount of trial and error, as you might guess, and my family are my guinea pigs. They really like the batches that I declare to be failures!”

Through the years, Monacelli has developed an array of flavors, building upon the signature English toffee candy that led to her initial flunking of retirement. She has added to that Maple toffee, nine flavors of chocolate barks; two brittles; seven “enhanced” almond snacks, and BobPop, a sweet and salty popcorn treat, “with a zing.”

Bob the Dog and Candy Tasting

“For the popcorn snack, I did the R&D in my home kitchen and our dog, Bob, was the preferred guinea pig — he really likes the stuff. So, around the house, we started referring to it as BobPop.

“When I was satisfied with the recipe and ready to go into production, we tried and tried to come up with another name. Failing, we just left it at BobPop, the only product that is named after a pet!”

With each of her candy and snack products, Monacelli is adamant that the ingredients be “real.”

Keeping that in mind, she seeks out the best she can find, locally when she can. There are no artificial flavorings or ingredients.

“The decision to use real, high quality, fresh ingredients is consistent with our approach to food and life,” Monacelli says. “Our chocolates are dairy and soy free; all of our products are gluten free. We are very careful in our sourcing, and sensitive to dietary issues.”

nancy mama monacelli snack maker dayton wa

Look closely, and you can see what Mama Monacelli really looks like

In addition to selling her artisan candies through her retail site and the Farmers Markets, Monacelli offers her products at specialty shops from Chelan to Glacier National Park. She has participated in the Prosser Balloon Festival and Walla Walla Fairgrounds Enchanted Christmas Market, and looks to keep expanding, just . . . not the waistline.

The Woman Behind the Face

So — what does Nancy, Mama Monacelli, really look like? That’s a mystery that is best solved when you meet her in person. But even if she doesn’t look like the woman on the package, she is, most definitely, Mama.

“The name was my daughter’s idea.

“I have five children, four step-children, a foster daughter, countless ‘spares,’ and now their children (12 and counting). So the ‘Mama’ moniker has been well used.”

Maybe, just maybe, Mama didn’t flunk retirement after all.

Wenaha GalleryMama Monacelli’s Candy is the featured  Art Event from January 27 through February 22 at Wenaha Gallery. A large selection of chocolates, toffees, and BobPop, will be at the gallery. Samples will be available.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

cheese sushi cutting boards hardwood coasters dave ulmen spokane woodworking

The Cutting Edge of Woodworking Art by Dave Ulmen

cheese sushi cutting boards hardwood coasters dave ulmen spokane woodworking

Sushi, cheese, and cutting boards, as well as hardwood coasters by woodworking artist Dave Ulmen of Spokane, WA

Wood is amazing stuff.

It comes in a variety of neutrals, tans, browns, and even purples. With common sense and lack of greed, it is sustainably harvestable. And in the hands of a skilled woodworking artist, wood is an elegant medium for creating sculpture as well as artisan items we use every day, from wine stoppers to treasure boxes, from bowls to cutting boards.

woodworking hardwood coasters home decor dave ulmen spokane

A collection of hardwood, handcrafted coasters by woodworking artisan Dave Ulmen of Spokane, WA

It is these latter — cutting boards — that Spokane woodworker Dave Ulmen focuses upon, crafting cheese, sushi, and cutting boards, as well as coasters, Lazy Susans, and wine waves from laminated hardwood in his Spokane shop. Working with his wife Liz, Ulmen has built a thriving business from what started out as the extension of a lifelong interest.

“I’ve been a tool guy since I was a little kid hanging out in my grandpa’s shop,” Ulmen explains. “After both my parents passed, I had a small estate fund remaining. Since tools had always been important in my family, it seemed a fitting investment.

“When I saw what I could accomplish with a few good tools, I was hooked. My adult kids kept encouraging me to offer some work for sale, which got the ball rolling.”

The Woodworking Studio

His dad and grandpa, Ulmen says, would be delighted with his woodworking studio — which started out in a garage and grew into custom built shop — and tools. And while his tools are newer, shinier, and dependent upon electricity, what they represent remains the same:

“There is the satisfaction of creating an interesting and useful object that is pleasing to the eye and gentle to the hand,” Ulmen says.

wine waves hardwood woodworking coasters decor dave ulmen spokane

Wine Waves, with their signature curvature, and hardwood coasters by woodworking artist Dave Ulmen of Spokane, WA

This is what Ulmen has been doing since 2005, when he launched Dave Ulmen Woods while both he and Liz were still working full time as teachers – he in 7th grade language arts, she in elementary gifted ed. (He describes their teaching careers, from which they fully retired in 2015, as a combined 71 years in crafting skills and critical thinking, “even more rewarding than our woodworking — and that’s saying a great deal.”)

Purchasing hardwood from local distributors a hefty pickup load at a time, Ulmen designs boards with the grain and unique coloration of individual hardwoods in mind. He and Liz saw, joint, glue, sand, finish and oil the completed boards, with each woodworking product passing through their hands multiple times. The wine waves, which incorporate bits and pieces (“post production materials”) into a signature curve, vie with the cutting boards for popularity.

Handcrafted Woodworking Art Sold throughout the Northwest

Ulmen sells his work throughout the Pacific Northwest in numerous gift shops and galleries, including Made in Washington stores; The Highlight Gallery in Mendocino, CA; The Real Mother Goose at the Portland, OR, International Airport; Northwest Handmade Gallery in Sandpoint, ID; and Wenaha Gallery in Dayton, WA. He has shipped to customers in more than 20 states, throughout Europe, and in Canada. In 2007, Made in Washington stores named him Artist of the Year.

“I took great pride in that because it was an acknowledgement of the quality of work, in combination with excellent service provided.”

As a testament to that commitment to quality, Ulmen and Liz still own, and use, the first cutting board they made.

sushi cheese cutting boards hardwood woodworking dave ulmen gifts

Sushi, cheese and cutting boards by woodworking artisan, Dave Ulmen of Spokane, WA

“We just rinse it, wipe it to damp/dry, and stand it on edge to finish drying. We recommend a beeswax/oil emulsion be applied from time to time which we also make and can supply.

“Never soak a wood cutting board!”

Woodworking and Life

In some ways, the properties of wood — its sustainability, its variety, and its connection to the earth and to the past — mirror Ullmen’s own experience in woodworking. He always knew that somehow, he would follow his grandpa’s and father’s interest in and skill with a material that has been part of humankind’s experience ever since there were trees.

“I knew I had the right background to become a woodworker when the time was right,” Ulmen says.

“After raising a few sons of my own, raising a home of our own, and raising a few grey hairs as a middle school teacher, I have been blessed with the opportunity to do my own woodworking.”

It took time to fulfill the dream, but then again, everything about wood, from the growing of trees to the crafting of functional items of beauty, takes time as well.

But it was well worth the wait, Ulmen says, to fulfill a dream he has had “since I ran my fingers through that soft and silky sawdust in Grandpa’s shop when I wasn’t tall enough to reach much else.”

Wenaha GalleryDave Ulmen is the Pacific Northwest Art Event artist at Wenaha Gallery from Monday, December 31 through Saturday, January 26, 2019.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

 

 

artisan natural soap azure botanicals dayton wa

New Year’s Resolution: Enjoy Artisan Soap from Azure Mountain

artisan natural soap azure botanicals dayton wa

A selection of artisan soaps, handcrafted in small batches at Azure Mountain Botanicals in Dayton, WA

The New Year’s Resolution has been around for a long time. Purportedly, ancient Babylonians started the process 6,000 years ago with promises to their gods to return borrowed items and pay off their debts.

bubble bath salts truffle azure botanicals dayton wa

Bubble Bath Truffles, the perfect soak after a New Year’s Resolution workout, made by Azure Mountain Botanicals in Dayton, WA

Julius Caesar finessed the New Year’s Resolution when he renovated the calendar and created a January 1. And now we’re full fledged into it — for the first two weeks at any rate — with promises to eat better and exercise more. And while there’s no guarantee we’ll finish our year’s gym membership with the gusto with which we begin, Art and Brenda Hall of Azure Mountain Botanicals can ensure that we emerge clean and happy when the workout is over.

“Our main focus is cold process soap making,” Brenda, co-owner of the Dayton-based, artisan personal products store, says, “but we also make balms, butters, soaking salts, and bath bombs.” Soaking salts have been known through time to relieve pain, inflammation, and sore muscles, Brenda adds, and a little indulgence after hard work is never amiss.

Artisan Soap, New All Year Round

“We focus on small, local, and handmade,” Brenda says, explaining that smaller batches of soap, butters, balms, and salts ensures greater control over the quality. “We also locally source ingredients as much as possible. For instance, our Dumas soap is made with Dumas Station wine, and has grape pomace that is collected, dried, and ground.

artisan handcrafted natural bath truffle azure botanicals dayton wa

A handcrafted, artisan bath truffle — the perfect solution after a New Year’s Resolution workout, by Azure Mountain Botanicals of Dayton, WA

“Apple Ale is made with Chief Springs Apple Ale that includes cider from Warren Orchards.  Peachy Keen and Strawberry Cream Ale is made from Laht Neppur Ales.”

Making soap from beer, wine and spirits requires simmering the liquid until no alcohol remains, closely monitoring the mixture because high sugars intensify potential reactions. Other liquids the Halls have incorporated into their creations include tea, tisanes, honey and goat milk along with essential oils that add fragrance as well as skin nourishing properties.

Inspiration from Artists and Clients

With a soapmaking canvas that is “limitless,” the couple seeks inspiration — and gives credit to — customers and clients whose observations and requests spur a design: “Deer Slayer was inspired by a local young hunter,” Brenda says. “Anne’s Mystery Mountain Mint, Hippy Up, Sarah’s Earl Grey, Honey Hemp, and Winter Cocoa are all people-inspired soaps.”

handcrafted soy candle azure botanicals dayton wa

Handcrafted, artisan soy candles by Brenda and Art Hall, owners of Azure Mountain Botanicals

Artisan bath products are not the only items that are locally inspired: the Hall’s shop, located in the historic Dantzscher building on Dayton’s Main Street, reflects the skill and work of regional artists, with the outside sign and inside shelving created from reclaimed wood by Dayton craftsman Yancy Yost, who also fashioned the bubble-emitting clawfoot bathtub set before the store’s entrance. The worktables, deliberately open to public view, were built by Leroy Cunningham of Waitsburg’s L Design Reclaimed, which specializes in repurposing vintage woods. The logo, as well as the color palette of the studio, are the brainchild of the couple’s daughter, artist Liz Whaley of Liz W Fine Art.

“We are quite proud of using local artists and resources at our studio,” Brenda says.

The Couple That Makes Soap Together

The couple has been making soap together for more than ten years, beginning in college when Art took an organic chemistry class from a professor who believed strongly in hands-on, practical experience.

artisan handcrafted wooly soap bars azure botanicals dayton wa

A selection of felted wooly soap bars, handcrafted artisan personal care items from Azure Mountain Botanicals

“They made things like biobricks, biofuel, and soap,” Brenda remembers. “Art brought his soap class project home and wanted to make it again — I thought it was too plain and insisted that we add something to it, like lavender essential oil and ground rosemary.” Friends who enthused over the results encouraged the couple to show the soap at an event at Dayton’s historic train depot, and the response to that encouraged the couple to further explore fragrances, essential oils, natural additives like clay and oatmeal, and color.

Despite holding down “day jobs” — Art is a property Manager for General Services Administration in Richland and Brenda is a registered nurse — the couple opened the doors to their store in 2015, and in that short time their artisan products have found homes as far away as New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, and California. They are constantly experimenting with new blends (“Soaps that misbehave often still turn out nice”) and the major challenge the couple encounters has nothing to do with running out of ideas, but more with keeping up with them.

Year-round New Year’s Resolution

“Sometimes, there are so many soaps and other products I want to make that it is difficult for clients to choose from the selection — or, they buy something and tell us it is too pretty to use!”

But that’s a good problem, Brenda reflects, one that blends well with their business and life goals:

“We both have a strong work ethic, believe in customer service, and do our best to provide the finest product possible.”

That’s not a bad New Year’s Resolution, one to keep day in, day out, all year round.

Wenaha Gallery

Brenda and Art Hall of Azure Mountain Botanicals are the featured Art Event  at Wenaha Gallery from Tuesday, January 2, 2018, through Saturday, January 27, 2018.  

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

And while it looks good enough to eat, the soap from Walla Walla Soap Works feeds the skin with premium, luxury oils such as Shea, mango and cocoa butters, and oils like avocado and hemp

Useful and Usable Sculpture — The Artisan Soap of Walla Walla Soap Works

The unique shape, colors, and scent combinations of Walla Walla Soap Works soap is testament to the artisan flair of its creators, Jesse and Scooter Johnston

The unique shape, colors, and scent combinations of Walla Walla Soap Works soap is testament to the artisan flair of its creators, Jesse and Scooter Johnston

Babylon.

Buried deep within the mists of time, this ancient civilization sends forth its tendrils to touch contemporary society, its effect felt in our religious, scientific, financial, and literary realms. Babylon brings to mind astrology, astronomy, the Code of Hammurabi, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and . . . soap.

Individual bars from Walla Walla Soap Works start out as part of a long log, which itself is cut from a larger shape.

Individual bars from Walla Walla Soap Works start out as part of a long log, which itself is cut from a larger shape.

And while this latter, soap, is not majestic, like the legendary hanging gardens that King Nebuchadnezzar II created for his foreign wife, it’s still around, a 5,000 year-old chemical wonder of fats blended with alkaline salts that in today’s society, approaches an art form. At Walla Walla Soap Works, a family-run business that creates Artisan soaps from luxuriant ingredients that would have been the envy of ancient monarchs, soap is practical, but it is beautiful as  well.

Large wooden trays hold and display the useful, usable soap sculptures of Walla Walla Soap Works

Large wooden trays hold and display the useful, usable soap sculptures of Walla Walla Soap Works

“We get a lot of questions about the unique shape of our soaps,” says Jesse Johnston, co-owner of the business with his wife Scooter, both of whom have been creating this ancient yet modern marvel for 20 years. The couple’s signature Artisan Bar — rectangular with sworls and peaks across the top like frosting —  is like no shape one will find in a store, or even among other artisan soap makers.

“In our early days of soap making, the shape really didn’t matter as it was  purely for our family use,” Johnston explains. “But when we began selling it, we obviously cared  more about its  appearance and quickly became frustrated when our cut bars weren’t the perfect rectangles that soap is ‘supposed’ to be.

And while it looks good enough to eat, the soap from Walla Walla Soap Works feeds the skin with premium, luxury oils such as Shea, mango and cocoa butters, and oils like avocado and hemp

And while it looks good enough to eat, the soap from Walla Walla Soap Works feeds the skin with premium, luxury oils such as Shea, mango and cocoa butters, and oils like avocado and hemp

“When we decided to peak the top a bit to help it appear less uneven, this proved to be the best thing ever, as once you free yourself from the box you really feel the creativity take over.”

Creativity abounds in an endeavor that includes not only Jesse and Scooter’s energy, but that of their now-grown children as well. What began as a personal search for a product that didn’t trigger skin allergies of various family members, has grown into a venture, and adventure, of color, scent, form and formulation. The resulting products range from soaps with names (and corresponding coloration) like Cranberry Fig and Mango Mandarin, to embossed squares incorporating wine as the liquid, to Bar None, the unscented, non-colored bar that is a consistent top seller.

“It’s appreciated by so many others who have sensitive skin,” Johnston says.

With each family member contributing unique strengths and perspective, Walla Walla Soap Works produces soap all year round from the Johnston’s dedicated home studio, individual batches of 40-80 bars requiring a three to six week “cure” before the soap is ready for final sale. Regular vendors at the Walla Walla Farmers Market since 2007, Jesse and Scooter also sell retail through holiday craft shows and online, wholesale throughout the state, and coast to coast at natural grocery stores and gift shops.

Printed with vegetable-based inks, the packaging of Walla Walla Soap Works reflects the owners commitment to natural products and ingredients

Printed with vegetable-based inks, the packaging of Walla Walla Soap Works reflects the owners commitment to natural products and ingredients

“We’ve had customers take it as gifts to Japan, Canada, Australia, England, France, Germany, Mexico, Iceland, and Scotland,” Jesse says.

As artistically pleasing — and unusual — that the shape of the Johnston’s bar is, this very distinctiveness led to challenges when it came to packaging. How does one protect, and display, such an odd shape?

“The more traditionally used cigar-style paper wrap labels, plastics, and boxes just really didn’t make sense with these fun soaps,” Jesse says. The paper labels didn’t protect, the plastic didn’t allow the soap to breathe, and both plastic and paper boxes created more waste than the Johnstons were comfortable with.

“It seemed crazy to create a product so good for the skin but at a cost to the environment,” Jesse observes.

So, as they have done from the beginning, the family came up with a unique solution, signature paper “suit sacks” hand fed into a vintage printing press and stamped with vegetable-based inks. Stacked neatly and safely in wooden trays, the soap exudes a sense of cheerful chromatic harmony, its whorling tops decorated with dried lavender, poppy seeds, or oats, its interior marbled with color. It is, as Jesse describes it, “fun.”

“It is a product we love, and feel passionate about,” he says.

Such is the sentiment that all true artisans, and artists, express about their art, from Babylon to the present.

Wenaha GalleryJesse and Scooter Johnston of Walla Walla Soap Works are the featured Pacific Northwest Art Event artist from Monday, January 25 through Saturday, February 20.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail art@wenaha.com. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.

Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists.   Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.

This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.