Once upon a time I swapped soap with Hajni Kele, the very talented soapmaster and owner at Mianra Soap in Cork, Ireland. The soap arrived, as international soap deliveries do, in a mail parcel. All the excitement of meeting soaps in person that you’ve only ever seen in pictures was there. The soap was carefully sniffed and examined from every angle and found to be lovely. The shape of the bar, the fluid swirls, the crisp colour contrasts, the delicious fragrance, the elegantly simple paper wrapping and the notion of a soap made by hand in a far-away land were all lovely.
To be honest I can’t tell you much about how the soap felt in use. After my first cursory but enjoyable test drive, the soap disappeared from my shower to re-emerge in my daughter’s shower. There it was savoured and enjoyed, properly dried between uses and diligently used over many weeks to the last sliver as good handmade soap should.
I have a wonderful daughter. She’s smart, considerate, funny and beautiful and I love her endlessly. Having grown up as a guinea pig in a soapmaking household, she takes well-formulated artisan soap for granted. She’s a straight-shooting teenage soap critic and will stay true to her own soapy preferences. She is also a talented writer with a good understanding of how to build a good story. One day she’ll be a storyteller to reckon with.
Soon after the soap that came from Ireland had been loved to the last bit, she came to me with the inevitable request:
“Mamma, can’t you make a soap like the soap that came from Ireland?”
“Well, even if I could make a soap like the soap that came from Ireland, I wouldn’t.”
“But why Mamma?”
And so we had a long conversation about creative integrity; about the difference between taking inspiration from another artist’s or artisan’s work and copying somebody else’s products.
Throughout the history of art, worldwide, aspiring artists have practised their craft and their art by copying the work of masters; those whose work is recognized as great. In this context copying is a step on the path towards mastering technique and method.
A few centuries ago, before photography fundamentally changed the way the world regards imagery, established painting masters kept large workshops churning out portraits and other commissioned work. The painting work itself was largely done by apprentices, while the master would add finishing touches and sign off the piece with his signature – his brand, if you like. Sometimes, if the master was busy, the master’s signature would be added by an apprentice. In days when marriage by proxy was regarded as acceptable eyebrows would not have been raised over this. The difference in status between apprentice and master was clear and recognized and only once the apprentice had, literally, mastered the same level of skill as his master, would he be accepted as a master in his own right with the right to take on work in his own name, set up a workshop with apprentices and teach others.
Times have changed, and today we regard it as a serious breach of integrity, a falsification, to sign somebody else’s name to your work or – perhaps more commonly in soapmaking – sign your name to somebody else’s work. Unlike other cultures where the subject matter in art is regarded as the main thing and copying a theme to the finest detail is seen as the highest virtue an artist can aspire to, our Western culture places great importance and emphasis on the artist as an individual. In art we tend to value the artist’s individual interpretation more highly than her choice of subject matter. Because we place such importance on individual performance, copying (taking after somebody else and replicating their work) is frowned upon and plagiarism (taking after somebody else, replicating their work and pretending to be the originator of the idea or concept) is seen as a serious offence. Not a modus operandi worthy of a master.
But how about inspiration and taking inspiration from somebody else’s work? Surely that must be acceptable?
It definitely is.
One of the defining characteristics of true masters of any discipline is that they share and let others build on their ideas – for several reasons. One, they recognize the importance of interaction and the benefit of input from other creative minds. Two, truly creative minds don’t ’arrive’. They don’t get comfortable and settle down with one single idea or concept, they keep creating and innovating. By the time the general public catches up with any one of their ideas, the truly creative mind probably has a row of others lined up already. Finally, the creativity of true masters tends to be fuelled by their passion for what they are doing. Passion is inspiring and typically loves being shared.
Inspiration is often what propels us to do new and interesting things, things that haven’t been done before or to do things that have been done before, but to do them in novel and interesting ways. Inspiration, as in having something spark an idea that gives rise to a thought that maybe connects with another thought and sets the creative juices flowing, is behind many of the inventions that form the pillars of our society.
The line between ’reaping inspiration from’ and copying something is sometimes fine, but it is a definite line and the difference is fundamental. Hard to quantify maybe, but fundamental. Copying is reproduction and does not need to involve either inspiration or creativity. You could say that you’re inspired to copy something, but if this inspiration results in a straight copy of something you’ve seen, your copy is still no more than a copy – until you put your own creative spin on it. Inspiration, on the other hand, can result in work that does not even remotely look, sound, taste or feel like whatever sparked the inspiration. We are blessed with the ability to make connections over our full spectrum of sensation, emotion and cognition. That’s were inspiration comes in, sparking those connections, setting the wheels in motion and sometimes resulting in truly original ideas. Of course, inspiration doesn’t always result in groundbreaking innovation, but most groundbreaking innovation has somewhere along the line been sparked by inspiration.
Art is communication, and in as far as craft involves art, craft is communication too. In all communication intent is crucial. What do we want to communicate, why do we communicate, and what do we hope to achieve with this communication? Being overt and transparent about our intentions is generally regarded as good and decent reflecting well on our integrity. In cultures where the norm for art is to copy the work of previous masters as precisely as possible, the intent of the artist is never to pass off the style or the technique as their own and personal. Whether stated openly or not the assumption is that the viewer recognizes the style, the technique and its history and appreciates or judges the work within this framework.
In our culture with its emphasis on individual originality things can easily get a little more confusing. When we sign our name to a work of art we communicate the intention of proprietorship: we made this; it’s ours. When it comes to a bar of soap it’s clear that the physical bar of soap was made by us and is ours, but how about the design used? Is that also something we created ourselves – or not really? In our culture it may well be assumed that we did create it ourselves if we signed our name to the work but ’forgot’ to specifically credit somebody else for certain aspects of it.
Now, we have to be able to take some things for granted. We don’t mention Archimedes every time we talk about volume and since cold process soapmaking has been around for centuries we can – fairly, I think – assume that most soapmaking techniques and designs have been around for much longer than the blog posts and YouTube tutorials on how to do them.
But, even if something has been around since time began it’s still decent and respectful for soapmakers to make mention of contemporary work that has inspired yours – particularly when presenting your work within the soapmaking community. Soapy designs aren’t trademarked and there are few if any legal sanctions anywhere for copying somebody else’s soap designs. But it’s worth keeping in mind that legal requirements are always minimum requirements. The bar for decent behaviour and good sportsmanship is often set a lot higher. Making a courteous acknowledgement of somebody else’s work costs nothing, raises your credibility and sets a good example.
So, how does all this tie in with the soap that came from Ireland? Just because I refused my daughter’s request to replicate the soap that came from Ireland, it doesn’t follow that I haven’t taken lots of inspiration from the soap and what it has come to symbolize in my household.
My daughter was not pleased with my refusal and so, for the longest time she wouldn’t let me live it down. When I’d show her a new soap she would look at it, smell it, and say:
“It’s very nice Mamma, very nice..”
Then she’d turn to me with a big, teasing grin and say:
“..but not quite as nice as the soap that came from Ireland!” 🙂
In our family lore the soap that came from Ireland has, over time, taken on epic proportions and mythical characteristics, as some of us reminisce about it while the exact memory of the original fades. Sometimes it has a dark oriental character and smells sweet and spicy of sandalwood and lotus flowers. Sometimes it’s a gradient from red over yellow to green smelling of fresh and fruity mango. It has become a larger than life chameleon of a soap.
For me the idea of the soap that came from Ireland has become something of an impossible benchmark. The soap I will never make but the one all my efforts are measured against. The unattainable if you will, but also what propels me to try harder and to look at new things, if possible with new eyes. You could say that all my soaps on an ongoing basis are inspired by the soap that came from Ireland. Not directly by the original soap perhaps (although Hajni’s beautiful soaps and stunningly crisp soap photography have been a great inspiration to me), but by the idea of perfection – impossible to attain and maybe an illusion, but always worth striving towards.
But, of course, many of my soaps have had plenty of additional sources of inspiration. These are some of my inspiration stories:
The Princess Alice Soap was inspired by my daughter Alice (pronounced [Alees]) who loved the soap that came from Ireland. In colonial times Princess Alice of Athlone, a member of the British royal family, was the first lady of Cape Town high society. She too served as inspiration for this soap with its royal crown embed. In addition, the delicate green colour and the rounded shape of the soap were inspired by the traditional Swedish ’Princess cake’, a delicious sweet cake filled with fluffy cream and custard and covered with green marzipan.
A queen to keep the princess company. Dark and regal yet infinitely feminine, The Queen of the Night soap was inspired by the character with the same name in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. A strong lady demanding respect in her own right and one of the most unfairly ridiculed characters in fiction.
The two-tone texture trim that I now make on several of my soaps was first inspired by a picture I saw of a striking pink and black layered soap log with what looked like a sprayed-on white lace pattern along the bottom/top and sides. That gorgeous soap was made by FinchBerry Soapery. I still don’t know how they make their lace pattern – possibly using a stencil – but I was very inspired by the idea of a see-through pattern in a contrasting colour on the soap. I held on to that idea and did several experiments. Just a doily or a normal impression mat gave a negative imprint without the possibility of using contrasting colours and creating a positive 3D effect. So, I decided to turn the doily on it’s head, as it were, and use it to create a texture mat with a rich and finely detailed relief unlike any impression mat I had seen. It worked beyond expectation and I have since combined this technique with the mica priming technique that I first saw introduced on some very elegant soaps by Lori Curry of Magellan’s Gift, creating a combined effect which is rather striking.
One of the soaps that I make with a textured lace trim is the East Indies soap. The white soap with its blue trim takes after the flow blue Melbourne china service that was passed on to me by one of my grandmothers.
My other grandmother lived next door to us when I grew up. As a small child I remember having breakfast at home and being dressed in the mornings and then being sent over to grandma’s while my mom enjoyed a bit of peace and quiet while she got dressed.
My siblings and I would keep grandma company while she was having her breakfast – often having a bit of a second breakfast ourselves. Every morning she would have her toast and tea from a beautiful blue porcelain service and I still remember the delicious smell of butter and honey on hot toast spreading throughout her dining room.
As I grew up I learnt that grandma’s porcelain service was made by the Swedish company Rörstrand and that it was called Ostindia, meaning East Indies. Legend has it that the service was inspired by a porcelain shard from the East Indiaman (or tea clipper) Götheborg that sank in 1745. Today Rörstrand still produces the Ostindia service, but the Ostindia cup and saucer in this picture are the ones that my grandmother used in my childhood.
Another blue soap with an exotic name is the Bombay Blue soap which came about after I saw a picture of a soap made by Charlene Simon of Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Charlene’s soap was a small round, moulded soap with a piece of loofah embedded on top. The soap was beautifully photographed in soft light that brought out all the beauty in the combination of delicate, translucent blue soap and natural, cream-coloured loofah.
I had been working on developing an oval blue brine soap with an Indian Ocean theme (I can see the ocean from my window), but I hadn’t come up with a final look that I was happy with. Charlene’s little blue soaps sparked an idea and so the Bombay Blue with its little cream coloured sea shell embed on top was born. The name was inspired by the blue gin, Bombay Sapphire, and the soap was given a fresh scent with plenty of juniper berry to match the notion of gin.
Of course, Charlene Simon is an inspiration to soapmakers in more ways than just by making pretty soap. She radiates positive entrepreneurial energy beyond continents and is among other things the successful founder and owner of the Bathhouse brand and a chain of the most beautiful soap shops anywhere. More than one or two soapmakers have looked at pictures from those shops and said to themselves: “One day..”. Incidentally, Charlene also drives a red car and has an aviating husband – both of which I can relate to 🙂
My red car inspired a soap early on..
My aviating husband – and the steady stream of re-recyclable aviation charts he accumulates – is the raison d’etre for the now classic Aviator soap with its minty fresh scent topped off with vetiver “for general gorgeousness”.
My first inspiration for the inverted stamp technique came from a beautifully photographed soap with a diamond lattice top made by talented soapmaker Lina Vilniškytè from Lithuania. The soap top looked like a wafer and the idea of using trace to make deliberate designs on top of the soap had an instant appeal. I soon tried out the lattice top myself. One day I accidentally bent my favourite straight lattice wire while cleaning it. I looked at the bent wire and had a sudden thought: “But what if..?” The rest is history.
I’m privileged to live in an area with plenty of excellent restaurants. One of them happens to have very fetching butter dishes..
A neat stamp on a curved surface? Too good to pass without trying it on soap at least once. Here on our latest Mojito soap:
Auntie Clara’s font designed by Anke Arnold of Anke-Art in Germany is in itself an inspiration to me with it’s Jugenstil elements, vintage and quirky all in one. According to Anke the font was inspired by the writing on a New Year’s card from 1906. The font is called Fortunaschwein or Lucky Pig which I take as an excellent omen and it makes it all the more endearing to me 🙂
Inspiration at its best moves in circles and bounces back and forth leaving a trail behind it. My recent picture of some of the hundreds of swans on the river Thames in Windsor is an illustration of that.
I took this picture of the beautifully posing swans in rich, reflected river light while on holiday in July and posted it on Instagram. Jessica Colaluca of Design Seeds was inspired by it and made a beautiful colour palette from the picture. Jessica’s colour palettes, in turn, served as inspiration for jewellery maker Rachel Rotabi’s (@vintagerehabjewelery) delicate bead necklace:
Inspired by the swans as well as by Jessica Colaluca’s row of colours I made the Windsor Swan soap.
I have plenty more inspiration stories, but from the soap that came from Ireland to music, cars, swans and butter dishes, soapy inspiration is pretty much everywhere for me. Beyond those mentioned here I’ve been inspired by the work of countless other soapers from all parts of the world. It’s a great pleasure and privilege for me and I hope to inspire others in turn.