Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mandrake Apothecary ~ The Seventh Sign

Interview by Justine Crane for LPR
Justine: Hi Sara.  It's so good to finally have a chance to talk with you about your art. We’ve (LPR) been putting it off for so long, it seemed like it might never happen, but here we are ~

First, tell the LPR readers a little about yourself; your background, and what brought you to perfumery ~

Sara: I have an eclectic background in terms of interests and courses of study, and regardless of the tangential road I wander along, or the rabbit hole I trip into as I go, it always returns to the plant world and to aromatics in some fashion.  It wasn't until I got very seriously into blending aromatics and dabbling in alchemy as a means of transformation that things literally clicked into place.  It was a matter of many roads leading back to the same place: my workbench and culturing tubes full of aging blends, leading up to that.

I don't have a fantastically complicated lineage in that 'Sara studied with ___ who studied with ___ who was apprenticed to ___' sort of way, which strikes me as kind of contrived.  And it is not that I'm some nose-governed genius either, so much as I tend to be a Jill of many trades and mistress of a few of them.  On a good day.

However, I was always nose-governed.  A couple of my earliest scent memories are of the star jasmines my uncle grew in Palo Alto, where I'd visit with cousins every summer, and of the lack of overt smell but fleshy green plantness of my great grandmother's fuschias in her backyard in Berkeley.  I just smell either of those and am there.  We always grew aromatic plants and flowers when I was a kid, even though we lived in an apartment.  I remember the sweetly spicy, and dirty odor of baby carrots, from the summer my mom handed me a terracotta pot of soil and a packet of seeds, telling me to press a bunch into the soil.  I also remember the distinctive smell of tomato leaves and stems sinking into my hands, from being sent out to the side yard to harvest tomatoes from the planter boxes.

I studied anthropology, which was not about perfume (if only I'd found and read Lise Manniche back then), but proved to be inspirational in nudging me to study herbalism more closely, and to spend more time outside in wild places.

Justine: So, what is the strangest perfumery ingredient you've ever used? ~

Sara: Skunk essence.  Antique, no less.  I was producing what wound up being a revenge blend of sorts.  I wasn't even heading in the direction of anger and unsublimated irritation, but skunk helped me exorcise some demons.

It doesn't smell bad, btw.  Reminds me of acrid leathery coffee, mixed with cigar smoke, almost.  But I like earthy smells.  If you age skunk oil, it picks up a very smooth patina, where all the angular cracks and jagged edges of the source material have been smoothed over and burnished to a shine, in some spots.

Justine: What scent, or combination of scents, slams you in the solar plexis? Y'know, the smells that really touch you. ~

Sara: I must admit to being a temple prostitute for the aromatic wonder that is Patchouli, with a capital 'P'.  Patchouli is so many things in so many different applications.  It is darkness, the forest floor and damp soil.  It is a universal blender and base ingredient.  It can be grassy, golden and syrupy, fruity, musky.  Patchouli is one of those essences I like to buy in lots and age.

Wanna hear something funny peculiar?  I don't put patchouli in every thing I possibly can.  Sometimes less is more.

Justine: You're an urban gardener , do you think working with plants and soil has helped you with your perfuming skills? ~

Sara: Definitely.  Being an urban farmer has really brought plants back to their most basic elements, to my nose and blending instincts.  In the past year I've tinctured oxalis blooms, rose petals, five different lavender species, rosemary flowers, pomegranate blossoms, and common weed flowers.

It's also given me an excuse to germinate and grow exotics you don't see in many gardens, such as Abelmoschus moschatus.  My prized seedlings are a trio of mandrakes I grew from seed, go figure.  I've been fascinated with Mandragora for years and it was time to get my hands dirty and learn from growing them; though they've nothing to do with perfumery.

I've also learned a new appreciation for more mundane aromas such as wheat straw, petrichor, finished compost, and even coop litter from the chickens.  You get to know a lot about your animals based on smell, and chickens have their own distinctive and not at all objectionable odor when you treat them well and keep their living quarters clean.  It almost reminds me of the warm furry smell of the top of my youngest cat's head when he burrows into my neck.

Justine: Are there any fragrances or perfumes out there that you wish you'd created? ~

Sara: Back in 'the day' (circa 1986), I had a thing for Lauren, by Ralph Lauren.  Tea roses and Sicilian lemons, and ambrette.  It had a start, a middle, and a powdery finish, like a well-crafted perfume that evolves.

I also have a soft spot for Byblos eau de parfum, which is no longer manufactured, but was based around fruity marigold heart notes, black pepper, and I seem to remember boronia, too.

Justine: I know your perfumery is on hiatus at the moment. Any indication as to when you'll be dusting off the shelves and opening the shutters for customers? ~

Sara: I was really really hoping to be back after my birthday in June.  It may have to be July, though.  This may sound a bit woowoo, and those who read my blog will recognize that, but things have been happening in 7s for me, and I might have to keep up that theme just to see if there's value in that exercise.  Seventh month?  (Cue up the theme music from the Twilight Zone.)

Watch for the reopening of Mandrake Apothecary ( coming the 7th month.

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