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Waxing lyrical: How two local candle artisans are illuminating positive representations of Blackness

<p>Bougie Luminaries’ founder and creative director Erika Parker-Smith’s affinity for candle making began during childhood.</p>

Bougie Luminaries’ founder and creative director Erika Parker-Smith’s affinity for candle making began during childhood.

There’s plenty of brilliance to be found in the Triangle’s local arts scene, but Bright Black Candles and Bougie Luminaries contribute more literally than most. The two companies, both Durham-based family businesses, are built on philosophies of imbuing great care and culture into each of their candles and drawing greater attention to the artistry of candle making.

Bougie Luminaries’ founder and creative director Erika Parker-Smith’s affinity for the medium began during childhood, when her Girl Scouts troop made candles out of crayon wax. The spark, she said, ignited then and stuck with her into adulthood. As loved ones fell in love with the candles she’d make them as holiday presents, she saw an opportunity to merge her “eclectic” interests in pin-up art, cinema and fragrances into a full-fledged brand.

“Certain fragrances conjure up happy memories, or make you think about a certain moment,” Parker-Smith said. ”When you light a candle, it speaks to your soul.”

Each Bougie Luminaries candle is a work of art both visually and olfactorily. In creating fragrances, Parker-Smith is often heavily inspired by her favorite pieces of culture, from “The Wiz” to Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. Illustrated by Parker-Smith’s husband, Jamaul Smith, much of the brand’s packaging is inspired by pin-up art she grew up loving.

“I’ve always admired the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and [Gil] Elvgren, but there were never any women of color in them. And I was like, why is that?” Parker-Smith said. “African-American women particularly get a little beat up by the media, and so [I wanted to be able] to serve as a mirror … showing us in a way that’s loving and tender, or just in everyday life — ways that we don’t always get to see.”

Bright Black Candles, co-owned and founded by Tiffany M. Griffin and husband Dariel Heron, upholds a similar mission. The roots of the company began as a date-night activity for Griffin and Heron, whose mutual love of hip hop and burgeoning love for each other gave them the idea to create candles based on hip hop love songs. But as their passion for candle making grew, they began to believe the medium had the capacity for a larger impact.

“[Candles] are one of the oldest sources of light on the planet. They transcend cultures, language, geography, race and religion,” Griffin wrote in an email. “The presence of a candle can spark exchange or symbolize solidarity — think vigil, passion, security, warmth, hope, spirituality, new beginnings ... birthday candles, health, protection, blessing, memories, calm.”

Griffin, who holds a PhD in social psychology, worked as a researcher and a policymaker in the federal government prior to starting Bright Black. In founding the company, she wanted to “challenge” herself to combine research, data and lived experiences to tell stories through scents — in particular, positive Black narratives.

“On a super basic level, I'm creating a positive experience by just pairing the word ‘bright’ with ‘Black’ and then coupling that with beautifully blended scents,” Griffin wrote. “People are having a positive experience before I even say a word. Psychologically, that's triggering thousands of receptors, tapping into memories and creating an opening for dialogue and connection.”

Bright Black’s Diaspora collection highlights cities of “Black greatness,” capturing the stories of everything from Ethiopian history in an Addis Ababa candle to the local history of Durham in a candle that blends scents of tobacco, cotton and whiskey. The company just released a Harlem Renaissance candle in honor of Black History Month.

“My experiences of Blackness are quite positive and those are the stories I want to tell,” Griffin wrote. “Essentially, we’re telling [those] stories through scent. Scent artistry isn't well-recognized as art, but it should be. After all, what is art? It's sending messages and meaning through some sort of medium. Our medium is scent.”

In the future, Griffin hopes to partner with museums to illuminate the potential and significance of scent artistry. Both Griffin and Parker-Smith emphasized a need for greater appreciation of the craft and science that goes into making candles.

“People think [candle making is] really simple, but then you talk to them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I tried to make candles and I could not get them to come out right,” Parker-Smith said. “There’s a lot more to it than it’s given credit [for] sometimes.”

For now, though, their businesses will continue to serve as vanguards for the form’s power. Bougie Luminaries will soon expand their collection of film-inspired scents with upcoming candles inspired by “The Breakfast Club” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Bright Black, fresh off of a project commissioned by NorthStar Church of the Arts, will soon release a “Genres” collection in homage to Black music. Long-term, both hope their efforts will improve the narrative around both their artistic medium and Black culture.

“Ultimately, I really am working towards a world where ‘Black’ ... doesn't inherently conjure up negativity,” Griffin wrote. “It took hundreds of years to get to this point, but I'm committed to doing my part in dismantling those cognitive associations, one beautiful and brilliant candle at a time.” 

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