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

(02/06/20 5:04am)

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.” 

GOVERNANCE, Inc., where performance art meets academia

(02/06/20 5:05am)

When the Rubenstein Arts Center opened Feb. 3, 2018, one of its first exhibits was an installation titled “sound/play/space,” which invited children to play with a “Synthball.” This device, a silicon ball, produced different synth sounds as it was lifted, spun, dropped or moved in any direction. In a short video clip of the exhibit, the children are fascinated by the product, which is just one of several experiments from a speculative agency called “GOVERNANCE, Inc.”

Billie sweeps and Ariana’s snubbed at an uninspiring Grammys

(02/05/20 10:13pm)

The archetypal Grammy performance is a slow, sad piano ballad. It’s a relatively safe choice for an artist — at worst it’s slightly boring, but when done right it can be transcendental. So it’s fitting that the artist who gave exactly this kind of performance, Billie Eilish, is the one who walked away with all the biggest awards. Safe and well-deserved, it was no surprise that Billie had such a great night, but it made for an anticlimactic ceremony to say the least.

Impact investing can actually unlock enormous good

(02/06/20 5:00am)

Across Duke, the term “impact” has been used so many times to self-characterize one’s long term goals that it can feel trite. Thus, I wasn’t particularly astounded​ ​when I read ​a recent Chronicle column​ criticizing impact investing not only as superficial but even harmful, funded by unethical capital sources and used by the rich to deflect accountability.

Engineering Student Government endorses Tim Skapek for Young Trustee

(02/06/20 2:49am)

The Engineering Student Government endorses Tim Skapek for the position of Young Trustee. All four finalists, Tim Skapek, Ibrahim Butt, Leah Abrams and Maryam Asenuga are candidates with incredible potential and have done amazing jobs as on-campus leaders in their four years at Duke. Having listened to each candidate talk about their passions and reasons for running for the YT position, the executive board collectively believes that Tim’s diverse experiences, institutional knowledge of Duke and ability to identify flaws and push through boundaries makes him the best candidate to assist Pratt’s continued advancement and growth as one of the country’s preeminent engineering institutions.

Jewish Student Union endorses Leah Abrams for Young Trustee

(02/06/20 3:22am)

It is with great excitement that the Jewish Student Union has chosen to endorse Leah Abrams for Young Trustee. Her commitment to hearing the voices of undergraduate students, passion for building relationships and activism in supporting a stronger relationship between Duke and its neighbors have led us to our enthusiastic endorsement. We believe Leah’s vision is well suited for both the Jewish community and the Duke community at large.

Duke computer science—aka the boys' club

(02/06/20 5:00am)

Duke claims to be committed to developing highly ethical adults who are dedicated leaders in their respective communities. Duke already has a great track record in this regard, so I’m certain that many of my peers will be future leaders in their industries. Notable alumni include Tim Cook, Melinda Gates and Louis von Ahn. However, we must also focus on the ethical standards that Duke is replicating on campus.

Five observations from Duke men's basketball's first half against Boston College

(02/05/20 12:52am)

CHESTNUT HILL, MASS.—Boston College came out hot in Conte Forum Tuesday night, scoring the game’s first six points to get out to an early lead against No. 9 Duke. The Blue Devils would not fully recover, heading to the locker room trailing 24-21. Here are five observations from the opening half.