Today, my soapmaking friends, I will tell you some more about one very interesting lady from Canada. This interview was a hard one for me as I know this lady a little bit closer and it was hard to think that I know nothing to prepare it. But we made it. Talented, creative, successful in challenges with her memorable marvelous soaps, but also a genetic professor with perfect sense of humor who is going to leave city life and move “into the wild”… Be welcome to read about Hélène Glémet from ChezHelene.
I met my boyfriend, Jeff, on the internet, on a dating site.
Tell us please something about yourself and your family
In my family we are 5 brothers and sisters, and with their children, it does make what one would call a BIG family. I have no children of my own so I get to be the auntie who spoils all the nephews and nieces. They are all grown up now and I am very proud of the young adults they have become as well as all their accomplishments.
I met my boyfriend, Jeff, on the internet, on a dating site. It was by accident really (!) Not knowing how to «narrow» his search to his own province, he sent me a «flirt». When I received it, I almost flushed it immediately because I live in Quebec and he in British Colombia, and I had no interest in having a long distance relationship. Then I had a look at his picture (nice looking handsome man on a horse) and I was drawn and had to answer. Well, after 3 months of writing back and forth we finally agreed to meet in Toronto, a city in a different province from where we both live! It was one the most nerve wracking meetings of my life!! Needless to say, we have been together now (or rather not together) for 6 years!! I call him «cowboy» and he calls me «professor». We make the most unlikely pair and would have never met had it not been for the internet; but we fell in love!!! That’s our excuse :) Our Bubba is an Australian shepherd who spends half his time in BC and the rest in Quebec; he has had to learn to behave with horses and wildlife, as well as having a city life too. The long distance thing is definitely a challenge but we hope to finally live together, all three of us, in BC when I retire…which shouldn’t be too long now. Jeff is presently getting our house built. We are still discussing where the soap atelier will be.
As I managed to see at Google maps, there is almost nothing in British Columbia.. Are you going to live in “the wild”?
Actually I think what you saw is the northern part of British Columbia which is indeed, not very populated. Jeff presently lives at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, off the Alaska highway about 1,5 hours north from the nearest town, Fort Nelson. His closest neighbors are some kilometers away and he is more likely to see wildlife, like a moose or a bear in his yard than people. So he is very isolated and completely off grid, no electrical network or nearby amenities. It is certainly a different life style that takes some getting use to. One cannot just pop out to buy a liter of milk or use electricity wastefully. Everything has to be calculated and planned. For instance, when you do drive to town, you must have a list and put aside the whole day to do groceries. Same with using electricity, you plan it. For instance, when you do laundry, you don’t just wash one small load, but make sure it is a significant one and start early morning on a sunny day to make sure the batteries will have time to re-charge.
As a city girl, this type of living has certainly opened my eyes to how wasteful I am and how difficult it is to change. So why would one «choose» to live this way of life? Well, there are no words to describe the tranquility of the place, where one wakes up to silence, with no background buzz, the joy of seeing a moose or bear travel through the yard, or the satisfaction of being able to live independently not separated from nature. A home where everything is not a black box and one must be involved and understand the power, heat and water systems. Of course, it is not for everyone but it is what Jeff has chosen and I too.
A vegetarian that hunts!!!
How contrary is that?
Your English is excellent, but your name tells me you have some French roots, do you?
My roots are in two continents. My father is European from France and my mother is French Canadian. They met in Montreal where my father was giving a concert. My father, a classical violinist travelled a lot. After they married they lived for some time in Quebec, had my brother but then returned to Europe. I was born in Germany! I guess I could have been born anywhere. We then lived for some time in France before they decide to return to Canada. I think my father believed the work opportunities were better here, and like many, he wanted to give his family a better life. We first settled in New Brunswick and by this time, I was ready for school but because the French school was so far away which would mean a long bus ride for a little kid, I ended up going to the closer English school. This was very difficult for me because I only spoke French and German and no English at all! I was so shy and withdrawn at school that most people thought I could not speak.
When I was 12, my parents moved near the Quebec/Ontario border where I would have had the opportunity to continue my studies in French but my parents decided I had had enough change and kept me in English school. So all my education, right through university has been in English (except my PhD, which was in French). Needless to say, growing up, conversation around the dinner table was interesting. The older kids (including myself) would speak in English but then we would switch to French when speaking to my parents and the younger kids. It did have its advantage when we didn’t want our parents to know what we were saying.
I know you are a genetic professor at Quebec University (profile is here), please tell us some more information about your work. I also saw a lot of publications on yellow perch. Is there something specific about this fish?
I work as a professor-researcher and also the director of programs (B.Sc. in biology & ecology and Environmental sciences certificate) at University of Quebec (Trois-Rivieres). My expertise is in fish ecophysiology and my research program focuses on how fish respond to changes in the environment. With my students, we are examining the genetic mechanisms underlying growth in yellow perch and trying to understand the genes involved in growth determination. In the St. Lawrence River, which flows for more than 350 km in the province of Quebec, yellow perch populations have declined, especially in the last 15 years, so much so that both commercial and sport fisheries had to be closed. Yellow perch, once a very abundant and dominant species is now only a marginal and minor one so there is strong interest to examine the different pressures exerted on the perch populations and their habitats to reveal the causes of the decline.
Aside from my research, I teach various courses at the undergraduate level including Genetics, Animal physiology, Evolutionary Biology, Vertebrate Zoology and Fish Biology. Our cohorts are relatively small (25-30 students) so I get to know all my students personally! It is so wonderful to be able to interact with them! It is what keeps me young. They continually challenge me so I am forced to look at things differently and not become set in my ways!! Also as program director, I get to supervise their progression in the program and it is very satisfying to see them grow during the 3-4 years they are with us.
I saw some pictures of yours on facebook where you are hunting, but I also know some 6 years ago you were a vegetarian.. How do those thing go in hand inside you?
A vegetarian that hunts!!! How contrary is that? I must explain… I completely changed the way I eat because of a graduate course I teach called "Introduction to environmental problems". In this course we address how genetically modified foods impact our environment and health. I read a lot about how food is produced and transformed in North America and that is why I decided to change. One evening I came home from work and completely emptied out my cupboards and fridge so that I could start new. I got rid of every bit of transformed food, yes ketchup too!! I started buying only «raw materials», mainly organic fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts etc. and cooked all of my food myself. I became vegetarian because it was easier to eat that way than to find «sustainably-produced» meat. So when I met Jeff, an avid hunter, I was a vegetarian.
The first summer we were together I accompanied him on a sheep hunt in the mountains. Now this is quite an undertaking, as it is about a 10-day trip on horse back through rough trails in the forest and mountains. There is a lot of hiking involved, not only up mountains, but leading horses up and down valleys, through rough muddy patches, etc. …and I had never even ridden a horse before! I loved it! It is such beautiful country, so remote and wild. During the whole time, we met no one! I saw country that perhaps only few have laid eyes on!! I saw a wolverine, a bear, and sheep of course! It was just fabulous!!! We camped under a tarp, no tent, so if one is afraid of insects or mice, or such, it would not be for you. And of course there is always the chance that a grizzly bear will show up! This trip was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
So after I met Jeff, I slowly began eating meat again, but only wild meat and fish. And he taught me to hunt which I surprisingly, really liked. I took a gun safety and hunting course and I even own a rifle and shotgun now! I love the outdoors, observing animals, and the thrill of the hunt. So far I have successfully hunted two deer, many geese and a turkey!! I know there are a lot of people that don’t agree with fishing and hunting, especially hunting but I will just say that hunting is so much more than killing animals and I do believe it can be done ethically and respectfully.
I just tried it (!)
Let’s speak about soap then, when did you start and why?
I made my first soap in January 2015. A friend of my boyfriend who’s a doctor makes Balm of Gilead, a salve of balsam popular buds steeped in olive oil. The buds are very fragrant and the resin derived from them have known medicinal properties including ones good for the skin. That got me to thinking it might be interesting to try in a soap. I read about soapmaking on the internet, watched some videos and figured out how soapcalc worked. Also, having a reasonably good chemistry background and lots of safety training for the laboratory, the process just made sense to me and didn’t seem too complicated. So, I just tried it (!) My first soap was a plain white traditional bar and my second was with the one with steeped balsam popular buds. The combination of science and art in soapmaking really appealed to me and from then on, I was hooked! I haven’t been able to stop making soap since and I am totally addicted to it now!
As a scientist, what books are you reading about soapmking?
«Scientific soapmaking» by Kevin Dunn… of course!! When I first bought the book I read it cover to cover in 2 days; I literally, ate it all up. Now I am reading it again more slowly and with more experience behind me, I am really getting it now and able to retain the information. I keep going back to his book so I keep it by my bedside table. I am also very inspired by Auntie Clara’s blogwhere she describes her experiments in soap making. I love that she uses a very scientific approach in her soapmaking to create the such stunningly, beautiful soaps.
Otherwise there is Amy Warden’s Soap challengeclub. Participating has given me the wonderful opportunity to learn new techniques and exchange with other soapmakers from around the world. That is how I met Anastasia who is doing this interview. She has become a very dear friend who I now communicate with regularly. We exchange about all kinds of subjects including many soap related ones! There are also the numerous forums on Facebook and I get a lot of information from Pinterest and Instagram as well.
Do you do your own experiments with soap?
Not formally, no. Of course, I will try different things, but I haven’t yet undertaken experiments with proper methodology, like those described in Kevin Dunn’s book. I imagine with my science background, I certainly could. I guess for now, all I want to do is be relaxed and have fun with my soapmaking; and not worry about stringency too much. I get to do that at work with my research (!) I have to confess that often times, I don’t even take very good notes and I’m one that’s constantly harps to my students about the importance of note taking. I hope they don’t get to read this!! I guess haven’t been practicing what I preach (!)
How do you think, are you a “mad” soapmaker, who just got the idea of how soap must look like and then do it or you prefer to prepare the design, thinking how would you do it.. Improvisation or preparation?
I would have to say I am a «planner», I usually have a fair idea about what I want to do. Or when I don’t, and my ideas still vague, I will wait until they are more clear; I called this my «stewing» period. Oftentimes, I will think about a soap design for days, editing and revising my ideas, turning every possibility around in my head. Usually I think about soap when I am doing mundane things, like working out on the elliptical machine at the gym. Sometimes I even dream about the soap I want to make!!! Really!! So I think one may say I am a «mad» or «crazy» soapmaker in the way I plan soap.
When I’m finally ready, then I can’t wait to try it and get pretty excited! There is no stopping me. I call this the «execution» period. I rush home from work, get everything ready, and will be in my soap atelier to the early hours without even having had my supper. The soap may actually turn out exactly as planned but more times than not, my plan goes awry during the procedure and then «madness» takes over. That is when I have no choice but to improvise, not my comfort zone as I like to control things. To my surprise sometimes the design is even better than what I had originally planned and sometimes it totally flops, then I feel depressed!!
What do you like in soapmaking most of all?
I would have to say, designing soap. I love learning new techniques and thinking about how to use them in my soap designs. I also like that there are so many variables to play with. Oil composition, colors, scent, there are so many possibilities, they are endless, really. For me, soaping is an outlet, where I can completely zone out and not feel constrained or pressured by the real world. My job is really stressful and I lead a crazy life. Soapmaking helps me center myself. It is hard to express and put in words, but it gives me a place where I can go and just be me and I never get bored!
Is there someone in soapmaking world who inspire you to make soap?
There are so many wonderful soapmakers out there, and I am discovering more all the time. One of my earliest influences who still inspires me today, is definitely Clara Lindberg of Auntie Clara's Handcrafted Cosmetics. I fell in love with her beautiful soaps and photography. I could stare at them for hours. And I love reading her blog! I like that she uses a scientific approach in her creative process. It just makes a lot of sense to me. I also like that she explores all kinds of interesting ingredients in her soap, like snail slime, bile, crocodile oil to name a few; I find her audacity and her sense of adventure really motivating and inspiring!
Lately I have discovered the soaps of Tatsiana Serko of Creative soap by Steso and Jelena of Soap Techniques. Their soaps are so stylish and avant garde. They produce such stunning designs that are no less works of art and create unique techniques to do so. What they can do is absolutely amazing and inspires me!!
You had placed in almost every SCC (except two) you have taken part. How do you think what is the secret, everybody loves your soaps?
Truthfully, the first time I won, I was totally floored and didn’t expect it at all (it was only the second time I entered the contest and I was still feeling very intimidated). Also, I wasn’t crazy about the soap I had made because of all the «mistakes» and since I didn’t have time to remake it, I entered it anyway. I was really surprised and pleased at the same time that so many people voted for it. Winning and placing is certainly making me more confident about my soaping abilities!
I’m really not sure what exactly the «secret» is? What makes a soap stand out???... one that everyone will love? There are so many factors that have to «line up» … an original design, a perfectly executed technique, a photo that captures the beauty of the soap, crowd appeal etc. etc. I think I have been very, very lucky!!
What are the highest mountain in soapmaking you want to climb?
For now, I am still trying to get a grasp on the techniques that exist out there, and learn them, but if one may dream a dream, I would like to invent my very own technique one day. We will just have to see where all this goes!!
What kind of soap do you like to make most of all?
That’s such a hard question to answer because I am still exploring! So far, I really like making elaborate, «fancy» soaps with intricate, colorful designs but then there is also such satisfaction when making just a plain bar of soap with all natural ingredients. I will have to say for now, I like making all kinds of soap, equally well.
Can you tell us some more about ChezHelene and how it started?
ChezHelene is what I hope to call my future business. I am hoping to make soaping my official business when I retire. For now, it remains my hobby because I am too busy with my work to develop it. But as it is for many soapmakers, I have discovered you can only make so much soap for oneself, family and friends before you have to start to sell it. At one point, I had so much soap in my house, every counter, and shelf was covered in it! So last year, I attended several artisan and Christmas craft shows in hopes of selling it. The only problem now is that it hasn’t really solve the issue because as I get rid of some, it just pushes me to make more. How sweet it is! I am hoping to eventually learn more about the regulations, and labeling in Canada as I plan to take an online business course that specifically addresses these aspects of soapmaking.
I love your logo very much, how it was created?
For my logo, I chose the name ChezHelene because it literally translated to «at Helene’s place or home» and that is where I make my soap. I use to make my soap in my kitchen but now I have a soap atelier in my basement (my happy place). When I first started, all my materials fit in a little plastic bucket which was relatively easy to take out and put away each time I made soap. But as my «passion» or as my boyfriend calls it «sickness» grew, so did my soaping supplies, so that it soon became a logistic nightmare to drag everything out, and put away again… and somehow some of it started taking up permanent residence in my cupboards. The soap atelier has been such an improvement on the kitchen for my soapmaking!!
As part of my logo, I have included the phrase, «soap creation savon»; I wanted it bilingual and one can read « soap creation» in English and «création savon» in French. The word «creation» was important for me because designing soap is the aspect of soapmaking I most enjoy. The image of the nautilus shell is in reference to my biology background and represents natures genius in incredible architecture which I find most inspiring.
Thank you very much, Hélène, for sharing your interesting story. I had a great time working with you!
And you, my friends, can follow my guest's soap creations on her