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—Courtesy of Erin and Lisa M. Gillespie

Only in Colorado: Lisa Melli Gillespie’s Aroma Art Soap

This series covers the places, people, and activities that epitomize our state.

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There’s soap, there’s handmade soap, and there’s Shaman Lisa’s Aroma Art body care products.

When the Denver Botanic Gardens offered a soap-making workshop in March 2013, Lisa Melli Gillespie had just finished a personal challenge: “inviting whimsy” into her life by attempting 101 new experiences in 1,001 days. During the challenge, she helped with a bat census, joined an a cappella group, milked a goat—and, quite unexpectedly, changed the direction of her career.

Lisa had always had a vague interest in soapmaking until she read a book on the topic. The complex, temperature-dependent processes and chemical ingredients overwhelmed her, so she set the dream aside. That is, until she signed up for the Cold-Process Soapmaking class (which was actually experience #120 because, by #101, trying new things had become a habit). The class was taught by Christina Blume, an earthy, longhaired woman with an ardent interest in each student’s astrological sign. “Christina’s vast experience and knowledge of soapmaking felt reassuring,” says Lisa. “After teaching us the basics, Christina encouraged us to get out there and start making soap before we forgot how!”

(Meet 10 craftspeople to know in Denver)

Taking Christina’s words to heart, Lisa dove in, experimenting with natural ingredients, colors, textures, scents, and wrappings, combining her background as an award-winning NYC art director with her knowledge of essential oils gained from her craniosacral/massage therapy practice. From early on, Lisa decided to use only natural, plant- and mineral-based colors, and natural and essential oils. “Many artistic soap-makers use synthetic colors and fragrances, which are more cost effective, have more range of color and scent, and resist fading better than natural colors and essential oils,” she says. “I did not want to use petroleum-based oils, synthetic fragrances, artificial lathering agents, or preservatives, because artificial ingredients are often the main culprit for people who are sensitive to body care products.”

Given this focus on all-natural ingredients, the designs of Shaman Lisa’s products are unusally sophisticated. “Most natural soapmakers use simple, rustic designs that are easier to scale up for retail sales,” she says. There again, Lisa refused to fit the mold. She experimented and tested repeatedly, determined to see how far she could push natural ingredients, coupled with artistic design, to create elaborate products that “embodied both sophistication and glee.”

Just three months after she began experimenting, Lisa’s Serene Teen soap—made with five plant oils, organic almond milk, powdered organic oats, and cruelty-free tussah noil silk fibre, combined with the essential oils of rose geranium, spearmint, and tea tree—won a 2nd place ribbon at the Denver County Fair. Word about her all-natural, handmade creations got out, and neighbors and friends began asking to give them a try. After hearing their reviews, Lisa decided to launch her own business, selling her beautiful Aroma Art products online and at local craft fairs.

Two years later, the business is so successful that Lisa can barely keep up with demand, especially given the small-batch production (necessary to achieve certain designs) coupled with the 4-to-6 week period necessary for the soap to cure. This extra time allows excess moisture in the bars to evaporate, creating a lighter soap with a richer lather—which, along with the intricate designs, all-natural essential oils, and original packaging, creates a product as unique (and whimsical) as its Boulder-based maker.

(Read the first in our “Only in Colorado” series: The Face on the Barroom Floor)

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