Coming to her senses: Roxana Villa revives the artistry of botanical perfume
This article came out in the February 28, 2020 edition of Pasatiempo, an award winning arts & culture magazine published by the Santa Fe, New Mexican, you can access the story at their site here and/or read the text below.
When Greg & I moved to Santa Fe in September 2017, we were renting a small casita off of Bishops Lodge Road in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The extremely eccentric landlady had her own dwelling on the property, which she occasionally stayed at and/or listed on our nemesis AirB&B. (Don't get me started with the challenges AirB&B has created here in Santa Fe, ugh!)
One day I received a text from her demanding her Pasatiempo. Since I speak Spanish, I thought her pasatiempo must have been some sort of clock that she mistakenly thought we had borrowed.
I texted back the question "What is a pasatiempo?" Her response was quick and short "Ask Greg", so I did, and learned that the Pasatiempo was equivalent to the LA or NY Times Sunday Magazine. Since the landlady spent the weekend with her boyfriend in Espanola, Greg had gotten in the habit of picking up the Pasatiempo to peruse the local arts happenings in Santa Fe.
Lo and behold, two and half years later, I have the great benefit of being featured in the Pasatiempo, with full awareness of what it is and grateful heart of Lauren LaRocca, the writer.
Tucked inside an unassuming Lena Street Lofts building lies Illuminated Perfume, a whimsical world created by botanical perfumist Roxana Villa that includes a shop, classroom, library, and studio.
Villa’s attention to detail, adoration of old-world aesthetic, and curiosity about the natural world are apparent inside. Vintage globes, potted plants, butterflies and other specimens in shadow boxes, a copper distiller, and curated shelves and cabinets of curiosities artfully fill the space. Glass jars contain leaves, barks, and pine cones, wildcrafted from the desert and mountains of New Mexico. Wildflowers and different types of sage hang in bundles from the ceiling. Books on art, mysticism, herbs, and aromatherapy line the tall, wooden bookshelves in the area that Villa calls her School of Lost Arts. Metaphysical prints and paintings, many of which are by her husband, Greg Spalenka, hang on the walls. And, of course, her solid and liquid perfumes are the stars of the show, each of them handcrafted entirely from plant material, as opposed to the more commonly found synthetic perfumes.
Villa stands behind a display case and lifts a glass dome that has been placed atop a small, open tin of solid perfume, one in a long row of samples. Its scent is held in the half globe, she explains, as she breathes it in, demonstrating how to smell her perfumes — a process that seems like an art in and of itself.
She lifts one dome at a time, and pulls jars from shelves to open their lids and let the scents linger in the air, each with its own story, evoking memories in turn. A walk through a pungent, earthy forest. A chocolate birthday cake. Pipe tobacco. A rose. Winter. The piñon forests of Northern New Mexico. That last scent is one of her most recent.
Long drawn to Santa Fe, Villa and Spalenka moved here from Los Angeles three years ago, which has allowed her to study the Southwest biome, her new home. Meanwhile, she gave some of her potted California plants to her mother and requested that she send boxes of the jasmine sambac, gardenia, and plumeria blossoms when they bloom each year, so Villa can continue to use them in her perfumes.
“I’m still learning the plants here in the desert,” Villa says on a weekday afternoon in her studio. “I’ve got so many experiments going.” In a large, copper distiller, she’s made hydrosols of chamisa (bright yellow with a sharp, citrus scent) and piñon pine (warm and sweet). A piñon perfume is in the works, part of which can be seen in a jar of sap and pinecones saturated in oil.
Upstairs in her loft studio, skylights soak the room in natural light. Hidden from view — underneath long worktables and protected from the sunlight with thick fabric curtains — are hundreds of experiments and works-in-progress in little glass bottles and jars. Various plant materials (tonka beans, vanilla beans, seaweed) macerate in oils and organic alcohol. Beakers and tiny scales fill the tables, alongside rows of tiny description cards, some illustrated by Spalenka, that match each perfume and become part of the packaging. Flattened slabs of yellow wax hold the scents of flowers that Villa has pressed into them, a variation of an old method of extraction called enfleurage. She’s already counting down the days until spring, when the lilacs bloom here.
Villa wasn’t always a perfumer, but she was always someone who made things and identified as an artist. She was born in Argentina in 1962 and moved to Los Angeles when she was 3; throughout her childhood, she was very artistic, drawing and painting. She studied illustration at Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. and, to her surprise, launched a career in illustration while still in school, after some of her work was selected to appear in the annual American Illustration book when she was just a sophomore.
A year after graduating with a BFA in communication arts, she moved to New York to work as a freelance editorial illustrator, landing clients that included Money, Connoisseur, Ms., Businessweek, Self magazine, and The New York Times, among others. She continued working as an illustrator after moving back to L.A. to raise her daughter, Eve, with her first husband.
About three years later, Villa immersed herself in deep inner work as part of her healing while going through a divorce; the process included a sweat lodge that would ultimately change her life. During it, the scent of cedar wood, Juniperus virginiana, essential oil transported her to another realm, and that experience led her to study aromatherapy and then begin teaching it. Having always been sensitive to chemicals, she also liked that she could dab herself with scents again, with no detrimental effects. "And it was not only something that smelled good but also had the potential of improving my mood and immune system at the same time," she says.
While attending a visionary art workshop in Austria and simultaneously reading a book on perfumers, she finally saw her destiny click into place when she realized what 15th century artists, perfumers, and alchemists all had in common: plants. Perfume was the missing piece she’d been looking for, as it would allow her to combine all of her interests into one.
“I started learning this new language. In aromatherapy, we’re thinking about it being therapeutic. In perfume, it’s art,” she says. “And you’re telling stories, just like I was doing with my illustration.”
She launched Illuminated Perfume in 2007, the name a nod to illuminated manuscripts and her roots in the arts. After Etsy featured her online shop in 2012, business grew exponentially. She’s continued to fill orders while constantly crafting new perfumes. Most recently, she began a series that pays homage to endangered animals.
She also leads workshops at Lena Street Lofts and invites others who are practicing various “lost arts” to host classes there as well, such as Mona Lewis, who teaches basket weaving from locally foraged plants and natural dyeing processes.
Like many independent artists, Villa says she lives very simply (and economically) to survive. She’s always looking for creative ways to market herself and find new clients and new classes to teach. The alternative — broadening her reach to make more money — would mean sacrificing her core values of working with organic plants and supporting small farms and organic agriculture. The wax she uses in her solid perfumes, for instance, comes from bees that she tends in California and now — until she begins new hives bees here — she sources the beeswax from trusted beekeepers, or “bee guardians,” as she calls them.
While Villa is educating people on native plants and biomes, artificial perfumes and chemical sensitivities, sustainability and the miracle of honeybees, she’s also treating them to a tantalizing experience for the senses, including the visual. Her passion for art is evident in her perfumery. As she puts it, “This is my art now.”
The presentation of each product and its packaging emulates her brand’s elaborate, Victorian-era aesthetic. The lids of her solid perfumes, for example, contain a wax seal with her symbol, the honeybee, in various colors.
And the colors have well-thought-out layers of meaning, too.
To develop a specific color scheme for her brand, she worked with Jennifer Butler, who showed her how to use the natural tones of her skin, hair, and eyes to create an individualized color palette and then find complementary tones to create a coinciding palette. Villa uses these combined palettes to color her brand’s aesthetic.
In her studio area, two gigantic bulletin boards hanging on opposite walls are adorned with magazine and book clippings — images that, she explains, represent and inspire her and utilize her personal palette. She even chooses her wardrobe based on these colors and on certain shapes, which also are strategized with Butler. For instance, her business cards — rather than being the standard horizontal rectangle — are slender, vertical rectangles, mimicking her facial structure, she explains.
Villa has devoted more than a decade to harnessing and collecting the essence of each individual plant she’s found and worked with. In a similar fashion, Illuminated Perfume is the extraction of her own unique imprint, were she to bottle the essence of her own spirit, medicine, and beauty.◬
Below is how the article appeared in the magazine.