The Art of Soapmaking

Janine Antoni, Lick and Lather, 1993. 24 X 16 X 13 inches (60.96 X 40.64 X 33.02 cm). © 1993, Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

My name is Clara Curran, and I am very excited to be a part of the incoming class of 2015 at WUDPAC. I graduated from the University of Delaware in material culture preservation and art history in 2010. Since graduation I have spent two years accumulating pre-program experience at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have had the privilege to work with many unique materials, some of which include pollen, beeswax, and soap.

Measuring out lard for a lard soap recipe.

One of my most recent projects at the Hirshhorn involved working with the artist Janine Antoni on developing a new soap recipe for her sculpture Lick and Lather. Lick and Lather is composed of two life-size busts of the artist. One is cast from chocolate and the other is cast from soap. Once the busts are cast, the artist manipulates their shapes by licking the chocolate bust and bathing with the soap bust. The soap bust in the Hirshhorn collection has developed a layer of what we believe is soda ash on the surface, which is an oxidation reaction with excess lye in the soap.

Soap is composed of a fat, lye, and water. When these materials are mixed they saponify to create soap. The soap is then poured into container where it sets for 24 hours. After set-up, the mixture is cured for 1-2 months to allow the water in it to evaporate, making it harden into the form that we associate as soap.

Pouring the lye and water mixture into the fat. This will then be blended with a stick blender until it is trace, a stage in which the soap reaches the consistency of thin pudding. It is then ready to be placed in containers to set for 24 hours.

Recently, we began working with the artist to develop a more archival soap recipe. Currently, the Hirshhorn has made 20 different recipes, each with various types of fats and stabilizers in them to test how they affect the longevity of the soap. The recipes were conceived with the help of the artist, a soap chemist, and several soapmakers. We have experimented with fats that include coconut and palm oil, lard, tallow, and olive oil. Our choice in fats was based on their saturation level. With the exception of olive oil, all our fats are highly saturated, which will slow the rate of oxidation. Olive oil is a much less saturated fat and was used as a comparison to the other fats.

Several soap samples to be tested against possible degradation factors.

We have also experimented with various types of known stabilizers. These include rosemary oil extract, EDTA, and titanium dioxide. Rosemary oil extract is an oil-soluble antioxidant that should help slow the rate of oxidation, and EDTA is a chealator, which binds to the metal ions and diminishes the reactivity of those ions. Titanium dioxide is a white pigment that was recommended as a stabilizer since it has been noted to prevent the appearance of “dreaded orange spots,” a term used by soapmakers for the orange spots that develop as a result of the oxidation of the fat in the soap.

Each recipe will be exposed to possible degradation factors to test its longevity. These factors include high humidity, high temperatures, UV exposure, and an acidic environment. It is the Hirshhorn’s hope that through these tests we will find a recipe that can be used by Janine for any future busts. This project has been mentally stimulating and challenging. I will be sad not to see this through to the end, but have had so much fun developing recipes and making soap for this project.

Clara is about to enter the Winterthur University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and is excited to begin her career in conservation. Her time spent at the Hirshhorn and the Museum of Modern Art has introduced her to the challenges and the fun of working with modern materials. She enjoys the complex issues associated with contemporary art and the opportunity to collaborate with the artists.

Winterthur is celebrating 60 years of graduate programs in art conservation and material culture studies in the current exhibition A Lasting Legacy: Sixty Years of Winterthur Graduate Programs, on view through June 16, 2013.


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