January 20, 2016
Meet Jess Engel, artist and owner of Exoskeletons, a handmade company featuring natural alchemy and adornments. Jess is an avid expressionist who suffers from Lyme disease on a daily basis, yet continues to leave beauty in her wake with her poetic sentence-strings, exceptional creations and quiet strength.
How or when did you first discover your passion for creative expression?
I was a wee little thing when I first discovered I’d rather be making things than buying them. Most of my time was spent on a little balcony outside my parents' bedroom where I was allowed to make a mess with my materials. Pipe cleaners, clay, paint, and paper all became my friends. Old refrigerator boxes turned into castles and wood got whittled into shapes. My grandfather was a huge influence… he pushed me to use my imagination with the creative writing exercises I had to do every day when I was 8. He helped me look at the world differently, take part in it... "Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people's." -Anais Nin
You use an alchemy process inspired by medieval chemistry. Can you share how you learned about and implemented this process into your work?
I suppose that growing up in India, I was always interested in alchemy. Being surrounded with plant medicines, attars, and metalworkers gave me a natural instinct for the art. Alchemy is an ancient art, the forerunner of chemistry. It was based on the transformation of matter in all forms. In my personal work, I am most inspired by the traditional Indian perfumers (true alchemists) who extract scent from flowers, herbs, and spices and distill them in a copper cauldron filled with sandalwood oil. The ancient process captured my imagination and much of my process is taken directly from them (however, on a much smaller scale).
Your creative approach to jewelry-making is so original. Can you share what goes into your process?
My jewelry process may be a bit unusual. I am an extremely tactile and visual person, so it is not enough for me to merely sketch my designs. I often imagine them in my head before they ever reach paper, but they don’t solidify until I “play” with my materials. Most of my designs are created by arranging and rearranging. I’ll find materials everywhere - surplus stores, gem shows, vintage boutiques… When I find something striking - be it a gem, a piece of metal, or part of a chain, I center it on my worktable and build around it. I find inspiration everywhere and often name my pieces based on that inspiration (i.e. tiny shields, alien pods, planets, chandeliers)
Jewelry is such a subjective thing… my initial interest began at an early age when I couldn’t find anything that felt like “me” in traditional shops. I’ve always been drawn to one-of-a-kind pieces and even when I found something I liked, I usually wanted to alter it in some way. I started making jewelry for misfits and eccentrics… people who could wear these pieces and still feel like themselves.
Being a visual person, Le Voyage dans la Lune was a huge influence for me aesthetically. The wizardry, ingenuity, and magic of that film gave me license to play with shapes and colors in a way I’d never seen done before. It remains one of my favorite films to date and my “go to” whenever I need inspiration.
Tell us about your creative process and from
where your inspiration comes.
I’ve always been drawn to perfumery as a method of evoking memory. Olfactory memory is one of the most powerful ways to evoke our feelings and an important way to draw out our subconscious. From pheromones to food aromas, scent is extremely compelling, and the creation of scent is a dynamic challenge for me!
When I first discovered plant medicine, I immediately started asking questions about the chemical components of plants, how they interact with human physiology, their pH value, etc. The idea that my products could have both an emotional/psychological benefit (through evoking memory) as well as health benefits (from vitamins, antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids, and catechins) was a game changer to me.
The first botanical creation I made was for a friend… a scent to remind him of his grandfather. It was the comforting memory of pipe smoke, leather, old books, and bay rum aftershave. It also contained some powerful Khus oil which is known to calm the nervous system. My goal was to create an experience through scent, one that would touch the body as well as the mind. As my practice started to evolve, I branched into more obscure oils and resins… and began infusing my own oils with handpicked herbs.
Today, I am continuing to evolve as a perfumer and scent scientist, constantly pursuing new experiments and creations.
What is the most difficult challenge you face as an artist who suffers from Lyme disease on a daily basis? Are there any production strategies or practices that help make running a business more manageable for you while taking time for treatments and caring for your body?
Ah, it’s all a challenge when it comes to chronic illness. The physicality of making art can be difficult. Thankfully, my jewelry and potions are all very detail-oriented and can be mostly done while sitting, but the photographing, writing, marketing, post-office-going, etc. can be so exhausting. Just being on my feet is difficult, most days.
The best way I’ve found to handle it is to get as much done ahead of time as possible. I schedule pick-ups from the post office, pad my inventory, and keep things as uncomplicated as possible before launching new products. I also have to pace myself and not get too eager about doing it all at once… every day that I am capable of getting even just one minor thing accomplished is a victory.
Any exciting new projects in the works that we can watch for?
I have so many plans! My current project is finishing up a line of eye serums and body oils that will feature alpha lipoic acid, niacin, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and other skin loving goodies combined with powerful essential oils… “supplements for your skin”. It’s been absolutely thrilling for me to find solutions for skin that are all natural (even edible). I’ve always wanted to replace everything in my medicine cabinet with handmade products and I’m halfway there!
Some new jewelry is on my production line, too. I’ve had a love affair with African turquoise lately and it’s been showing up in all my new metalwork - handcut brass, vintage snake chains, and precious gemstones.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned since launching Exoskeletons?
Getting your business off the ground takes time and hard work! And although I love it, Instagram is a lie. ;) I think a lot of new Etsy shop owners can get easily discouraged when they see the bigger, more successful brands… their endless streams of gorgeous pictures, perfect marketing, and hundreds of reviews. It’s SO important to remember who you are and why you started your business in the first place. Don’t fall into the comparison trap! Things evolve naturally and it’s so much better to go at your own pace than try and force your business to grow. It should be a joy to come to work, not an anxiety attack. Good products are good products, whether you have 1 sale or 1,000.
You are such an inspiration to both makers and those who suffer from chronic disease. What advice do you have for fellow artists who struggle to create in the midst of illness?
My advice to others struggling with chronic illness is: get lost in what you love. So much of our lives are eaten up by the grim reality of doctor’s visits, debilitating pain, and limitations… makers have the opportunity to “lose” themselves and fall in love with what they do. Even if you are incapable of getting dressed without help, or walking without a cane, find something that makes you feel free, even if only in your head. And make things as much as possible that give you that feeling.