Article by Marcia Darnell
Local artists – December 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
IT’S PRODUCTION DAY at Crestone Candles, which today is housed in the kitchen of Susannah Ortego’s home in Moffat. Water is bubbling, wax is melting, candles are cooling, and the proprietor is wielding a propane torch. It’s cottage industry at its San Luis Valley best.
“I love making candles,” says Ortego. “It came to me, truly as a gift, out of the blue fifteen years ago. I had no prior knowledge or expertise or interest, for that matter, in candles.”
Overnight, Ortego, then living in San Diego, transformed her life and her basement (into a studio). She found a stove, instructions, and a wholesale supplier of molds.
“That was mid-year,” recalls Ortego, “and by Christmas I had sold $600 worth of candles to my friends.”
Ortego moved to the Valley two years ago with her partner, Harun Magnuson, who works for the Baca Grande Property Owners’ Association. After her move, sales of her work tripled. She produces votives, bottled candles, and what she calls “gallery” candles, large wax structures of interesting shapes, scents and colors. Some candles have cutout designs or gaps in the wax formed by melted ice. Some include pebbles or other natural elements of Ortego’s new home.
Ortego begins the candle-making process with high-temperature paraffin mixed with local beeswax, to make the wax sweeter and more elastic. She prepares the molds and mixes the colors she’ll use that day. Some of her candles are one color, some layered with colors. Her scents include vanilla musk, black currant, and rose petals. No animal products are used, and Ortego recycles her leftover wax and “seconds,” those candles that don’t turn out well.
After she pours the wax into the molds, Ortego suspends the molds in buckets of cold water to cool and solidify the wax. During this phase she “wells” the candles, inserting a small rod into the base along the wick.
“As wax cools, it contracts,” she explains. “This may create air pockets along the wick, which makes the flame sputter.” Welling releases that air, and makes the flame burn more steadily.
After they’re cooled, the candles are broken out of their molds. Ortego trims the bases with a knife to make them even, then fires up the torch. She polishes the surface of each candle, blending the elements of the sculpture and protecting it from dust and fingerprints.
“I really love what I do,” she says “I haven’t consciously thought of myself as an artist. I consider this a craft that, like any art, is an opportunity for self-expression. It’s very sensuous.”
LIKE ANY CROFTER in the San Luis Valley, Ortego holds a part-time job to make ends meet. A former editor for Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, she types copy for a Valley publisher. She’s also on the library board in Crestone, and a member of the community choir. In addition, she and Harun plan to build a house on their property in Saguache County. She admits the Valley economy had a lot to do with the development of her business.
“Like a lot of people here who are not independently wealthy, in order to live here I’ve had to use all of myself,” she says “The reality and availability of work gave me the need and the freedom to take what I love to do anyway, and throw myself into it.”
Business is picking up so well that Ortego is having a little trouble keeping up with orders. She’d like to find an apprentice to train to make candles, and a worthy organization to help develop her new product, “cow chips.” The “chips” are patties of recycled wax and recycled straw (from straw bale houses). They’re perfect fire-starters for folks with woodstoves or fireplaces and are completely natural.
“This is my idea of a perfect enterprise, because it’s a product that prevents wax from going into the landfill, it costs nothing to make but time, it’s clean and Earth-friendly and efficient.”
The candles done, Ortego wraps her creations for delivery to a seller, and begins cleanup of her kitchen. She’s obviously pleased, beaming at her candles even as she recycles wax for the next production.
“I’m very happy to be a part of this family of artists in the San Luis Valley,” she says, “and the response to my work — especially while it’s been evolving — has felt really wonderful.”
Crestone Candles are sold at Wildwood’s, Tumbleweed Gallery in Villa Grove, and at several galleries in Central Colorado and the San Luis Valley. Ortego also sells directly, and accepts commissions.
Crestone Candles can be reached at 719-256-4830 and online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marcia Darnell lives and toils — sometimes by candlelight — in the San Luis Valley.