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Art Blooms from Bars of Soap

Last summer, Studio Arts Program Coordinator and teacher Lauren Cunningham was searching for COVID-friendly projects her Sculpture classes could create when she came up with the idea of soap carving. Explains Cunningham, "I was drawn to the art form because it can be done either remotely or in-person. Plus," she adds with a laugh, "carving soap encourages handwashing, and we all need to be doing more of that these days!"

While researching online, she found a local soap-carving artist, Tan Kneale, and booked her for a virtual workshop. When the day arrived last week, guest instructor Kneale beamed into the Sculpture studio via a large overhead screen, and Cunningham masterfully shared the students' reactions with her by circulating throughout the classroom with a laptop camera, producing a fun dialogue between students and virtual visitor.

At the start of the workshop, Kneale shared how the art form originated centuries ago in Thailand as a mode of entertaining and gifting royalty. Kneale told the students she learned to carve fruits and vegetables growing up in Thailand to help raise money for her family. After earning profits carving fruits and vegetables, she advanced to carving soaps into intricate flowers to sell as gifts and tourist souvenirs. She most frequently carved tropical flowers indigenous to Thailand such as orchids, jasmine, and bougainvillea.

Kneale explained that when she moved to Houston with her husband, she continued carving fruits and vegetables for dinner parties and began teaching others the techniques, creating homemade scented soaps and demonstrating concepts with watermelons, apples, and pineapples.

For the EHS workshops, Kneale furnished each student a disc-shaped bar of homemade soap and taught them how to carve it into a rose. The students wore protective Kevlar gloves as they began carving, taking a sculpting knife and first making a quarter-sized circle. Moving out from the circle, Kneale instructed them to angle strokes to form petals and then spiral around in clean cuts. As students progressed, they learned that what is removed by the knife is just as important as the banana-shape indentions that remain. With Kneale's guidance and Cunningham's encouragement, red, blue, and lavender roses began blossoming across the classroom.

Students, captivated by the project, were eager to share their thoughts afterward. "I really enjoyed the whole activity; it was very therapeutic all around," says Thalia Vogelsang '24.

Many admired Kneale's artistic prowess. "Mrs. Kneale was very skilled with the knife. I enjoyed seeing her sculpt something so delicate and beautiful from a simple bar of soap!" says Ava Gami '23.

Most students, like Sam Bullock '23, were proud of their work. "I was happy with the final result--the entire time I thought my rose was going to end up really bad, but it did not," he admits.

"My favorite part was trying something so challenging and detailed but having so much fun with it!" sums up River Reinertsen-Forehand '21.

As a win-win bonus, once their flowers were carved, the students packaged them in clear bags with ribbon, fashioned festive gift tags, and later donated the beautiful creations to residents at the Gardens of Bellaire Assisted Living. Under Cunningham's guidance, the sculpture project was ideal for the holidays, serving as a remarkable lesson in art and in giving.

Follow Varunee Fruit and Vegetable Carving on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/varuneecarving/

To learn more about soap carving, watch Ms. Cunningham's 3-minute video here.

--Claire C. Fletcher