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Perfumer Roxana Villa The Oaky Scent of Philanthropy
July 16, 2009 - By Megan Walla-Murphy
Immediately upon entering her house, your nose is filled with an indulgent spectrum of aromas. Verdant, musky, sweet smells enter your senses, encouraging you to breathe deeply. This is the home of Roxana Villa, Woodland Hills artist and botanical perfumer. Roxana waves for me to sit down while she finishes her telephone conversation with Jonathan Brand who works in city councilman Dennis Zines office.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROXANA VILLA
“Q” perfume is made with a tincture of leaves from the coastal live oak and other essential oils. “Q” is short for Quercus, the Latin genus for oak.
He is going to cut down the live oaks to build, Villa explains to Brand.
Looking out from the sliding glass doors that make up the entire wall of the room, one sees a steep hillside covered in coastal live oaks, some young and some ancient. For the past few years, Villa and her neighbors have been involved in the protection of this grove. Not seeking to stop development entirely, they are working to ensure that building in their neighborhood progresses in a responsible manner. Their current concern is a proposed three-story house that would necessitate the decimation of the grove. Fueled with new information after her phone call with Zines office, she is ready to appear at a public hearing in a few days.
I dont have a problem with him building a house on his property, only with the manner in which he is doing it, says Villa. Having dealt with this developer a year ago on another nearby project she has learned that he is willing to go around the laws and pay the fines later. Through this process she has learned that it is possible for a developer to cut down oaks even before he is permitted to build.
Although these oaks present a serene view from her living room, they have become more to Villa; they are the inspiration to her new lifes passion and work. These trees were the motivation for her to start a line of botanical perfumes, Illuminated Perfumes. In an attempt to bring public awareness to the plight of the California oaks, she created a perfume containing the essence of these trees. She tinctured the leaves of the coastal live oak and added other representative essential oils to make her first marketable perfume, Q, which is short for Quercus, the Latin genus for oak.
In retelling how this journey began, Villa muses over the synchronicity of the Celtic name for oak, Duar, meaning door. The oaks were my doorway into perfume, she says. While these trees may have pushed her through the doorway, in listening to Villas history, it seems that her first door to perfume making opened early in her childhood. Although Villa grew up in the San Fernando Valley, she was born in and frequently visited her family in Argentina. It is there that she believes her appreciation for smell began, It was with my grandmother in Argentina that I built my smell sensorium, she shares. The apartment her grandmother lived in was large and within that terrain, the smell scope was huge. She can still conjure the smells of the cement outside or the difference between her grandmothers and grandfathers bathrooms, and especially the smell of grandmother herself. She recalls her cousin inhaling deeply every time Villa opened her suitcase and exclaiming, Ah! That is the smell of America.
Beyond awakening her olfactory senses, Argentina and other travel also seemed to enhance the artistic temperament Villa was born with. Traveling feeds your soul and then there are elements of that [traveling] when you express your soul artistically. But other factors contributed to her artists nature as well, including family and school. Being the second born as well as a girl, Villa felt that there was not much pressure on her to achieve academically. This freedom allowed her to delve more deeply into her creative side. Fortunately or unfortunately, Villa did not do well in high school, describing herself as an angst-ridden teenager that was saved by frequent travel and art class. However, it was during high school that she was awarded a scholarship to the Art Center in Pasadena. This she says opened up doors in my perception of possibilities. Until this point Villa believed herself to be most passionate about photography, but she took drawing classes at the Art Center which began her interest in illustration.
Upon graduating from high school, Roxana was at a loss, not really having the grades or desire to attend a conventional university. That summer she took a class at Otis College of Art and Design, which was then in downtown Los Angeles; this led to a BFA in communication design. Her time there focused her talents and she delved into the world of letter press and book making. So enthused about this process, she bought a press which led to her first jobs after college. Several of her pieces were featured in American Illustrators, a great boon to a beginning artist. In her early twenties she moved to New York to work as a free lance illustrator, where her career grew. In New York she bought another press which had to be dropped into her basement studio with a crane. Because of its fixed nature, she called her new studio Permanent Press. After six or seven years in N.Y., Villa and her husband decided to move back to California to pursue art in Los Angeles and to raise their soon-to-be-born daughter. Looking back, it is clear to Villa how all of her earliest exposures as an artist and illustrator laid the foundation for her work as a perfumer. I have always been tactile and interested in the handmade and historical aspect of art. I love bringing consciousness to how things used to be made. The letter press includes these things. So does perfume.
Once back in California, with a new daughter, Roxana chose to raise her daughter wholistically. She was disturbed by the doctors she was encountering and searched for alternative methods to keep her child healthy. Looking for support and others who shared her concerns, Roxana started a mothers group comprised of women who wanted to raise their children outside the parameters of Western medicine. Now these groups are all over and this type of thinking is more conventional, but 15 years ago we were the only ones around, she reflects. This group met regularly for three years before disbanding and seems to have provided yet another step in Villas perfume-making journey. Coinciding with this, Villa went through a divorce. To provide healing for herself and process her emotions [she] began learning about plant medicine and was introduced to aromatherapy and essential oils. At the word, aromatherapy, Roxanas tone becomes passionate and her body language ardent. She feels in the U.S. that the term aromatherapy has been bastardized, being used as a marketing tool rather than respecting the beneficial effects of essential oils.
To make her point, she shares the history of aromatherapy. The grandfather of aromatherapy was a French scientist by the name of Rene Gatte Fusse. While working in his lab he burned his forearm. He plunged his arm into a container he thought held water, but truly was the essential oil of lavender. He was astounded by the results. Immediately the pain was soothed and subsequently there was no infection and little scarring. This began his research into the healing aspects of botanical oils. He applied many different oils on bacteria to see which rendered them innocuous. In addition he studied how smelling essential oils affected microbes. The grandmother of aromatherapy, Margaritte Maury, was also interested in botanical essential oils and researched how they worked on the skin. She found the molecules of these oils were small enough to penetrate the skins cells and membranes, therefore able to heal topically, as well as on a cellular level. Villa is frustrated by the U.S.s marketing of aromatherapy. She finds that most manufacturers will use the word, although very few products being sold actually contain essential oils. Rather they are made with synthetic aromas often created from petroleum chemicals that contain no healing properties at all.