In the glow of a candle
Sep 28, 2018 01:09PM
By J. Chambless
Meg Kuck in the dining room/work space at her Newark apartment.
By John Chambless
There are candles that smell pretty,
and then there are candles that transport you instantly to a
summertime field, to your grandmother's kitchen, to a sun-warmed
That's the kind of experience contained in every one of the scents Meg Kuck puts into her Moderncity+Main candles. Working out of a space perhaps eight feet long, and sharing it with her dining-room table, Kuck creates candles that crystallize memories and emotions, and bring them back to whoever opens the lid and takes a sniff.
On her website, Kuck explains what inspired each one of her products. How did she arrive at Lightning Bugs, for instance? She writes: “For me, this scent is reminiscent of that wonderful moment in the summer day, when I was happily exhausted from a full day of fun and adventure, my belly was full from family supper, my skin a bit tender from too much sun, and I still had just enough energy left to enjoy the sights and sounds of each summer night. This scent reminds me of fresh cut grass, my mama’s flower garden, sweet songs of the crickets, and chasing lightning bugs (and the joy of catching and releasing them in my hands!).”
Of Tomato Leaf, another of her distinctive scents: “As a little girl I knew summer was coming when visible in my mother’s vegetable garden were her tomato plants beginning to stand tall and proud. I remember I used to love rubbing my fingers on the leaves and then enjoying the lingering scent of fresh tomato. I was amazed at how the leaves were so fragrant. This scent is a tribute to my mother’s green thumb, our love of tomatoes, and my growing fondness of summer and of gardening.”
“I have very vivid dreams,” Kuck said at her table during an interview. “Often my dreams will lead back to a memory. So they're moments that I experienced that are significant, people in my life that are meaningful. Perhaps those who have passed on. The connection is still there through these memories, and sometimes it comes up in these dreams. So if I'm thinking of something that I want to capture in a scent, then I will just think of one of those moments or experiences. And your sense of smell is the strongest attached to memory.”
Kuck grew up primarily in Delaware, but her extended family is rooted in the South, outside of Charleston, S.C. She visited two or three times a year when she was growing up, and her summer memories are of long days playing in the Carolina sunshine. “Growing up with a southern family, there are certain sensibilities that you can't teach, you just grow up with,” she said, laughing.
She majored in art history and French at the University of Delaware before landing a job at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. “At the time, they had the Center for the Study of Modern Art. My position was pivotal in that I worked with educators, curators, staff, people in development, contemporary artists, to create the curriculum,” Kuck said. “For me, working five years in the city in a job like that prepared me in so many ways for what I'm doing now. I built everything from the ground up – how to manage a small business, and everything else on top of that.”
While she was in college, she dated a young man and, while they eventually married, their decade together was marked by tension and domestic violence. “We moved to D.C. together, and the last year there, I lived on my own,” she said. “But I'll tell you that was probably one of the best years of my life.” The subsequent process of healing has led, in many ways, to self-discovery and Kuck's candle business.
In February, she formally established the Shine The Light Foundation, which focuses on awareness of domestic violence. “We started doing social media engagement and public programming for National Suicide Prevention Week,” she said. “One in four survivors of domestic violence will attempt suicide. I'm working right now with a wellness center and a counselor for a high school. We're developing a proposal for an after-school program to go into schools and talk to students about healthy relationships.”
As part of the foundation's work at the time of Suicide Prevention Week, online visitors could download and print out certificates that praised someone in their lives or supported their recovery. Simply filling out the “You matter because ...” line and holding up the paper for a photo was a healing moment.
Kuck works at the University of Delaware as an academic advisor for undergraduates in the business school, many of them international students who need assistance or advice with class selection or career plans. As the founder and sole owner of Moderncity+Main, Kuck can give first-hand advice on what it takes.
Her sleek, elegant website (www.moderncityandmain.com) is a delight to read, as she describes her life story and details what elements go into each scent, and what they mean to her. The product list is really a diary. “Each one of my candles tells a part of a story,” she said. “The candles are like different chapters in my life. And it's fun to hear other people's stories, too. Sharing stories is one of the best ways to connect with another person.”
Kuck orders her supplies online from a North Carolina company, but the combination of scents – lily and white grapefruit, jasmine, rose and violet, sandalwood, musk and vanilla – is all her own trial and error. “It's chemistry, absolutely,” she said. “But I'm not a chemist. It was a lot of time and trial and error. I've had some epic failures,” she added, laughing. “But I'd say the failures were more connected to me learning, along the way, the importance of temperature control when you melt the wax. You have to get it to a certain temperature, you have to let it cool a bit, and then you have to slowly add your fragrance and slowly stir. Then you let it cool a little bit more before you pour it into the vessels.”
On her website, she describes the painstaking process: “A small batch is four of my 9-ounce glass jar candles, which takes about 20 minutes, start to finish (melt to mix to pour to cure). For you math whizzes out there, you know that means that in the two years of making candles for my business, I have spent nearly 300 hours in my studio.” That number has certainly grown since then, and the autumn– with gift-giving holidays at hand – is Kuck's busiest season.
Her business started several years ago, when she would make candles as gifts, and the response eventually inspired Moderncity+Main. “I knew that if I started this candle business, I wanted to have some purpose behind it,” she said. “I love storytelling and I really enjoy making candles. It's something I can share with others. When you're burning a candle, it's just the illuminating feeling that's incredibly comforting.”
As a longtime journal keeper who clearly has a gift for words as well as scents, Kuck is able to unite her past, her recovery, and her business in ways that – while making her an open book – also resonate with customers. “In scent development, I really want to pinpoint what I'm trying to capture,” she said. “Not only just the scent, but the feeling and the memory that comes with it.”
She has created scents specifically for retailers. She made Vintage Linen for a store in Wilmington (“It smells fresh, but with a story behind it,” she said), as well as for the Bodhi Counseling and Healing Center in Northeast, Md. “They focus on survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault. There are four different scents, and they call them the ABC's of healing – Awakening, Balance, Clarity, and Sacred Spaces,” Kuck said. Sacred Spaces was intended to suggest “the smell of old churches,” and indeed it does.
The daily process of taking care of her son, Luke, as well as a full-time job means plenty of long nights at the apartment she shares with her partner, Matthew, to make candles. “I work daily,” she said. “There are some nights when I don't sleep. But that's OK. I have to wait until everyone's in bed. This time of year is my busy season – fall scents and holiday scents. I'm very good at hiding away my work so it doesn't intrude on our daily lives, but there are several stacks of orders that are ready to go out.”
While she and Matthew have seen a house they'd like to buy that has both studio space and a garage, it is not yet a reality for them. In the meantime, Kuck takes her products to stores and craft fairs in the region, relishing the chance to make personal connections with her customers.
“I love to get a 'Yes!'” when someone opens one of the candles, she said. “The joy that comes with that is really cool. I've made several connections with people and become friends with them. Two years ago, at the Townsend Fair, a young woman came up and saw that I put Shine the Light on the labels of my candles. I give 10 percent of all sales to the foundation. She put the candle down and just said, 'I think that's wonderful that you donate 10 percent.' Her eyes started to well up and she said, 'I've just started my life over and I had a really hard time.' I just couldn't help but break down, too. It was one of those moments when I knew that this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
“Business aside,” she said, “the human connection is what life's all about.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].