Spending time with Rick Roden, an artist whose primary medium is life itself, is being shaken from numbness into awe without stepping into an alternate reality. Roden returns to Rhode Island to furnish the most auspicious aesthetic ritual—that of the bath—with handmade, homegrown, sensually extra-ordinary soap. Rick can be found at his shop, ZOP, at 186 Union St. (b/w Westminister and Weybosset). For bars and bubbles custom-made to tickle your sense palette, give him a ring: 401-751-4967.
The Independent: Tell me about the painting you have covering this wall of your shop.
Rick Roden: This is by John William Waterhouse. It’s called Hylas and the Nymphs. Hylas was a servant of Hercules and the legend goes that Hylas was sent to go fetch water. He went to this woodland pond and these nymphs showed up and he was never seen again. Everything about this painting is so evocative. There’s no violence in it, though you don’t know what happened. Hylas just disappears.
I: Though it’s so clean, there is something freeingly dark about the whole scene.
RR: It is very clean. And I personally am petrified of water. I almost drowned a couple of years ago. I’m a Pisces, too. I went back a few days later to the place where I nearly drowned and swam across. People thought I was crazy. But I replied, “I’m not crazy; if I don’t do this I’ll be crazy.”
I: What sort of place did you nearly drown in?
RR: It’s beautiful. The water is 80 feet deep and there’s a gorge. It’s not a cultivated place at all. I was about halfway across and my leg had locked. And the next thing I know, I’m pulled down 20 or 25 feet. I had slipped lower and lower into cold water and branches. I thought I was certainly going to die. Those were some of the purest thoughts that I’ve ever had in my life—all the people I’ll never be able to tell I love them. The things I wouldn’t do because I didn’t risk it. I felt capillaries popping in my lungs.
I: What changed?
RR: You get this weird feeling. You are torn in two. One half yells, “breathe, open your mouth.” The other half says, ‘whatever you do, do not breathe.’ I don’t know how, but I made it to the surface of the water. I made it back. I sat there on the shore with my son, and it was like I was having my own biblical experience. Every stick, every rock was as if I had never known it.
It was a gift. But I don’t want to ever drown again. That’s actually the third time that I’ve drowned. I have a healthy respect for water. It’s a worthy adversary.
I: Is your fear of water a very concrete fear of drowning, then?
RR: No. Joseph Campbell said that everybody is afraid of water. And the fear is not of water itself, but of what lies underneath. We don’t know what’s underneath. The conscious is the oxygen we breathe, the subconscious is where the monsters are. That is why dragons are such a big deal in British mythology. This is why I think people have such neuroses today. There are no dragons for us to slay, there are no battlefields, there are no mountains for us to climb.
I: And instead we are saturated with distractions to keep us from what’s important.
RR: I’m a parent, you know. And I don’t place myself first. What’s the most important thing in life? Certainly, I know that. And what’s the second most important thing in life, and well, who gives a shit. I have a kid to worry about—I’m not getting into crazy, kooky stuff. When you have a child, you get rid of your bells and whistles, and you become a father, plain and simple. It’s the greatest thing that’s every happened. I know that doesn’t fit into this world. People still want to go party and be distracted.
Some guys don’t get it. It’s a chain. I’m just a piece of the chain. I hear people that say, “Oh, I would never bring a child into this world.” Well, then, don’t! But I will.
I am forty-seven years old. I’m not a kid. A girl I was dating a while back was hesitant to ask me if I would have a kid. Though my reply is, of course—in a heartbeat. Even if I’m not going to be able to do some things with my child because I’m old, who cares? The kid’s here—he’s alive. This is precious to me.
I: It’s so common for people to approach raising their children as a that must follow some sort of insane controlling formula.
RR: Oh, God. My son’s first bed was the top drawer of a dresser—just pulled it out, put a broom under it, and there you go. And what did he eat? This is my dinner, and here’s half of it.
I: Where were you raised?
RR: I grew up here in Rhode Island. But I dropped out of school in ninth grade and then ran away. I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve done so many things. But I like what I’m doing with soap right now. I’m certainly not a master soap-maker. I don’t ever want to be a master soap-maker.
I: How much of your soap-making process is improvised versus premeditated?
RR: It’s a mix. I mean, now that I have this shop, if I need more of something, I need to make it. Like lavender—it’s a little pedestrian, but it’s a classic.
I: The grass soap is divine. What lead you to take grass that’s out here and work it into a soap that people will experience in the bath?
RR: With the soaps, I think I’m giving some things in nature their day in court. Give everything a chance. That’s why I do what I do.
I: And even more radically because scent has to be shared in this very immediate, human-animal way without the ability to be photographed or recorded.
RR: Scent and fragrance are a weird thing. I mean, I can say something is a particular shade of red or I can say, its PMS [Pantone Matching System] color this...There is a science to color. Or I can say, remember that song? And I can hum it. But I can’t remember scent in a concrete way.
You can’t lie with scent. Similarly, with pheromones, you don’t even know what you smell. It’s so immediate. We have a musk and we bury it. It is like a code between people. There’s something about someone that you can’t describe that goes beyond everything else. It is almost a tribal thing. Do you accept someone? Are they friend or enemy? That’s just the honesty of nature and of people. We can’t explain or pretend to understand it.
I: Before fragrance, what makes a soap?
RR: If it’s a substandard soap, you can dress it up and make it smell however you like. But it needs to be good soap.
Soap is first oil, or fats, combined with lye—alkali. There’s a little story about a mountain in Greece called Mount Lykaion and they would do animal sacrifices there. The rainwater would pass through the ashes in the hardwood and that, in turn, would become lye. That would pass through the fats of the dead animals. It would solidify, turn into soap, and then make its way down to the river and people would get really clean there. That’s what soap is. It’s lye, which is a caustic. Actually, where alkali comes from—its Greek. I think its ‘alkal,’ which means to calm. People use lye in very diluted forms to calm, to take care of stomach-aches and stuff. They use it to cook.
People back then would save all their ashes and they would separate the hard ashes from the soft ashes, pine from maple and such. And they would save all their fats from cooking. And the chandlers—the soap and candle makers—would come along and pick all of this stuff up.
I: What have you been making lately?
RR: I make a different thing all the time. I made some dirt stuff lately, on a whim. I made this the other day, the mimosa, which is vegetable based, with palm, olive, and coconut oil.
I can make soap that a lot of people will accept as beautiful. And by beautiful, what they are considering beautiful is that it is accepted by a lot of people. This is a soap that a lot of people will like. Ergo, it’s beautiful. And that sucks. I have to deal with people like that all the time. So do you!
I: I think what is most magical about the soap is that you experience it alone, usually, and are completely open to it without the balancing effect of being surrounded by society.
RR: I’ve thought about that, too. Musically, some eighty years ago, you’ve got these guys Copland, Ives, Groves, Barber —the Americans. They took their compositions to Vienna. And the response they get is, “That sounds very American. It reeks of America. But where are you with this other stuff? What did Wagner teach you? You need to fix that America thing.” And they reply, “No, that’s the point.” I’m not talking about the America today, which is a fucking mess. I’m talking about the real, the dream, whatever you want to call it.
Barber did an Adagio for strings, which is a beautiful, beautiful song. If you listen to it, you can hear creaky doors in a house in Salem, you can hear a boat on the moor, you can hear misty mornings. You can just feel it. It’s not about Germany or Switzerland. It’s about some kid chasing his dog down the street in some little New England town. It’s beautiful.
My point is this: here we are, a hundred-and-something years later. I can go look at water-lilies just as anybody else. If I want to listen to a record, I can. Now if this is art, it’s here, it’s right now. You’re experiencing it like it will never be felt again. The art is not the soap but the feeling you get when you’re using it. It’s personal from me to you. In a hundred and fifty years when I’m dust, people will say “he made soap.” But what does that mean? It’s for us to know. It’s precious.