BHM

Great Bear Wax Co.

The Stars That Lit the Wick

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Each carries a sense of adventure, their swirling smoke manifesting the soft smells of a dewy forest

__Jake Carnley

It has been said that Nature is the wisest of all instructors, and the best students those who have learned to quiet their hearts in its presence. For many, it reflects the self, inhibited, raw. It is to all at some point a comfort, a relief from the stressors of life indoors; at others, its wildness disturbs even the most immovable characters. It may reveal courage, a glimpse of destiny, or even unearth a part of the soul in need of mending. It is in Nature that many see their heart as it truly is.

Jake Carnley, founded of Great Bear Wax Candle Company, is one of Nature’s finest pupils. His encounters with the natural world have shaped his entire life, and in a moment of outdoor Providence, inspired a vision of his existence thereafter. More importantly, the natural world has for him marked the interconnectivity of faith, art, and community.

This story begins as all grand adventure narratives do: in a shanty of plywood that could only charitably be referred to as a cabin. Jake was in college at the time, and had traveled to California to intern at a ranch, engulfed in wilderness. His new home took on the appearance of a humble 12×12 living quarters. Jake affectionately alluded to it’s other qualities, like the smell and creature comforts you might expect present in the half man, half wild animal experience of a summer among the trees. It was raw and simple, untidied by civilization’s touch, unmitigated by technology’s distractions. In any case, it provided the perfect environment for perhaps the most frightening, yet rewarding activity: thinking.

It was on one of these crystal clear California nights that Wisdom reached out and touched Jake, enlightening both heart and mind. Jake recounts, “I really had a moment under the Big Dipper that changed my view of God, it changed my relationship with God […]. I realized a lot about creation in relationship to the Creator in the sense that you can look at creation and it immediately draws you to the Creator.”

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He explained the enormity of this star collection, and that the “Great Bear” is a constellation that encompasses the Big Dipper. “It dawned on me that I was the only thing created in the Creator’s image, and that we as humans were the only thing created in God’s image. And it carries this weight with me that . . .” His thoughts break for a moment as if contemplating the significance of this revelation again. Then aloud he questions, partly to himself, “How intentional are we as human beings, [compared to] how intentionally created we are?”

He was so influenced by this experience that he would later name his company after this constellation.

While this experience at the ranch would awaken a new direction in Jake’s life, the idea for Great Bear Wax Co. would hibernate for several years more before emerging as a full-fledged business. He admits that part of his journey into candle making arose from a need to purchase a candle for his (then) girlfriend that was both affordable and amicable to the senses. “Candles are finicky. Sometimes they’re entirely too strong and sometimes, mostly with fragrances, they don’t add something good to your room.” He jokingly adds that he’s never liked the idea of leaving the store with a cupcake or cinnamon roll scented candle. Best to leave those scents to the real thing. For him, the marketplace also lacked a scent of subtle masculinity. Just as off-putting as an overtly feminine scent was the idea of an overly masculine candle, something of a gimmick, like spare rib scented. Jake’s original model for his company remains the same: create a candle that is “beautiful, affordable, well crafted, smells good, and adds to your room.” He further adds that, “I never want any of my candles to be so powerful that they dominate your room.” He likens the more suffocating scents to aggressive, overbearing personalities. “We’ve all been dominated by people in a room, and it doesn’t feel good. And we’ve all been dominated by candles in a room and that doesn’t feel good either. I don’t want to take over the room, I don’t want to dominate it. I want to add. I want the candle to add.”

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In talking to Jake, it was apparent that his production model is an extension of his personal life. In the same way he sought to create a candle that could effectively enhance a room, he seeks to do that in his community. His recent move to Birmingham, AL, focused his aspirations for Great Bear Wax. Candle making and the city have become intimately intertwined in his vision to provide a “healthy local and inclusive community.” Candles may be his craft, but community is his aim. Jake admits that, “that’s all I ever wanted to do, was to be open, even a little vulnerable at times, whether its with Instagram or at a shop or something and just open myself up and share my journey.” In half-jest, half-seriousness, he refers to Great Bear as “Our Bud Jake’s Candle Shop.” He wants it to carry a ‘mom and pop’ feel, where the owner greets you and welcomes your conversation and company. Approachability and friendship are key.

Like any entrepreneur, he welcomes increased sales and profit, but he is also conscientious of rising success’s tendency to take the person out of the product, and the craftsman out of the craft. It’s hard to be as personally invested, and quite frankly available, when so much time gets spent on operations. Jake’s true challenge, it seems, lies in maturing his communal investment in light of Great Bear’s success. Currently, his most exciting project with Great Bear is outfitting a mobile candle-making workshop inside of a vintage Airstream. With the help of his exceptionally handy father, Jake is doing the renovations himself, and hoping that the space will soon offer something to his community that nothing else has accomplished in quite the same way: an open invitation to know and be known. He plans to open the miniature studio up to anyone interested in learning to make candles and a place to get to know his customers as people, as friends.

While Great Bear has been met with open arms in Birmingham and across the country, Jake confesses he’s had his fair share of fears in creating the business. Like many passionate makers, he’s at constant war with his own internal standard of perfection. As a devoted musician, he compares candle making to the music he writes. The same level of soul-baring vulnerability in making music is at work each time he releases a new scent, or pursues a new aspect of the business. Because it all is so incredibly personal to him, Jake naturally internalizes the way the company is received as a reflection of how he himself is received. “I desperately wanted it to be received in a certain way or a certain standard that I wanted it to all meet. And sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. And so to separate myself from all of that was a challenge.”

Though these flares in self-doubt continue to assail him, he has grown in mastering his rebuttal. “Perfection,” or whatever we think that actually looks like, is good and helpful insomuch as it motivates a caring and detailed attitude towards our craft. It can help ensure precision and tip the odds in our favor. But it’s pursuit is a double edged sword. As hopefully we have all realized in our lives by now, perfection doesn’t really exist. Its existence is as elusive as the Road to El Dorado. Get too close to this paragon and suddenly your product is no longer relevant. Perfection is not relevant or relatable because imperfection is a key attribute of humanity. Jake and other makers alike have discovered and made use of the reality that not only is to err human, the real mistake is to pretend it isn’t. To share that err, if you will, is to exercise the closest thing humans have to perfection: grace, acceptance of one another, and love. Makers who have grace with themselves enough to keep pushing past mistakes and blocks in the road – theirs are the stories people most need to hear, and indeed most want to be a part of and support.

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Craftsmanship is certainly a key part of Jake’s candlemaking, but the true strength of his brand and mission is the intentionality and values behind Great Bear Wax. Jake once more calls upon his experience with the Big Dipper to explain that, “it changed my relationship with the Lord in the sense of understanding how intentionally I was created – the idea of just how valuable God sees us as humans. And it’s been something that has driven a lot of my creative force and social force since.” That sense of Divine intentionality that Jake saw in himself became an absolute necessity to channel in his work. Anything else or less than would be a waste to him. And it’s hard to miss when you see or smell these waxy little dreams burning. Handsomely thick, black illustrations of bears and trees populate his packages, while scents of the Forest, a Campfire, and Tobacco Bay await lighting. Each carries a sense of adventure, their swirling smoke manifesting the soft smells of a dewy forest. The gentle aromas permeate the air like a welcoming host, moving about, greeting whoever enters the room.

As our time with Jake came to a close, I pondered the connection between his Transcendental experience with the Big Dipper and the much later launch of his company. It struck me that life is hardly linear. Time may flow exclusively forward, but decisions, experiences, and conversations can impact a life in limitless ways, and need no more than the stars as a witness. The true value of a moment may hibernate for a season and suddenly awake to greet us with new direction, new purpose. And to those who have attentive eyes and ears, who can brazenly face their own fears of failure, Nature has much to say.

Life, it seems, remains circular, a stream of interconnection between who we were and who we are becoming. Much thanks to Jake for staring into the night’s sky, refusing to forget what he gained from having truly seen, and sharing it with everyone he meets.

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