Each year, Our State’s Made in NC Awards celebrate the talent and creativity of North Carolinians. Meet the state’s winners, honorable mentions, and judges. Check out all of this year’s
In the sanctuary of almost every Black church is a VIP section. It’s not for the pastors, but for the mothers — church elders who don hats, jewelry, and perfume on Sunday mornings, leading by example in worship services. These women, and the voices that surround them, are part of the inspiration behind Gospel, one of a series of music-themed candles made by Durham’s Bright Black candle company. When its wooden wick is lit, Gospel releases a combination of evocative fragrances: Myrrh, used for centuries in spiritual ceremonies, calls up Biblical references; chamomile induces comfort and soothes the soul; and lilac, a purple spring flower, symbolizes hope and rebirth.
“We created the Gospel candle because of the pivotal role that Black spiritual music played in liberation,” says Tiffany Griffin, who owns Bright Black with her husband, Dariel Heron. “People say it reminds them of church mothers — that soft scent — but modernized.”
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Bright Black’s handcrafted candles are designed to shed light on some of the people, places, and events in history that spark ruminations on Black greatness. Made with natural ingredients, each candle is intentionally named: Rock, for the musical genre invented by Black artists, is a raw blend of sassafras and palo santo. Durham, for the city’s deep history, including its prosperous Black Wall Street, has scent notes of cotton, tobacco, and whiskey. And Signature’s earthy citrus aroma reflects the passions and personalities of the family that created Bright Black — Griffin, Heron, and their 5-year-old daughter, Elena. They even named one of the plants in their studio and showroom Royal 7 in honor of the state’s first sit-in — not the famous 1960 demonstration in Greensboro, but the one that took place three years earlier at Royal Ice Cream in Durham. “It’s the little things that aren’t little,” Griffin says of the details surrounding those names. “We’re hoping to have all kinds of conversations embedded around the space.”
Indeed, everywhere you look inside the shop, which is tucked into a strip mall between a thrift store and a Food Lion, are reminders of a powerful Black past, present, and potential future. Classic titles by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Malcolm Gladwell line the windows. A group of snake plants with name cards puts Claudette Colvin, the teenager who refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks’s well-known protest, in the company of civil rights giants Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. And on the walls, paintings from Charlotte artist Zaire McPhearson’s “For Colored Girls” series share space with the Afrofuturistic landscapes of Durham artist Tevin Neely.
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It’s a family affari this sunday morning. AS Griffin checks inventory at the front of the store; Heron works production in the back; and Elena, bubbling with enthusiasm about her recent birthday, oversees everything else. The couple founded Bright Black in 2019. The name came to Griffin in a dream as a way to counter the harmful narratives that their daughter might face growing up: Black, which often has negative or dirty connotations, is paired with Bright to evoke the beauty, brilliance, and intelligence that is the lived Black experience, Griffin says.
The company has already built a dedicated following. Bright Black won this year’s Made in NC award in the Craft category, and with celebrity fans like Beyoncé and a partnership with the NBA, Griffin and Heron have had to double their staff to keep up with orders. They knew that the company had reached a milestone two years ago with the arrival of a 2 a.m. email that made them scream. It was from the office of Michelle Obama. Her stylist was reaching out about candles for the former first lady’s organization When We All Vote.
Griffin attributes the candles’ popularity to the quality and the care that she and Heron put into them, as well as to the company’s ethos of helping build the world that they want to see through the power of storytelling. Bright Black also partners with organizations that push for environmental equity, juvenile justice, and land rights, donating proceeds to those causes. “There’s a lot of mental load for people trying to figure out how to do right,” Griffin says. “We make it easy.”
Storytelling was always what motivated Griffin, even before she went down the entrepreneurial path. As a teen, she aspired to be a filmmaker of documentaries that reflected the complexities of urban life in places like her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. In the ’90s, drugs and gangs devastated that landscape.
A constant in Griffin’s life was her grandmother Nana, who stepped in as a surrogate parent more than once. Griffin associates Nana with the aroma of baked goods. “She was the original scent artist, layering different smells,” Griffin says. “She even wore perfume to bed.”
Known around town as the Cake Lady, Nana never measured her ingredients, and Griffin never had a chance to ask about them before her grandmother died. Pistachio cherry cake was Nana’s specialty. “If I think about my childhood, there are some unpleasant things, but the smell of Nana’s cake, whichever one she was baking at the time …” — she trails off and smiles — “oh, wow.”
Her grandmother sent cakes in the mail during Griffin’s undergraduate years at Boston College, where she met Heron, who also became enamored with Nana’s skills. “How are the cakes so moist?” he wanted to know. After completing her graduate studies, Griffin and Heron remained friends but didn’t date until years later, when a Facebook flirtation kindled a romantic interest. When they began seeing each other, they’d burn candles and talk about how they could make their own. Their first Christmas together, the couple gifted handmade candles to family members.
“They were horrible,” Griffin says, laughing. “All synthetic dyes and low-quality wax.” But their families encouraged the couple to keep up the hobby and maybe even sell the candles. One of their earliest ideas was to make one based on hip-hop love songs. These days, a different version of that candle, called Hip Hop, is part of Bright Black’s music-themed collection. “People think hip-hop is about gangsters, and it gets this bad rap,” Griffin says. “But if you analyze hip-hop, it’s very complex poetry with intense themes and great musicality. So we thought, Let’s capture that with these candles. That’s really the seed.”
The seed that started a hobby. A hobby that led to a business. A business involving beautiful, fragrant candles that tell powerful stories. — Emiene Wright
Simply Entwined — Arden
“Tartan Reed” Woven Basket
When Buncombe County artist Pat Holbrook took her first basket-weaving class, she didn’t expect to fall in love with one of North Carolina’s oldest and most treasured art forms. “I remember thinking to myself, I’ll never be able to do this,” she says. “By the end of the class, I was so excited that I could actually create [a small basket], and I’ve been making baskets ever since.” Around 2005, Holbrook decided to start her own business. She knew that she wanted to use her craft to showcase things she loved and memories she cherished, like an equestrian-themed basket inspired by her time riding horses as a child. Holbrook takes pride in crafting her own designs, including baskets accented with leather or braided handles, but she also enjoys modifying intricate patterns by other artists. To make her “Tartan Reed” basket — based on a pattern by designer Nancy Jones — Holbrook used wood for the base, and tan and green rattan reeds for the basket. “At first glance, people think the reeds are woven in different squares,” she says, “but it’s really just a fun optical illusion.” — Tamiya Anderson
Holbrook’s baskets can be found at the Cradle of Forestry gift shop in Pisgah National Forest and The Northwest Trading Post in Glendale Springs.
Mark Hewitt Pottery — Pittsboro
Wood-Fired Pottery Lidded Jar
Mark Hewitt grabs five pounds of wedged clay and centers it on the potter’s wheel in his Pittsboro home workshop. As the wheel spins, he shapes the clay into a 16-inch-tall vessel with quiet confidence and precision. Tomorrow, he’ll attach handles and make a lid. “The shape is inspired by pots made during the 19th century in North Carolina,” he says. The state’s pottery tradition, as rich as the local clay, lured the England-born potter to the Piedmont in 1983. His father and grandfather were directors of a fine-china manufacturing company in England, and Hewitt’s childhood home was filled with pottery. After studying in England and becoming an apprentice for legendary ceramicist Michael Cardew in the late ’70s, Hewitt brought his knowledge to Pittsboro, where he blends Southern folk pottery traditions with contemporary style and function. For his wood-fired lidded jar, he uses three types of local clay and an alkaline glaze. His final touch involves pressing blue glass on the lid and beneath the rim to create streaks when the vessel is fired, a tradition started by potters in the 19th century. “The folk potters of our state were exceptionally creative craftspeople,” he says. “They created a world-class ceramics heritage that I feel honored to continue.” — Tamiya Anderson