Love & Candles: Isabelle Tan ’22 raises money for LGBTQ+ causes through candlemaking

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COURTESY IMAGE // ISABELLE TAN @BIGLOVECANDLES

During the height of the various movements for social change this summer, Isabelle Tan ‘22 felt a call to action to help.  She answered it by starting to sell homemade candles — with a twist.

“I was really inspired by all these people doing all these different things to donate money — using their creativity and sharing their craft with other people while also getting to donate to these great causes,” Tan said. “I saw a lot of people donating to really big organizations, which is great, but I felt that a lot of local organizations were not getting that much coverage.”

Tan began making candles to gift to her friends as a hobby while in quarantine, but in July she decided to start selling her candles through her new business Big Love Candles to fundraise money to aid those in her community. Big Love Candles’s current cause collaboration is with the LGBT Life Center of Norfolk. Tan appreciates all the work they do in her area — especially during the pandemic — and shared that she felt a special connection to the Life Center after speaking with someone who received assistance from the organization. Through candle sales, Tan was able to donate $731.20 to the LGBT Life Center.

“I actually had this experience with this [person without housing],” Tan said. “I was walking down the street, and we just sparked up this conversation; he was talking about how he was struggling with AIDS, and how it was difficult to get transportation to his HIV treatments … I was just thinking how important it is to focus on local organizations. I chose the Life Center because that was actually the place he used.”

Big Love is not just the name of Tan’s business, but a way of life for her. Tan draws inspiration from several notable revolutionaries, poets, novelists and social pioneers that preach the importance of love and compassion within  all social movements to achieve lasting change against oppressive systems. She characterizes this idea as “big love” and tries to promote it in her daily life and business.

I wanted the candle business to represent love and the fundraising money to give love and uplift causes that promote those same values of loving” 

–Isabelle tan ’22

“I’m a really big Bell Hooks fan and her book all about love talks about revolutionary love and how love is the basis of all revolution,” Tan said. “I’m also a Christian, and for me, Christianity is about loving people, so I wanted the candle business to represent love and the fundraising money to give love and uplift causes that promote those same values of loving everybody equally, no matter what their identity is. I feel like that is our duty as people.”

Tan showcases the concept of big love in her business by “educating others on the revolutionary acts of scholars, activists, and artists within BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities and donating to causes with ‘Big Love,’” per their mission statement. She  emphasized how important it is to her that love be the focal point of her business because without love, no change could be accomplished.

“I wanted to emphasize that love is what we need to interact with other people and that’s how we need to go in first with compassion towards other people,” Tan said. When oppressed people are saying that they are struggling, it’s not like they want to be struggling. You need to lead with compassion when people are expressing these experiences that they have because if we do not lead with love and lead with judgment, no work will ever be done and no progress will ever be made.”

Tan incorporates the education portion of her mission statement through the actual names of the candles. Each new candle is inspired by the people she believes best embody the concept of big love.

“Each candle is named after a certain activist or poet or novelist and these are all people that I admire and that promote the big love mission statement,” Tan said. “I’ve taken a lot of classes having to do with the studies of race, ethnicity and the history of activism so a lot of the time I use people that I have learned about from these classes like Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Yuri Kochiyama and all these great people that started the stepping stones to where we are now.”

Tan’s candles are made from 100 per cent natural ingredients and upcycled materials. The scent profiles of her candles are based on different characteristics of the activists for which they are named.

“I would sit down with their name and thinking about the person, what they stand for and their values and think ‘what scent embodies this person?’” Tan said. “Audre Lorde has eucalyptus and lemongrass because I think she’s very fresh and promotes a lot of newness, so I think eucalyptus and lemongrass feel very cleansing. James Baldwin’s scent is honey and cinnamon because whenever I think of him I think of warmth.”

As much as Tan has been able to do for others with her candles, she also feels she has benefitted as an artist.

“I’m always very self-conscious about what I put out into the world, like with music and all that; I’m always critiquing myself but this has really affirmed me as a creative,” Tan said. “Seeing people buy a product I made and put time into has boosted my confidence as an artist which has been really cool because I was not expecting that going in. I did not really consider candle-making an art going in, but it takes creativity. It was just so exciting seeing people support the cause I was supporting and feeling passionate enough to open their wallets and donate money to help.”

Big Love Candles hopes to re-open for sales some time in September. Tan plans to continue with her existing line of candles and potentially add new fall and winter inspired collections. In the meantime, a number of strong candidates are vying for the next big cause collaboration.