Updates on the 2020-2021 Academic Year
SVA continues remote instruction, with select facilities accessible by appointment. Click below for updates.
The Calming Ritual of Crafting Small-Batch Soaps

Alumnus En Tsao Maintains Balance with Even Keel, her Botanical-based Skincare Company.

August 26, 2020 by Joyce Rutter Kaye
Left: A photograph of En Tsao. Right: A photograph of a bar of her soap

When naming her Brooklyn-based skincare line, En Tsao (BFA 2011 Graphic Design) chose Even Keel because she felt the nautical term embodied her philosophy of creating multi-use products that might help simplify and calm the lives of her customers.

What she’s discovered, however, after hand-making scores of batches and expanding her business over the past several years is something more personal and aspirational. “The most important thing I’ve learned is how to be even-keeled in my own life,” she says. “The process has made me look deeper into myself.”

Tsao’s approach to making her natural soaps, balms, salves and home products has long been guided by her own influences and introspection. While a student at SVA, she tried soap-making on a whim after finding an instructional book on the $3 rack at the Strand Book Store. She quickly became entranced by the practice’s transformative aspects, which reminded her of the art and science behind baking.

After graduating and working in the fields of design and advertising, she continued making soap but also found herself increasingly drawn to the outdoors. The more time she spent hiking and camping, the more she wanted to know about the natural world around her. “Somehow, nature miraculously found a spot for itself in my urban, closed heart and grew through me,” she says.

A photograph of pieces of soap going into a freezer

While Tsao was growing up in Singapore, her mother would ply her daily with healthful herbal drinks, which she admits she found unappetizing. Newly inspired to learn more about botanicals and the Eastern medicine that her mother embraced, she studied clinical herbalism at the ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism, in New York City, and in 2018, Even Keel was born. (As another twist on the company’s name and a nod to her mother’s influence, Even is a contraction of Tsao’s mother’s first name, Evelyn, and her own.)

Even Keel products are made with natural ingredients with healing properties, such as clays and activated charcoal, said to aid skin detoxification, as well as natural processes, such as using the warmth of the sun to infuse organic oils with herbs. Tsao continually updates her formulations to enhance their beneficial qualities and incorporate customer feedback. From the start, she has maintained a commitment to giving back to organizations benefiting the environment; a portion of each year’s profits go to The Rainforest Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Though a part-time staff now helps with packaging and shipping orders, Tsao continues to hand-craft every Even Keel item, working out of her own mixed-use retail space in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. After having had more private set-ups elsewhere, including a kitchen in Ho Chi Minh City during a year spent exploring sourcing opportunities in Southeast Asia, Tsao’s biggest challenge now is staying focused on production during certain hours and available for customers during others. “[This] allows me to expand and push my knowledge to a higher level as I learn how to satisfy their needs as well as mine,” she says.

Late last year, she invited two visitors into her cozy workspace to demonstrate the process of making a batch of Even Keel’s rose clay soap. Click on the images below to read about her process.

A version of this article appears in the spring/summer 2020 edition of the Visual Arts Journal.