By Tchera Niyego
Photography by Garin Horner
I met Jess Tsomo and Kat Tsomo ten years ago while visiting Tsogyelgar Dharma Center, located on West Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. A few years after that I moved here to Ann Arbor from New York, so as to make Tsogyelgar the center point of gravity in my life. Kat, Jess, and I share a precious and magical bond as disciples of Buddhist Siddha Traktung Yeshe Dorje—the founder of Tsogyelgar Dharma Center. (Editor’s Note: For more information about Tsogyelgar, see the Cover Story in Issue #64 of the Crazy Wisdom Journal, September through December 2016, available in our archive online at crazywisdomjournal.com)
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, both Jessica Snyder and Katheryn Mitchell Simpson (AKA Kat) legally changed their last names to Tsomo—the clan name within our spiritual tradition.
A significant part of the motivation in doing this interview was a desire on my part to get to know Kat and Jess better. They are utterly charming, genuinely light-hearted, cheerful, modest, and graceful.
Jess makes a full line of botanical skin care products under the name White Lotus Farms Botanicals. Using only the highest quality, all-natural ingredients, she enchants all your senses. From lotions and lip balms to rescue potions and bath bombs, everything she makes not only looks and smells great, but leaves you feeling completely nourished and refreshed.
Kat draws elaborate designs of intricate flowers and animals, prints hand carved blocks on paper and fabric, and makes jewelry and glass beads. She is a drummer and vocalist as well, recording with the band Just a Tourist.
Tchera Niyego: Jess, you combine your experience as an Ayurvedic health practitioner and an organic farmer, to synergistically formulate the White Lotus Farms Botanicals line. Would you please elaborate on how you do that?
Jess Tsomo: Farming is the newest of those things to me. I've liked working with plants for a long time. Since I was a teenager I was really into herbal medicine. I studied on my own and then decided to go to school to study herbal medicine and bodywork. Then I went on to do yoga teacher trainings and study Ayurvedic medicine. I studied at The Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico and also worked at the Ayurvedic Institute's Pancha Karma Clinic under the tutelage of Dr. Vasant Lad. So I started with all of that as my basis before actually stopping all of that and just farming full time for six years at White Lotus Farms. So I'm coming full circle now, bringing all those elements in. This last year I haven't been farming much, but I'm going to start growing more, and over time my intention is to grow more and more of what we use in the products, like the calendula flowers that are in the oils, and chamomile, lavender, and other plants that are in all the formulas. My understanding of Ayurveda does inform and influence everything I make in terms of understanding the different energetics that plants have, like whether it's heating or cooling, and in the farm we practice planting with the moon phases, when the seeds are planted, when they're harvested, the biodynamics, that affects the energies of the plants, too, and we've been doing that for years with the vegetables as well.
Tchera Niyego: How many people are presently manufacturing the White Lotus Farms Botanicals line?
Jess Tsomo: I'm full time and I have one pretty much full-time helper—who is currently a volunteer. Kat helps me with the soap making which she used to do herself when she worked at the creamery. It's so nice to do that together because we actually took soap making training together years back, and then I stopped doing it to focus on managing the farm, and then she made the White Lotus Farms soaps with Amy, our current creamery manager, for some years. So recently she's been helping me in making soaps. And Sofia occasionally helps (lots of laughter—Sofia is Kat's beloved seven-year-old daughter). I ask for help when I need it (continued laughter) or help is offered when I don't ask, but I develop all the formulas and for the most part make them myself.
And I should mention where I'm learning to make the body care products. I've completed a diploma in organic skincare formulation through a school in England, Formula Botanica, and am in the process of completing the advanced diploma in organic cosmetic science and their certificate in organic anti-aging skincare. I chose a European school to study through as Europe has higher standards and regulations that we don't currently have in the States for cosmetics and skin care production—like safe limits of essential oils in products because too high percentages become unsafe to use. Currently, there are no standards in the U.S. for skin care product regulation. There may be people who make skin care products in the States that have that knowledge and incorporate it in their production, but in terms of any regulations, there are none.
So the formulas that I develop are also informed by what I learn there, and it's not like I just took my farming and Ayurveda knowledge and started making stuff, but there's a lot of learning which bridges all these
Tchera Niyego: How about telling us your background, Kat?
Kat Tsomo: I grew up in Ann Arbor, and my mother was in the Tsogyelgar community and my father, Edwin Ion Simpson, was an artist, a painter. I went to the Waldorf School, which is very heavy on the arts. From a very young age, I was surrounded by art and encouraged to do a variety of different art forms. I've always enjoyed painting, drawing, photography, printing, working with clay, and jewelry making. All of which are things I still enjoy doing. For a period of about seven years, I took a break from drawing and painting while I was mostly making jewelry: earrings, necklaces, rings, mainly using wires. Then a couple of years ago, I made a card for one of our friends. It was an ink drawing of a pug face filled in with flowers. That was the first one that I did in this style—floral drawings filling the shape of something else—and I've continued doing it since. During the last year or so I've also been hand-carving linoleum rubber blocks and block printing on paper and fabric.
Jess Tsomo: I didn't realize that pug was the first of that style, that's cool.
Kat Tsomo: I had an hour and a half before his birthday party, and I hadn't made a card yet (laughing). I had the flu, so I sat in my room and drew it really fast. I think my best drawings come in a time crunch when there's a deadline for a specific event, and it's a lot harder for me to do them in a way that I actually like if I have a lot of time to get them done. And it has to be a deadline that I feel strongly about, (laughing) not like "next Wednesday"...
Tchera Niyego: I've seen some of your father's paintings. Would you say that you've picked up some of your ways from him.
Kat Tsomo: He did paint, but he also did a lot of ink drawings. Sometimes he would paint first, and then he would use a ballpoint pen over the top, or he would use embroidery floss and glue it down on the paintings to create textured surfaces. It definitely influenced the way I thought about art as a child. He was pretty much always making art. He painted on downtown Ann Arbor shop windows, too; I'm not sure if his paintings are still inside Palio's on Main Street.
Tchera Niyego: And your line drawings are on all the White Lotus Farms Botanicals' labels. Do you make them specifically for the labels?
Kat Tsomo: Yes, it started with the idea for a drawing of a flower bouquet in a botanical beaker with different products that Jess was planning to make inside the beaker. This was before the Botanicals line was even produced at all.
Jess Tsomo: Yes, I was just starting the class.
Kat Tsomo: I wanted to make her this drawing as a surprise when she first started, trying to incorporate flowers that she'd mentioned for having in the products, like lavender, calendula, and mint. Later when she was working on the labels and the banners that go to different markets, a lot of the flowers from that drawing were used. That's how I started doing drawings of the plants specifically for the labels.
Tchera Niyego: And one of your drawings is on the band Just a Tourist's CD with whom you also record as a drummer and vocalist.
Kat Tsomo: Yes. Just a Tourist is three women in our Sangha. They do all of the music and editing for the JAT albums. I have sung backup vocals on a few tracks, and once I played congas on a track that was on a drum album (by Chen). On their fifth album, titled “Half Covered Heart,” I did the artwork that is on the actual CD, not the case, but on the CD.
Tchera Niyego: How would you define beauty and art?
Kat Tsomo: I want my art to be something that, first of all, I enjoy doing, that brings me joy to do because it has meaning to me, but also to be something that expresses beauty to others, to whoever might encounter it. Although that's not why I'm doing it (laughing). That is to say I'm not doing it as a way of impressing someone else. Art is often very frustrating, but that's also just part of it, I think. I would say that because I am very religious, I try to make that a big part of everything I do and how I am as a person and toward other beings that I encounter. I try to bring the qualities that I cultivate in my practice of mindfulness and of joy, loving, caring, and attention into whatever art form I'm working on.
Jess Tsomo: I feel the same way in regards to striving to bring the qualities I cultivate in my religious practice into my work and the products I make. Beauty, for me, is more of a feeling state. I strive to put a lot of attention, love, and care into the beauty and skin care products that I make, and intention around the fact that someone is going to be using that product. I wish that it benefits them in some way, either that they like the smell or it helps a skin condition—or whatever the benefit might be. I really love my work, and I'm passionate about it. I produce in very small batches, too, depending on the product; like the hand balm, and the BB potion is a product I make once a month, so it's pretty fresh. Because it's made on a smaller scale, there's more care and attention that I'm able to put into it. So in my view, beauty, the way I find beauty, is more of a feeling state, if that makes sense.
Kat Tsomo: It causes a reaction in terms of feeling.
Tchera Niyego: I think it makes a great binding point with not making art "for others" but since it creates certain feeling tones, that it serves to dissolve the boundary line of "other." How about your influences. Any artists you were influenced by?
Kat Tsomo: I would say a big influence for me is nature. Prior to doing these sort of floral drawings, my phone would literally have 4-5000 photos of flowers for each summer (laughing). That's pretty much all I take pictures of when the flowers are blooming. The gardens here at Tsogyelgar are amazingly beautiful from early spring all the way through the fall, and being here and having lived here almost all my life, that is always inspiring. I do like to look up people that do similar styles of work to get new ideas for things that I'm working on or different sea creatures and kinds of plants—life from around the world that I don't necessarily see here. When I find a flower particularly difficult to draw, I look at how other people have illustrated them.
Tchera Niyego: How about your influences, Jess?
Jess Tsomo: Nature is also my main influence and inspiration. There is endless beauty to explore and be exposed to. I am very fortunate to work on the Tsogyelgar property so being surrounded by nature’s beauty and magic is an everyday opportunity for me.
Tchera Niyego: You mentioned that when you first bought the cabinet at your lab, way before you started making the Botanicals line, you had envisioned it holding your beauty products.
Jess Tsomo: Yes, at that time, maybe around three years ago, I was managing the farm, and there was no plan for me to do skin care products. But even as a teenager I would make body oil blends, and I had a love of making things with plants. In terms of where I even came up with thinking I would have little jars of products in the cabinet, I don’t really know (laughing). I bought the shelf, and at the time I had books in it.
Kat Tsomo: Didn't you have seeds in it for a while?
Jess Tsomo: Oh, yes, I kept all the seeds for the farm in there at that time. Bins and jars of seeds. And now I keep jars of essential oils, clays, and other ingredients I use in the skincare products—even some seeds which I grind or infuse into oils that go into the products!
Tchera Niyego: Do you design the bottles and packaging as well?
Jess Tsomo: I choose the packaging. I spend a lot of time looking at packaging and thinking about packaging. I'm always looking for stuff that is unique. I do try to pick environmentally friendly packaging like the glass bottles instead of plastic for the lotions and the bamboo lid for the hand balm. I love Kat’s botanical drawings so I knew I wanted those to be incorporated into the labels from the start. A few different members in our sangha have helped with designing the labels and bringing them into fruition.
Tchera Niyego: So, it's all made in house?
Jess Tsomo: Yes, it's all in-house. It's all people from this community that have been a part of making it. It's sweet, there are people with different skills within the community, so I've been able to draw from that, and it also feels more meaningful because I would prefer to have someone that I know and love help with the creation of the artwork on the product. It has more meaning to me that way, and that meaningfulness is also infused into the product that others purchase and use.
Tchera Niyego: Do you sell your products at farmers markets?
Jess Tsomo: We sell at the market in downtown Ann Arbor on Saturdays and also on Wednesdays from May through December. We do the Eastern Market in Detroit on Saturdays, and we have our farm cart on the farm on Saturdays, too. We are also at Argus Farm Stop in two locations in town. Nicola’s Bookstore and some other stores are also in the process of bringing our products in. And I have an online Etsy shop. So the business is a combination of local markets, a couple of stores, online, and at the farm.
Tchera Niyego: What are you working on right now?
Kat Tsomo: What day is it? Sunday, oh... (laughter) I'm currently working on a drawing that I'd started a couple of years ago and gave up on and came back to because it wasn't done. It's a hibiscus flower. It's getting close. That's what I've been working on in the last days.
Tchera Niyego: White Lotus Farms offers classes on cheese making and bread making. Are you also teaching, Jess?
Jess Tsomo: Yes, I do intend to offer some classes. Maybe soap making and bath bomb making, I haven't yet decided exactly what, but there will be some classes starting in the winter. I'm currently doing some private yoga classes, but I don't teach public classes anymore. I stopped that when I started farming full time, but even when I did teach, I preferred to do smaller, more therapeutic sessions.
Tchera Niyego: Soon we can learn to make our own beauty products then?
Jess Tsomo: Yes, which will be fun. That's how I got started. I remember doing an avocado face mask as a teenager, and I had some reaction to it, even though I can eat avocado, and avocado oil is actually an amazing oil for the skin! Perhaps it was a conventionally grown avocado with pesticide residues. I used to be into all that; my grandma was into all that. She made her own face cream up until she died at the age of 104! I was 13 and going to school with a face rash from putting mashed avocado on my face (laughing). We won't do that in the class but we'll make something.
Tchera Niyego: How about we close with you telling me what the last two things you typically do before going to sleep are?
Jess Tsomo: I say prayers. There are prayers and practices in our tradition that are done before going to sleep, so I'm usually doing practice and prayers.
Kat Tsomo: Same. (laughing
Jess Tsomo: Brush my teeth and say prayers.
Find White Lotus Botanicals online on Facebook @whitelotusfarms and on Instagram at @whitelotusfarmsbotanicals or shop White Lotus Botanicals on Etsy at etsy.com/shop/WhiteLotusFarms. Find more of Kat’s art on Instagram @ kitty_kat.art. Visit the White Lotus Farm Cart at 7217 West Liberty Road, Ann Arbor on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. For more information give them a call at (734) 707-1284.
Tchera Niyego is a writer, designer, actor, and curator. Her essays, articles, reviews, and editorial spreads have been published in publications such as Art of Living, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, NY Arts Magazine, Art Fairs International, and Artery NYC.