Michelle Gagnon might know a thing or two about Mars. As a bio alchemist and founder of MKG Bio Alchemy—a range of organic botanical skincare and aromatic creations—Michelle regularly traverses the world for her craft. She recently returned from Oman, a country that lies on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, known for its vast stretches of desert land and an environment that scientists have likened to that of the red planet. It was here where Michelle spent months exploring the other-worldly landscape and distilling oil from Frankincense trees. We visited Michelle at her home in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on an unseasonably warm winter morning to talk more about her time in Oman, the healing benefits of bio alchemy and aromatherapy, and the power of honing in on your craft.
Hi Michelle. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. To start, can you please describe in your own words what it is you do?
I work with smell and nature. I work with plants, their essence, their beauty and their potency. I have founded MKG Bio Alchemy where I formulate natural perfumes, products and medicine to heal the mind, body, and spirit. I distill plant parts to obtain their essential oil, as well as work hard to understand their growing practices, cultivation and extraction processes. I know the source of all materials I work with. When people ask what I do I say I am a Bio Alchemist and distiller.
Let’s take a step back. Can you trace the origins of your passion?
My passion began with curiosity and personal exploration of plants and nature due to my family lineage of floriculturists and exposure to these elements at a young age. I grew up in the woods surrounded with nature and natural smells, where I loved to forage leaves, flowers, and berries since I began to walk. I was also exposed to aromatherapy at a young age through my mother and her dear friend, a very talented aromatherapist who would later become my teacher when my interest evolved into my passion.
What inspires your creations?
My creations are inspired by plants growing wild in their natural habitat- the smells, sounds, sights, textures, mysteries and cultures that surrounds them. I get inspired by explorers and ethnobotanists as well as my own travel. I am inspired by change, transformation, my dreams, and the notion that we will never stop learning through the materials we work with. All formulations created through MKG Bio Alchemy have a story to share.
Your creations concern the healing power of plants and aromatherapy. Why is scent such an important consideration for you?
Smell is our most direct means of communication with our environment. It is the only one of our senses with receptive nerve endings in direct contact with the outside world, providing an immediate channel to the brain. Scent is processed in the same part of the brain as emotions and feelings, it is both primordial and evocative.
Once we understand that we smell with with our brain, we can begin to understand how our brain processes the chemical compounds that enter it and sends signals to different areas of the body to heal. Allowing certain aromatics to lower blood pressure, balance the sebum production of the skin, or treat depression, anxiety and stress for example.
Can you describe a scent you love and share the memory attached to it. It can be any scent from throughout your life.
The smell of wet soil and moss in the morning time transports me to my backyard as a child walking along the spongey-mossy shaded ground still wet from morning to pick wild berries. The smell is of springtime, damp, dirty yet fresh and aired at the same time. This scent alone allows me to taste the black raspberries and see the color of my berry stained fingers and even the scent of the raspberry leaf.
We were speaking about the frenetic energy of New York and how it plays such a pivotal role to the way you perceive time and approach your work. Time just seems to move faster in New York, there’s so much that one feels they need to accomplish—especially when it comes running their own business. How do you organize your time and afford to do what you love?
I feel that what ever I am working on, or where ever I am working on it, is appropriate timing for myself and the evolution of my work. I remind myself even I feel that I’ve been away working for a long time, it is an important part of my journey. Fortunately I hold my work, my passion, very close to my heart. When I travel it is always for work but is also always a pleasure.
Time feels different depending on the work I am doing and where. Harvesting flowers in a field in Corsica for eight hours a day is tremendous work, but allowed me to experience time in a completely different way. It was as if time stood still.
I need to adapt to the time wherever I am, which can prove to be challenging sometimes, especially when coming back to New York City where I adjust to a faster pace and a clock ticking more quickly. To do lists are my dear friend.
Your work takes you everywhere. You work with farms and artisan distilleries from all around the world to source the organic botanical ingredients that you use for your creations. How do you decide which regions to visit and which local farmers and distillers to collaborate with? And what does a sourcing trip usually entail?
Harvests are dependent on seasons and weather, and usually the plants find me. It may be an encounter with someone, or a plant that keeps coming up in my life and I feel the deep desire to explore this material and work with it.
Certain areas or regions are more benefical for particular plants to grow, this is where I will seek a particular plant.
Since I feel it is imperative to know the conscious practices for which the plant is grown, cared for and extracted I will take a trip to visit the farm and distiller, all trips are as different as the plants themselves.
When I am sourcing a material I like to also participate in the harvest, and be as hands on as possible. I connect this to my liking to harvest berries as a little girl. Feeling the plant, and being in its natural habitat teaches me a lot. I will also lend a hand in the distillation.
You recently spent time distilling in Oman. How did being in Oman dictate your approach to your work?
I’ve spent six months total in Oman distilling oil from the resin of Boswellia sacra (frankincense) for Enfleurage NY. I’ve explored the old sacred trees growing wild in Salalah, spent nights with them under the moonlight, and explored their surrounding area. A dry persistent land blanked in crystals and amazing geology.
These trees have taught me patience, and persistence. They prevail trough the most extreme temperatures, even growing out of rock. The distillation process taught me the same, and also about the delicate balance which can be found in all things.
Running this distillery, and practicing the art of distillation of this powerful resin has inspired me to distill even more, explore even more plants, and different plant parts. A deep dive into a specific plant and the culture connected to it allows me to work with the material in many new dimensions.
Challenges are always tough to talk about, but they are seminal to shaping who you are both as a person and a creative. What is one of the biggest challenges you've encountered so far and what have you learnt from it?
I run into a few challenges with my work. One is that since I am working only with natural materials, the harvest and oil production is dependent upon many variable factors and is not always sustainable for large scale production. Sometimes a material is unavailable or the weather requirements do not meet the years production, therefore alter a formula where the ingredient is used.
I have to keep this in mind when working with clients and work within the limitations. I also get so inspired by travel and people I meet along the way and come back with many new ideas, but need to force myself to stay focused on one project at a time.
Last but not least, can you share three things that are currently inspiring your creative process?
Agarwood, and rough crystals
Metals such as copper and gold
Natural incense and its smoke
Michelle wears the Pockets Midi Wrapdress in charcoal, from our SS18 collection. To learn more about MKG Bio Alchemy, visit her website here.