Synesthesia by Bruno Fazzolari

When we talk about what it’s like to encounter smells, I tend to resist much enthusiasm about the idea of synesthesia (the “crossing-over of perception and senses,” experiencing a smell as a sound or a number as a color, and so on). We are so unpracticed at encountering smells and we have such little vocabulary for the experience, it’s only natural that when we grasp for ways to conceptualize it, we reach for parallels from our other senses: scent as music with notes and chords, or scent as texture, or as color. While it’s certainly useful to think about scent in these terms, I find myself wanting to push aside what feels like an analogy with limited usefulness and lean into the baffling ways that scent is none of these things—it is a separate category of experience.

But lately I’ve been spending time with Bruno Fazzolari’s book of Synesthesia paintings and finding it unexpectedly generative. From his introduction: “For someone who ‘sees’ scent, it feels odd to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just as we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work explores this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form, and about the ways these relationships expand the space of painting and the space of perfume.”

What’s most compelling to me about Fazzolari’s work is that he’s using his synesthesia not just as a way to interpret or translate smells, but also as a way to approach manipulating them. To discuss his painting Osmanthus, he describes the scent of osmanthus absolute: “while it’s jammy, it’s also dense, heavy, and lacks a sense of space. A pleasing osmanthus perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores color facets of osmanthus absolute and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in the painting lacks sparkle, and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another.” Fazzolari isn’t just sharing his synesthetic experience of smells, he’s also applying principles of color theory as a skilled perfumer. 

Inspired, I pulled out my copy of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, flipped it open, and felt this connection confirmed when I saw gradation studies shown on a photograph of perfume bottles. There are principles of perception that an artist can play with to create a new experience for their viewer. Fazzolari draws upon the experience of his senses as inter-connected, creating space for us to experience it, too.

Purchase Bruno Fazzolari’s Synesthesia – Catalog or shop prints and perfumes.

The Scent of Cotton

Bright Black Candle cotton

The scent of cotton. It is, arguably, a “fantasy note” in perfumery terms, as cotton is not distilled or made into an aromatic material, nor does it have much of a scent at all. But when I stick my nose into these fluffs of raw cotton, there is a texture that comes through in the way of smell: soft, swaddling comfort, muffled and peacefully quiet, enveloping like a clean cocoon. “Fantasy notes” use smell in non-literal ways to evoke ambiance, moods, associations, and ideas—which is why it’s such a powerful choice that Bright Black Candles and Cocoasavvy included the textural scent of cotton in these two beautiful candles. The history of cotton—and the wealth and economic power that the US gained through it—is inextricable from the history of slavery, sharecropping, injustice, and the dehumanization of Black lives.

“So much of Bright Black is about seizing control of our narratives and reclaiming our history as a means of shaping the present and the future,” write Tiffany and Dariel of @brightblackcandle in a post about the Durham candle from their Diaspora collection. “This is why we blended cotton with our other fragrance notes in our Durham scent. We were inspired by @blackcotton.us and their movement to position cotton positively (which is a very different framing than we grew up with in the North). From a scent perspective, the cotton softens the whiskey and tobacco notes, rounding it out and providing balance to what would have otherwise been quite a harsh aroma.” The smell is rich, sultry, enveloping, and deep.

For Alita Carter’s @cocoasavvy brand, Bright Black created a scent using notes of cotton, cocoa, and sugar cane—all three major cash crops produced in the Americas, all three produced largely by Black and African people, some free, many not. In Tiffany and Dariel’s words, this candle is in many ways “a tribute to the Americas and the contributions so many Black people provided to growth in these regions….It’s a tender scent, a consoling scent, an almost mitigating scent—sending reassuring messages that tomorrow will be ok, even if today is tough. That hopefulness flows all through this candle, and has flowed throughout our history in North, South, and Central America (and throughout the entire Diaspora really).” Alita paired the scent with Margaret Walker’s poemFor My People.” “…For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way / from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, / trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, / all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations; // Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born….”

The Cocoasavvy candle can be purchased at cocoasavvy.com, and the Durham candle can be purchased at brightblackcandles.com. The raw cotton bouquet pictured above is from blackcotton.us, a family farm and community-focused company in North Carolina. Give them a follow and take a look at what they’re doing to strengthen their community through agriculture.

The Act of Smelling

“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself. Immediately, at the very moment of perception, you can feel the mind going to work, sending the odor around from place to place, setting off complex repertoires throughout the brain, polling one center after another for signs of recognition, old memories, connections.”

—Lewis Thomas

We Cannot Utter Their Names

“It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”

—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

I think about this a lot, and I wonder what your thoughts are. Do we want a more robust language for scent? If we, as a culture, paid more attention to everyday smells and regularly sought out scents to experience—would it lose some of its magic?

Perfume Insights from Raw Materials

Sometimes smelling a raw material feels like discovering a Rosetta Stone—it unlocks a perfume that until then I couldn’t quite decipher.

flouve1Recently I had this flash of recognition with flouve absolute (see description below), which was entirely new to me, but upon smelling it I suddenly understood what’s going on in Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse. Similarly, when I smelled a gorgeous fir absolute, it felt like I could more deeply understand Slumberhouse’s Norne and its dense, sweet, “jammy” forest character. I don’t know if this material is in the perfume, but when I smelled hydrocarboresine (made from the gummy resin of labdanum) my mind instantly went to Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma, and the chewy quality of its smoky leather made more sense, like I could see the through-line from incense to chocolate.

Have you had this experience with any raw materials and perfumes?

flouve2book
From Steffen Arctander’s Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin.

Culinary Smelling: Matsutake Mushroom

I had just started reading a section of The Mushroom at the End of the World, a book about the matsutake mushroom by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, when it was time to go to dinner. I was surprised and delighted to see the list of specials—there it was: matsutake mushroom, served with preserved pine, currants, and herring roe. I had never heard of matsutake until about an hour before, and I wasn’t 100% sure I was remembering the name right, but I had to order it.

The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing mastutake book cover

From what I’d read at that point, I gathered that matsutake had a polarizing scent, and that it could overtake and ruin a dish if you didn’t prepare it correctly (Tsing described throwing out an entire stir-fry when the matsutake’s flavor invaded every bite). I was expecting a strong and distinctive aroma, but was a little disappointed to find the dish perfectly inoffensive. Light and earthy, with an outdoorsy aromatic lift, probably from the pine, and a hint of salty marine breeze from the roe. The mushroom was served raw and sliced thin, yet its smell and flavor was mild. Ordinary.

After dinner I went back to the chapter I’d read and realized that I hadn’t yet encountered an actual description of the smell. I kept reading. Tsing says that for the Japanese people to whom matsutake is so delightful, it’s a nostalgic smell. It “smells like village life and a childhood visiting grandparents and chasing dragonflies. It recalls open pinewoods, now crowded out and dying. Many small memories come together in the smell … It was an easier time, before nature became degraded and poisonous.” Eventually she breaks the news: “It is time to tell you that most people of European origin can’t stand the smell.” Even though matsutake flourishes in the PNW, Tsing says that white mushroom pickers find the smell “nauseating,” describing the smell as “mold,” “turpentine,” and “mud.” When I googled matsutake to try to find out what kind of smell I should have expected, the first hit was this description from California mycologist David Arora: “A provocative compromise between ‘red hots’ and ‘dirty socks.’” I felt a little bit shortchanged to have been given such a pleasant dish.