The smell of mothballs brings back memories of the Old Home Place, a family home in rural East Texas that was built in 1898 and last inhabited in the 1970s. When my family and I entered the house for the first time in decades, there were mothballs in every room, in glass bowls like they were white buttermints. Over the next few years, the house grew large in my personal mythology. I never met my great-aunts, but I sorted through their belongings like treasure, even wore their dresses. The smell of mothballs brings to mind the duality of my relationship to the Old Home Place: simultaneously intimate and intrusive.
“Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” —Diane Ackerman
Smell Words is a collection of 160 words, small articulations in a sea of pleasure and exaltation, created in collaboration with Noele Lusano.
Get your copy of Smell Words + the first zine, Smelling Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Smells + two paper strips dipped in special edition scents to enjoy and find the words for. $10 shipped. To order, send me a message.
Risograph printed by Paper Press Punch.
My first risograph zine! “smelling is forgetting the name of the thing one smells” / “there are smells I never had a name for”
This idea is something I keep returning to, and one I’ll keep expanding on in other projects. The title is a play on Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s book about California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. For me, it expresses the question of the role of language in our experience of smell. Does language expand our experience or does it limit it? In some ways, reading a scent description flattens or constricts our perceptions. It stops us short. But in other ways it does the opposite, pushing us further and offering new ways to understand what we encounter.
This is further complicated by the fact that we notoriously do not have language for so much of what we smell. As Diane Ackerman wrote: “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.”
More to come on this topic. In the meantime, if anyone would like a copy of this zine, I have some extras! Use the contact form to send me your mailing address.
Printed by Paper Press Punch as part of their Zine of the Month Club.
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.
Lately I’ve been adding a little extra smell and nostalgia into my work-from-home setup: writing my to-do lists with scented markers.
“Scent is the essence of physical presence and lends proof to our surroundings.”
—Robert Blackson, from the introduction to If There Ever Was: A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells
I recently made my first solid perfumes. Following Mandy Aftel’s instructions, I combined jojoba oil and fragrant materials with grated and melted beeswax.
If you could smell this picture, you’d smell rich jasmine and allspice, lavender and blood orange, ylang ylang, vetiver, coffee…
Scent resists organization. Even so, there are quite a few tools for categorizing perfume materials. I like to use them as jumping-off points when I’m brainstorming, rather than puzzles where every scent may lock perfectly into place.
My favorite is Mandy Aftel’s natural perfume wheel. It looks like a color wheel, visually characterizing and grouping smells. Unlike a color wheel, however, a scent’s position on the wheel doesn’t necessarily correspond to special relationships the way a color wheel indicates complementary colors, etc.
I’ve also been poking around on Scent Tree, an interactive website that includes synthetic molecules and groups scents into “branches” such as fruity, undergrowth, leather burnt, and buttery.
Do you use a tool to reference or categorize scents? What have you found helpful?
“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.”
I recently had the incredible opportunity to host an interactive scent gallery for a group of multi-disciplinary artists and creative individuals at The Annex here in Seattle. My goal was first and foremost to facilitate an engaging experience that would get these artists thinking about the possibilities that open up when we use our noses. I wanted them to mindfully experience what Luca Turin calls “the enduring strangeness of raw sensation.” Hopefully, this experience might even get them thinking about scent in their own creative practice. But I also had some questions of my own that I wanted their help in answering.
Scent in art has the potential to create uniquely embodied, intimate, and ephemeral experiences. Scent resists description, documentation, and preservation. This is part of what makes scent so compelling, but it also presents significant challenges.
Scent is generally a passive, ambient experience—we don’t often think actively about what we’re smelling. And when we do, we usually have some kind of reference from our other senses. For example, we smell something unpleasant, so we identify the cause: we look around and realize we’re standing near a dumpster. We savor the smell of a peach while we hold it up to our nose. But without contextual information from our surroundings, how much are we able to make sense of smells? Scent is notoriously subjective, since we all have different associations and memories linked to scents. How much does this affect how an artist uses scent? We have so little verbal language for scent—but can scent itself serve as a common language that an artist can draw upon to communicate nonverbally? Or is it a kind of Tower of Babel, all of us together yet unable to speak the same language?
These questions have been on my mind lately as I’ve been researching scent in art. By and large, “olfactory artworks” often rely upon audio-visual or narrative cues to frame our encounter with the scent, priming us to experience or interpret the scent in a certain way. Scent’s role can certainly be more than just an atmospheric enhancer. Scent can supplement our experience; it can subvert and play with our expectations. But this means that while a work’s concept may rely upon scent, a scent cannot fully communicate the concept on its own. So I can’t help but wonder: can artists not trust their viewers’ noses? Are we incapable, or merely unaccustomed to encountering scent on its own terms?
In other words: If our noses are given the chance, can we encounter and engage with a smell as we would encounter and engage with any other work of art?
After introducing these thoughts, I led the group in a “silent smelling” of four anonymous scents, with prompts along the way to guide them. Each participant received a blank notebook and a pen to record their internal experience and responses to each prompt.
After the exercise, we came together to share our reactions and discuss our experiences. Participants were simultaneously energized by the smelling exercise and fascinated by the unexpected ways that they felt stymied by it.
At the end of the evening, participants went home with vials of each of the four scents and a sealed envelope containing The Reveal, allowing them to decide for themselves whether and when to read the names and descriptions of the scents they’d spent so much time observing.
I want to thank all the participants who came out to Capitol Hill to experience this with me. I was inspired by all of your responses and thoughts. I’m already planning my next interactive scent event!
Thank you to The Annex for having me, especially to Tae for being such a wonderful curator. Thank you to Kendra Dalley for the videos.