Institute for Art and Olfaction elevates the scents

Institute for Art and Olfaction is dedicated to 'creative experimentation with a focus on scent'

An artful take on Caprese salad — half circles of heirloom tomato, watermelon triangles and mozzarella orbs decorated with violets, caviar-like beads of balsamic vinegar and walnut-pesto dressing — is punctuated by a bright lemon grass aroma with undertones of rhubarb and guava. Smoky elements of a caramelized yam and poached pear plate are elevated by a perfume with notes of smoldering juniper and hinoki woods, while a warm, cumin-cilantro aroma adds spice to the main entree, millet tamales with pumpkin, chiles, pistachio mole and pomegranate pico de gallo.

Each of four courses at a recent Stop and Smell Your Dinner event at Thank You for Coming, an experimental food and art collective in Atwater Village, was paired with a mouthwatering fragrance, inhaled by means of scent strips or perfumed blotting papers attached to so-called Aromaforks from Canadian company Molecule-R. Dinner was transformed into a feast for multiple senses.

"We picked scents that either complemented the dish or added a new flavor that was intentionally missing," said artist Saskia Wilson-Brown, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Institute for Art and Olfaction and organizer of the scented dinner, prepared for the 34 guests by chef Anne Lee of local vegetarian catering company Castle Gourmet Dining.

IAO began in 2012, dedicated to "creative experimentation with a focus on scent," according to its website, San Francisco native Wilson-Brown, who has a master's degree in fine art from Central Saint Martins College in London, founded the institute when she decided to explore her interest in perfumery but could not find formal instruction in California.

"Not only that, but I found access to be extremely limited," said Wilson-Brown, who chose to locate her organization in L.A.'s culturally diverse Koreatown neighborhood. "It's a famously secretive industry, and there is this perception of elitism.... My approach is, 'Let's all learn together,' so I gathered the resources. And our weekly open-session workshops, part of our mission of creating access, welcome artists, designers, filmmakers, kids from East L.A., both men and women. One time, a 7-foot-tall lumberjack from the Pacific Northwest who was really into scent came in and created a woodsy fragrance.

"I am not particularly fascinated with perfume as a consumption project. My interest relates to my arts background. The institute is based on the potential to subvert the industry in some way to change how we think about luxury and beauty."

In January, Wilson-Brown orchestrated a free scent concert at the Hammer Museum titled "A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes, Revisited," inspired by a failed 1902 project by art critic Sadakichi Hartmann. Six scents representing six stages of an imaginary journey from Los Angeles to Tokyo were wafted into the room by means of compressed-air canisters in sync with a 16-minute atmospheric soundtrack, a multi-sensory experience for the blindfolded audience.

"Tickets went right away," said Allison Agsten, curator of public engagement at the Hammer Museum. "It was unique in that scent was foregrounded and it was explicitly nonvisual, which is not the norm for a museum environment, but it really worked. Saskia's vision is spot on."

Wilson-Brown also created an awards program to fill a gap left by the perfume industry's paramount event, the Fragrance Foundation's annual FiFi Awards, and smaller happenings, such as the Artisan Fragrance Salon, that showcase artisan perfumers. Wilson-Brown's Art and Olfaction Awards focus solely on independent, artisan and experimental perfumers; the second annual event is scheduled to take place April 17.

"I think that she is expanding the discourse [about fragrance] with her annual awards program," Agsten said of Wilson-Brown. "She has been true to both art and olfaction in everything that the institute works on, which is very distinguishing."

Artistic collaborations with heady scent components are another IAO priority. The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, led by Los Angeles artist Zoe Crosher and nonprofit arts organization Los Angeles Nomadic Division, consists of a series of billboards by 10 artists, including John Baldessari and Mario Ybarra Jr., that have been unfolding along 10 stretches of Interstate 10 since 2013 to evoke the feeling of territorial expansion. IAO has created 10 accompanying limited-edition fragrances ($75 each at to signify each stop on the cross-country road trip. The base scent has aromas of tar, dust, rubber and night-blooming jasmine and is customized for each city, with added notes of bitter orange in Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, rose and gunpowder in San Antonio and pine and salt air in Santa Monica, where the project is to conclude next year.

In February, IAO plans to team with local artist Bettina Hubby for a scented riff on speed dating; each participant at the matchmaking event will be assigned a personal scent and a vial of that one-note aroma (such as clove or lilac). As participants meet, they'll rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5, and later a unique perfume will be created for each person by adding scents from others' vials to their base aromas — the number of drops added will correspond to the ratings. For instance, say Murray is clove and you rate him a 4; four drops of clove will be added to your fragrance. Daniel is rose and rates a 2, so two drops of rose will be mixed in. Murray rates you a 3 so three drops of your lavender will be added to his fragrance. All notes are complementary and the perfumes will be mixed after the mingling, to maintain privacy. Envelopes will be handed out at the end of the session to connect personal matches (deemed to be mutual ratings of 4 or 5).

For the institute's calendar of events, check, or call (213) 616-1744 for more information.

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