Of the five senses, smell is the most powerful and enigmatic, holding an evocative power that can instantly transport us to different times and places. It’s an often overlooked sense, but LA’s Institute for Art and Olfaction, or IAO, is working hard to change that. The IAO offers hands-on education such as an art studio, but instead of painting or music, students learn to create fragrances.

The IAO hosts open sessions for the public to come and learn. Julianne Lee, a member of IOA’s board of directors, explained the goal of the events.

“It is an opportunity for people to get their feet wet in terms of learning how to work with these aromatic materials for whatever smells they wish to create or play with... It’s divided into two parts. The first is a communal smelling session. We have selected around 12 materials for all of us to smell together as a group. It’s ordered from top notes to middle notes to base,” Lee said. 

Participants then get to choose their own scents to blend into a fragrance. 

Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder and executive director of the IOA, explained how working with scent can be a meditative experience for people. 

“You have to sense and you have to pay attention to what you’re sensing. You can’t just be like, ‘Yeah, I see it and then I forget about it.’ You have to think about it. I think for a lot of people, that’s what really attracts them. They just need a place to be in their bodies. And perfumery or working with scent provides that,” she said.

Wilson-Brown opened the IAO in 2012 to make learning about perfumery more accessible. Usually, she explained, people would have to travel to France and work in an exclusive fragrance house to break into the industry.

“The institute was set up to sort of do honor to the more traditional ways that people have been working with scent, which is in their kitchens, or in so many capacities. It doesn’t have to be like that. So we’re really trying to keep it super open in that way,” she said. “When I started the Institute, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no clue. I think the fragrance industry, if they even noticed me, we’re just like, ‘OK, cute.’ The point wasn’t to interact with the fragrance industry. The point was to help artists incorporate scent into their practice.”

While Wilson-Brown believes the IOA could not have started anywhere but LA, they do present the Art of Olfaction Awards every year in different cities around the world.

If deconstructing the science of scent piques your interest, go to ArtandOlfaction.com to sign up for the next open session and to learn more about the programs offered.

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