Q&A with Catherine Haley Epstein


When did you fall down the rabbit hole of perfumery? Were you a fragrance as a child? 

I have always loved and worn fragrance. The perfume making bug hit me hard when I was trying to make some on my own for an art installation almost ten years ago. It was humbling, and I’m loving the journey. While I wouldn’t say falling down the rabbit hole, I would say it’s totally elevated my creative game, so falling upwards if you will.


What was the lightbulb moment in your life when you felt you had your first hit? 

At a closing party for my exhibit where I featured my scents “On Forgetting”, a woman from France asked if she could buy the set - they were not for sale, though her inquiring made me think I had actually created something that resonated with people. Thinking the scent had legs, I naively sent to Lucan Turin for review. He did review it on his “Perfumes I Love” blog, and this I could say was terrific validation that I was on to something.


What are you most proud of in your fragrance career? 

I’m proud that I have not listened to the million voices, silent or quite blatant, that have told me not to be a perfumer, not to attempt the business of perfumery, and generally to stay away from the highly treaded landscape of perfumery. Staying the course at my own slow pace is a feat, where we live in a fast paced, “get it done”, “launch it” kind of environment. I like that my journey in the fragrant landscape is slow.

At Scent Trunk, one of our mantras is “Travel through the senses.” Is there a destination that feels like a perfumers’ paradise to you whether you’ve been there before or not?

I have never been to Morocco, and I think this would be a scent maker’s paradise. Given the climate is extreme (desert and beaches), the colors are incredible and the cuisine is amazing, I can’t think of a more fertile environment to be inspired. 




Our other theme is “choose your own scent adventure.” 

How do you encourage your customers to explore outside of their olfactive comfort zone? I purposely have thrown the fragrance wheel out of my studio, so there’s already a level of traveling without guard rails and safety nets - if people understood that what they don’t know is the thing that will make them grow, then it’s easier to share things outside of their comfort zone. After all, when we smell new things, we are building new pathways in our brain - how cool is that?


What is the most surprising combination of materials you blended together? 

Everything surprises me.


Do you teach or do any experiential projects? If so, what and where? 

Yes, I have taught how to use scent in your art practice to fellow artists and have presented to designers. Before Covid I was slated to do a workshop on Scent Art & Design through the Portland Design Week, though this has been postponed. I did a workshop at the  IAO on “Scenting the Bates Motel” where I shared my creative process when it comes to working with a commercial client , and my research on scent of fear and death. I also just founded the Odorbet with Caro Veerbek where we have combined our respective research on all things olfactory and are building up a database of words for our noses.


What are you working on now or in the future? 

I am working on the Odorbet, and am getting my masters right now, where I am combining my art research and practice with the study of the unconscious and therapy in a clinical setting. I am also writing about the immaterial aspects of olfactory art, and how that is something quite revolutionary art historically speaking.



What was the most intriguing aspect of the collaboration with Scent Trunk and the Original Edition fragrance you created for us? 

I loved working with Scent Trunk! I appreciate the broad sign posts I had to work with and get inspired by. I could have taken Rose Quartz and Ylang Ylang in a thousand directions, and appreciated the faith Scent Trunk had in my ability to execute. I also am generally not a floral person, so this was a challenge I was excited to have.


What does our annual meta theme “Supernatural Future” mean to you? 

Supernatural Future to me signifies a trust in the things that one can not see, it’s above nature and the unknown. I find that space is fascinating and it’s where our most creative selves can blossom.


Is there an ingredient or provenance that might be under the radar that you’d like Scent Trunk to know about or amplify? 

Orcas Island or Isle of Eriska (Scotland) ;) That is, if you were OK with the smell of low tide and seaweed (salty air is so hard to capture! But it’s a warm hug when you smell it).


As a writer and perfumer, do you find that you view the words and notes in a similar way and therefore when you’re composing, do you write your formulas out like you would a narrative that you’re writing? Or are they two completely different brain waves? 

Interesting question! Well, my writing practice serves a really practical purpose: I have been writing since 2012 about contemporary art and art practice, mostly privately. I’ve likened my writing practice as a way of combing my hair, a way of getting the knots out as it were. If I can make sense of it through words, I have a handle on it. It’s non-fiction writing, albeit creative non-fiction, so there is a lot of research and references. When I work with scent in my studio it’s a far more intuitive space, where I am comfortable with all of the unknowing - the unknowing is the exhilarating thing. So in sum, my writing is to give me some foundation in my thinking, and the creative process is where there are surprises and sometimes magic (or mess). :)




Are there some words that you wish there was an olfactive equivalent for? Or vice versa - are there some odors that are just indescribable? 

I’ve been enjoying thinking through this via the Odorbet, and indeed there are some words that I’ve created that feel very relevant to our noses. For example, “odormatic” is a word that suggests a reaction that happens due to a smell. In terms of scents that are indescribable, the scent of rocks from a lake come to mind, or the scent of static electricity - there is a smell that I can’t put my finger on how to describe it, but it’s there.  And if a scientist is reading this, please explain the scent of electricity please - it’s so interesting!


Tell us more about this very interesting Odorbet? An alphabet of odors? That’s so intriguing. 

Right! It’s a fun project that happened quite organically. In my book “Nose Dive”, I included a small list of scent words that I had uncovered in my research - art, anthropology, science, industry and neologisms. Someone in Sweden reviewed my book and mentioned Caro’s work in art historic scent words. I connected with her online and we’ve both shared our words we’ve uncovered in a database that is growing. The hope is that it will run on its own eventually as it’s not a work of authorship, rather we are simply facilitating a larger dialogue about words associated with our noses. The motivation to do this is knowing that our thought structures change the way we see and understand the world, so if we create more vocabulary for our noses, we stop ignoring it, and realize it’s a powerful tool for us humans. We are soliciting continually for contributions, and are hoping to broaden the discussion of scent beyond the perfume and art world. So far we have received input from writers and scientists. We are excited to possibly do workshops down the road as well, as we know how powerful words can be in elevating the status of our noses.


Why do you suppose so many people have a lack of olfactive vocabulary? Should we learn it more in school? 

Yes absolutely, we should learn it more from an early age. If we had people pointing to smells as we do to “cat” or “bird” like we do to learn a visual language, our sense of smell would be much more acute. We humans emit smells when we are scared, when we are in love, when we are sick or when we are pregnant, among many other things. Could you imagine if we were more dialed into that?


I recently learned that many societies want immigrants to assimilate by losing their scent identity - especially with cooking smells. Is that because people lack understanding of certain odors and flavors? 

I had not heard that about asking folks to lose their scent identity - that’s a shame. And yes, smells that are different in a xenophobic environment would likely be not tolerated. Which is really sad, since we learn so much by trying new things, smelling or eating wise. So to answer your question, it’s definitely a lack of understanding, and the classic and lazy human trope of liking similar versus different - it takes more energy to incorporate the differences, though it’s so much more beautiful.


What would happen if we taught aromas in early education?

 Aroma to me means food smells - that would be great for young people to learn. If kids understood the difference between sour, acid a sweet aromas they would be more mindful consumers of food. If we taught smells in general, we would be able to have kids start thinking in smells, and be more nuanced about it instead of the usual hedonic, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” response.




How can people learn about smells now with Covid?

 There are some terrific books out there (Nose Dive!!), and so much on the internet. I think if people just did smell walks around their neighborhoods it would be a nice meditation to slow down and start becoming aware of our surroundings. While Covid has been a worldwide disruptor, it has also slowed things down in a big way, which is a blessing. All of the smell cards have been thrown in the air and have fallen, scattered everywhere - so we are living in an exciting moment of destruction and regeneration when it comes to the usual smell systems. If people want to learn to make perfume, I think Mandy Aftel is conducting workshops online, and the folks at the IAO seem to be offering classes too.


Do you find that the Academic and Art World operate similarly yet somehow separate from the world of perfumery? Do you think olfaction will ever be accepted in the Art World like at the Biennale in Venice or Art Basel? 

That’s a great question! And I will say yes and no - the art world and the academic world work similarly to the world of perfumery in the sense that they are all specialized and act in silos. Perfume won’t land in the Art Basel or Biennale space as it is described broadly. There have been projects with an olfactory aspect to it in the art world, though I would hesitate to call some of it art. There was an amazing project done in 2008 where curator Robert Blackson had organized ten perfumers and scent artists to create impossible or extinct smells titled “If Ever There Was, An Exhibition of Extinct and Impossible Smells”. This is a conversation and exhibit worth having over and over with new artists and new smells. I like how olfactory art sits in between things, and is highly multi-disciplinary. By the way, the art world has fallen apart in many ways thanks to Covid and extraordinary things going on around the Black Lives Movement, and this pause is crucial for reconsidering all of the aspects of it. In sum, it’s almost a blank slate. Lastly - it’s important that if people do call their work “art”, olfactory or otherwise, they need to align it to the giant, human art historical stream - it can’t just be art for art’s sake - who are your artistic ancestors, and why are you doing it? Most olfactory art done today does not consider this, which I would controversially say is not art but something to do with personal expression. This is a long and deep topic. :)


Are there any experimental scent artists that you admire? 

I love the organizational structure of Sissel Tolaas’s work - her Nasolo where she has invented names for certain smells is exciting and speaks to my interest in research and collections. I also love her dedication to re-focus the general public on all smells, not just the pleasant ones. I’m also very jealous of her access to serious scent equipment.


How do you work with museums and galleries? Do you come up with a concept to create or do they invite you to collaborate? 

Most of the work I have done with museums is through their education departments. The interest I have in using scent in that setting is less an illustration of what a work of art might smell like, or historic scents related to the museums objects, and more as an exercise to help juice the wheels of people’s creativity. Using scent opens our minds, and when your mind is open all things come to you in a more direct way - so you can experience the art, or make the art more fluidly. The work I have done in galleries has generally been work related to my own art practice.


Is there a dream project you’d like to work on? 

I would love to have access to more scientific equipment so as to recreate certain obscure smells, like the aforementioned lake rock smell. It would also be a dream to be able to collaborate with someone in the industrial engineering space to do a scented project.




Are there any artists you would like to work with? 

Yes! I love Greyson Perry and John Waters. Both would be incredible to collaborate with.    

What do your kids think of all your smelly things? They love it! While they are not allowed to be in my lab/studio without me, it’s an open door policy and I let them smell things all the time. They are the best at describing scents too! Its humbling when I share what I thought was a masterpiece and they remind me that it actually smells like “ear wax” or some other left field, though accurate, description. When you are in your own house (or in this case studio), sometimes you can’t smell your stink right? 


Name: Catherine Haley Epstein
Brand: Catherine Haley Epstein | Mindmarrow
Year founded: 2012
URL: www.catherinehaleyepstein.com | www.mindmarrow.com
Instagram: @mindmarrow

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