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Courtesy of The Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Participants at last Saturday's workshop at Firecracker Press with Saskia Wilson-Brown (The Institute for Art and Olfaction) as part of The Pulitzer's "24 Hours, 15 Scents" project
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Courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Bottles of scent molecules.
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Courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Smelling the results.
Last week, Saskia Wilson-Brown of the L.A.-based Institute for Art and Olfaction arrived in St. Louis with a suitcase full of what she describes as "molecules." On Saturday she led a workshop at the Old North location of Firecracker Press with a group of St. Louisans, helping them to create scents based on their lived experiences.
The word "molecules" makes it sound like a complicated science experiment. "But it’s quite a simple process once you get into it," Wilson-Brown told us in a phone interview prior to her trip here. "It’s like cooking. Molecules come as crystals, or oil, or a more viscous format, or powder…and what I then do is take these aromatic materials and I dilute them in alcohol. So by the time the people will be working with them in St. Louis, they’ll be working with little bottles, basically."
Tomorrow, you can experience those smells—and hear the stories that inspired them—at "24 Hours, 15 Scents," the culmination of a nearly yearlong collaboration between Wilson-Brown, The Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Firecracker Press, and local poet and journalist Eileen G'Sell. (Who, in full disclosure, writes for us from time to time.)
Last year, when the The Pulitzer first started brainstorming with Wilson-Brown about a project, she noticed that St. Louis had a huge number of wards compared to its size and population. "We started talking about all of the divisions, both literal divisions between wards, but also all of the invisible divisions in the city," says Philip Matthews, Assistant Curator of Public Projects. "Then we started talking about scent as something that could bring people together; scent is something that doesn’t really have a boundary. It carries over from space to space. We arrived at this idea of interviewing people from various neighborhoods and various wards across the city, asking them about their scent relationships to the city. Could your create a scent map of St. Louis that would cross all of those boundaries?"
After identifying interview subjects that would represent the broadest possible range of geography and demographics (the youngest interviewee is 9; the oldest, 91), G'Sell conducted hour-long interviews, asking people to tell their stories through scent, then boiled those stories down into short, poetic essays. Some smells, Matthews says, were pleasant, such as trees and flowers. Some were not. The late activist Hedy Epstein, the project's oldest participant, described the smell of death that hung over Europe after the Holocaust. Many were unusual. Two interviewees, a man in his 20s who grew up in North City, and a woman in her mid-40s who now lives in Compton Heights, both named their children's sweat as one of the smells most precious to them. "The essays are about tracing the intersections, sometimes surprising intersections, between people’s experiences," Matthews says. "Which ultimately what the project was all about, showing our commonalities despite the perceived divisions and differences that I think we live with every day in the city."
Though the molecule-wrangling workshop was simpler than it sounds, the trial-and-error process of producing the letterpress broadsides of the essays—which each carry a scent mentioned in the story—was not. It required lots of back-and-forth between Wilson-Brown and Eric Woods of Firecracker.
"Saskia sent us several vials of several scents," Woods says. "Some were really strong, like grass. Others were more subtle—dirt was one of them. There was one that was really citrusy. Our challenge was to add those to some sort of carrier, an ink-like substance that would carry the smell and apply it to the paper. A lot of the inks that we use have their own distinct scents. We didn't want the ink to taint the scent that Saskia was sending. So we went through quite a few different materials," finally settling on a transparent ink.
The choice of paper had to be carefully considered as well. Woods finally arrived at a very lyrical solution—a 100 percent cotton paper that was made from re-purposed rags by a St. Louis clothing recycling company, Remains. "It's the only paper of its kind in the world," Wood says. "It's luxurious paper that's very soft, holds the ink well, has an interesting finish." More importantly: "It also represents this very interesting story about St. Louis." Adding to that layer of meaning, Woods searched for typefaces that originated in, or had ties to the city.
Tomorrow, G'Sell will read excerpts from the essays, and The Pulitzer will lay out 50 copies of each printed story so audiences can read and smell them. People are also invited to take from one to three of the broadsides home with them, whichever ones seem most meaningful to them. Though the stories will be posted to the museum's website as a free PDF after the event, the essays will not be reprinted, or assembled into a physical book.
"It is a powerful experience to read these 15 stories together—you really get a sense of the city at a moment in time, a history of the city through the lens of its citizens," Matthews says. "But with the physical object, I think it's very important that it's temporary. The project welcomes how ephemeral scent is."
"24 Hours, 15 Scents" happens on June 25 at 3 p.m. at The Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington. For more information, visit pulitzerarts.org.