January 14, 2015 Repository 167: Fragrance Wunderkammer | Learning from Master Mandy Aftel Posted In: art practice, education, olfactory art

Detail of Mandy Aftel's studio, part of her historical collection of natural fragrance.

Detail of Mandy Aftel’s studio, part of her historical collection of natural fragrance.

People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. – Albert Einstein

As stated in my last post on learning my olfactory alphabet, I’ve been on a quest to learn the art of perfumery so I can design a fragrance on forgetting. Forgetting is indeed an illusion, and most definitely wearing a fragrance that makes you forget is an illusion. Impossible one might say. Though I’m persisting with this journey, and I love the smell of it.

Step three in my journey of scent was at the beautiful studio of Mandy Aftel this past week in Berkeley, California. Her studio is in her home, and there were five other students with me. The experience was nothing less than mind blowing.

To my delight, Mandy reminded me a great deal of my South African art professors, my mentors whom I’ve studied with for years. She has enthusiastically embraced the philosophy of wabi-sabi, where her home and studio equally reflect the idea of history and beauty being married to patinaed form and well-worn character versus machine-made precision and perfection. If you’ve ever experienced homes decorated in this way they have a tremendous spiritual vibe – it’s a perfect learning environment.

The days were dizzy – mixing scents as if the house were burning down, then receiving feedback and suggestions on fine tuning the mixes. Exactly as I learned to paint for the first time in 1993, when my art professors lectured with slides then threw us into the studio with a model and materials. The directions were to do a portrait. A portrait! On the first day of painting!?! I really take to these sink or swim scenarios – the sense of urgency is so high that your doubts and fears of making mistakes jump out the window.

Similarly Mandy has her students make their first mixes by adding notes to an existing accord. In 45 minutes you must take three top, middle and base notes and add two more to each level making a grand total of nine scents. The mixes obviously progressed over the few days – nothing was right though. I couldn’t help dropping in something awkward like beaver balls, tobacco or seaweed-like scents to see what on earth the rest of the scents in the mix would say to it. A perfume reviewer would likely call it a “headache of whale puke”.

For the next several months I will be fussing with the different ideas I started, turning a fireplace smell with ashes into a more alive but dark fragrance. And turning a sheer sweet floral fragrance into something a little more deserving of the exotic flower that sits at its center. I can’t wait.

A side note too, for the curious – we really as a culture are fragrance illiterate. Most of us enjoy the vanilla and Issay Miyake’s of the planet just fine. This is the Dick and Jane of reading. Natural perfumes are the Dostoyevsky of reading. I think there is a nice swing in the market for natural and indie perfumers – keep your eye and nose out! And please don’t be afraid to explore them, we’ve been starved from real fragrance for ages so it will be a learning experience. And there is a TON of really bad fragrance out there (even the indie ones – be wary of the marketing sass – except for the fragrances claiming you will forget a certain year or two developed by Mindmarrow;-)

I am so grateful for teachers such as Mandy – I can’t stress how rare they are in the world today. These are masters opening their door to neophytes, possibly charlatans and most definitely spazs (me), and they do it generously with respect and love. I now have a brand new medium to explore with my art, and it has cracked open my world by many degrees. Thank you Mandy!


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