Sweet Smell of Success: Michelle Krell Kydd's Smell & Tell celebrates 6 years with a field trip
Michelle Krell Kydd is here to say one person's rank stank is another person's memory-jarring concoction that evokes almonds, butterscotch, fresh-cut grass, brown leaves, and lavender soap.
For the past six years, Kydd's hosted Smell & Tell events at the Ann Arbor District Library, teaching attendees how to get in touch with their sense of smell and explore all the wonders -- and horrors -- that come along with being aware of the scents that surround us every day.
In fact, her next Smell & Tell explicitly focuses on this: "Follow Your Nose in the Great Outdoors" has participants walk in the outdoors and whiff smells in the wild at County Farm Park on June 2 and 3.
If you've never been to a Smell & Tell, sign up now -- it's a true treat, guaranteed. Read my recap of her "Brian Eno Smells" event in February to get a sense of Kydd's smarts, humor, and passion. All of those traits come through in our email interview, which also puts her fantastic writing on display. (Read more of her words at glasspetalsmoke.blogspot.com.)
Q: Tell us how you came to be a scent expert and what types of things you have to know to be certified as such?
A: I engaged in coursework at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City when I worked in the beauty business. Givaudan (a flavor and fragrance company) sponsored the courses, and perfumers who worked for the company taught the classes. I learned a lot about the art, science, and history of perfumery, including compounding short formulas. This was followed by immersion in the curriculum at Givaudan’s perfumery school in New York. The responsibility to continue learning was mine after the fact. I take advantage of this opportunity daily.
To be an expert one must have a passion for their subject, access to mentors for guidance, and the kind of curiosity that is not attached to outcomes -- the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I always cringe at the term “expert” because it’s a bit Oz-like and implies that you know everything. I know what I know in this moment, but I don’t know what I’m going to learn next that will change the shape of what I think I know now.
There’s also the matter of natural human gifts that support expertise. I‘ve been interested in the smell of plants since I first put my nose to a flower (a rose and an impatiens at age two). I purchased myself a compact of three solid perfumes when I was 10 years old because it included mimosa -- something I smelled in my Aunt Jean’s garden when I was very young and fell in love with. The flower turned out to be a Persian silk flower, but the scent in the Coty Sweet Earth compact was a doppelgänger for a reference point in memory. Once I learned that smells had the power to bring back memories I fell in love with perfume.
Fast forward a few decades later. I use professional communication and fragrance evaluation skills that allow me to teach people how to use words to describe what they experience when they smell something. It’s difficult to describe smells because the human brain is wired to relate to smells via emotion and memory before the part of the brain that manages language is activated. This is one of the reasons why asking people to describe smells generates doubt and insecurity -- people feel the disconnect, but they don’t know that it’s neurological.
The human adult brain migrates from a pre-verbal state that’s similar to what we experienced as infants, to a functional verbal adult state when something is smelled. We need to get comfortable with the power of emotion and memory evoked by scent and transcend emotional responses so the character of what is being smelled can be assessed without clinging to what attracts us or repels us. Sensory evaluation is about being present. It’s a form of mindfulness. We need to get comfortable with not naming something in order to name it.
Western culture worships sight above all senses. This is why there is little focus on the sense of smell in K-12 or higher education. Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf schools utilize the sense of smell in the classroom, as do institutions that train perfumers and flavorists. Professional training in perfumery teaches you how to cultivate objectivity when you evaluate a fragrance without quashing the subjective nature of scent perception. The process teaches you how to transcend your likes and dislikes so you can experience the unique character of a material used to make perfumes. Imagine being able to apply this kind of skill to human relations!
Q: How did Smell & Tell come about and had you done similar programs before you started with AADL?
A: The seeds for Smell & Tell germinated when I created STEM-based programming for children at 826Michigan. The classes incorporated fragrance evaluation exercises with expository writing and extended the value of multisensory learning across diverse learners. The children and their parents loved it, and that made me think about creating programming for adults. I pitched the idea to librarian Erin Helmrich at AADL and the first Smell & Tell program took place in June 2012. It’s the only programming of its kind in the country and the longest running in the library’s history.
I’ve been keeping a list of all the Smell & Tell programs I’ve given since I arrived in Ann Arbor in 2011. I did a double take when I finished the tally. On July 4 I’ll have delivered 74 Smell & Tell programs -- and more are in the works for the second half of the year. There’s a lot of research involved when it comes to designing Smell & Tell programs. I find this aspect thrilling because I learn so much and there are always serendipitous discoveries that lead to new programming along the way. You can’t choreograph serendipity, but you can create the conditions for it to occur and still be surprised every time it happens.
Smell & Tell at AADL has opened doors to Smell & Tell in Ann Arbor and the surrounding community. I gave a lecture on Chanel No. 5 at the Hamburg Township Library, a TEDxUofM talk at the Power Center for the Performing Arts, and several Smell & Tell programs designed for students in STEM disciplines at the University of Michigan. I’d love to work with students in public and private Ann Arbor schools, as well as people who reside in assisted living. The latter is particularly important to me as smell loss is one of the first signs of neurodegenerative brain disease. I am keen on working with populations that can benefit from olfactory exercises as access to early memories that have not been erased by diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia can be evoked using scent.
Q: After six years of Smell & Tells, which programs are your favorites?
A: Smell & Tell is driven by story and I love to create opportunities for unexpected “ah-ha” moments that enhance learning. My favorite program so far is "The Plague Doctor’s Cabinet of Olfactory Curiosities" (December 2018). It combined history, art, science, music, religion, and the anthropology of smells. When you leverage the art plus science connection with multiple disciplines seemingly disparate elements connect in meaningful ways. This makes room for unique perspectives that wouldn’t otherwise come to light.
Rats were vectors for disease when the Bubonic plague ravaged Europe. Medical science had not established itself at this time in history, so people believed that disease was caused by miasma -- bad smells, smog, etc. They also thought that good smells conquered bad smells, which was an extension of religious teachings that emphasized the horrors of hell. Plague sufferers were thought to be sinners who were being punished with the plague. There’s a sense of disgust when you hear the word “rat” because the animal’s link to disease and it’s scavenging ways of acquiring food and hoarding shiny objects. Rats are highly intelligent creatures and I wanted to shake things up to make a point.
I started by distributing dark chocolate lollipops molded in the shape of a rat. Humans will forget disgust when tempted with chocolate -- most humans, that is. I wanted attendees to eat their bias and they did, but it came on slowly. The lollipops were followed by a rat-themed perfume called Simulacra of Rat. An animal-themed perfume wasn’t a strange concept for regular attendees of Smell & Tell. The full line of Zoologist Perfumes was featured at a January 2016 Smell & Tell focused on niche perfumery; the names of the Zoologist scents included Bat, Hummingbird, and Rhinoceros, etc.
Familiarity related to this connection created an entry point for some of the attendees, but more was needed to generate anticipation and trust in the audience. This is when humor can come in quite handy. Anyone who comes to Smell & Tell knows that laughter is guaranteed and that is by design. You need to move the energy in a room when you’re giving a presentation, especially when smell is involved. Participants were treated to a video for “I Think I Smell a Rat” by the White Stripes and we got on with the smelling of Simulacra of Rat perfume.
Most of the attendees were surprised to find Simulacra of Rat quite pleasant. The olfactory idea was inspired by the memory of a rat I knew who had a sweet disposition. He lived in a cage carpeted with shredded paper and the warm smell of his fur was divine. I handled rats in science class and at a friend’s house and enjoyed getting to know these creatures. I used an interesting material in Simulacra of Rat to affect the smell of fur that is derived from Costus Root, in addition to other materials.
I was asked if Simulacra of Rat perfume was available for purchase (it wasn’t), but I let one or two attendees put some on and share the smell of it on their skin with the audience. I received an interesting gift from one of the Smell & Tell attendees a month later -- two stainless steel cheese cutters in the shape of rats and a lovely note of appreciation regarding Smell & Tell. I plan on using the rat cheese cutters when AADL hosts "The Plague Doctor’s Cabinet of Olfactory Curiosities" in October. The program is being repeated at the insistence of regulars who were on holiday when the program was featured three days before Christmas Eve in December 2017.
Some of my favorites Smell & Tell programs include, but are not limited to: "Haute Skank: An Olfactory Menagerie of Animalics in Perfumery" (October 2017), "The Aromatic Allure of Patchouli" (June 2016), "Musk: The Essence of Seduction" (June 2017), "Norell: The First American Designer Perfume" (October 2015), and "Aroma Spies" at 826Michigan (Oct 2012). I have a soft spot for the Norell event as everything that led to the development of this program seemed preordained -- I found a vintage bottle of Norell perfume at the Salvation Army when I wasn’t looking for it -- and the research was quite rigorous as Norman Norell was a very private person.
Q: How do you come up with your themes and which programs are coming next?
A: I pay close attention to what resonates with Smell & Tell attendees at each event and ask for feedback regularly. People aren’t shy when it comes to asking for something they’re curious about and that is the beauty of serving a broad audience in a university community.
I’m a voracious reader of books and science papers and this informs programming. I particularly enjoy papers written by Dr. Robert Raguso who studies insect-plant interactions, especially pollinators, at Cornell University, where he runs a research lab. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate his papers. They’re well-written, insightful, and memorable. Dr. Raguso wrote a paper [opens as PDF] on plant volatiles titled “Wake Up and Smell the Roses: The Ecology and Evolution of Floral Scent.” I like it so much and re-read it from time to time. It was referenced at the "Fleurs Hypnotique, Fleurs Exotique" program in November 2017.
Serendipity plays a role in the creative process and it’s because of this that ideas have a way of finding me. This happened when I began research for "Brian Eno Smells." The program debuted in February 2018 -- two years after I began gathering material on the subject. I knew Eno was a fan of perfumery and olfaction, but while I was doing research on Eno I went down a rabbit hole and located material on Andy Warhol and his relationship with the sense of smell in art and life.
You have to allow ideas to incubate and see what happens over time. I’m currently developing a program called "Andy Warhol Smells" and it’s taking up residence in “the thinkery.” The thinkery is a subconscious space that supports programming ideas. Mischief also lives in the thinkery because it’s a playful space where ideas can flourish, mingle, and take on a life of their own. You can’t take yourself or your ideas too seriously or you’ll end up building a prison of absolutes in your head and turn into a dictator. The more I describe the thinkery the more I get an urge to house it physically in a fluid museum exhibition, but that’s an idea for another time and place.
Q: How did your program "The Plague Doctor’s Cabinet of Olfactory Curiosities" end up inspiring the County Farm Park trip?
A: Shawn Severance, a naturalist at County Farm Park, attended "The Plague Doctor’s Cabinet of Olfactory Curiosities" and enjoyed the combination of history and science in the presentation. She wondered if I’d be interested in collaborating on an event at the park and her request coincided with a conversation I had with Erin Helmrich, the librarian who oversees Smell & Tell programming. Erin and I lunch a few days before the plague Smell & Tell and were contemplating ways of connecting with institutions in the Ann Arbor community. Et voila. Serendipity strikes again.
It took 10 minutes and a handful of emails to bring "Follow Your Nose in the Great Outdoors" to life. The idea of experiencing plants in their natural setting makes perfect sense. Shawn’s expertise in botany and landscape architecture is mind-blowing -- she’s a plant whisperer. As co-facilitators, we’ll use mindfulness in place of traditional presentation tools like PowerPoint. The landscape will inform internal experiences connected to smell, hearing, sight, touch, and taste. We’ll also have a few surprises in store on June 2 and 3 that will change the way people relate to their sense of smell and nature.
Q: What are some of the scents participants can expect to find at County Farm Park? Will folks literally lean into the plants, flowers, roots, and trees to take a deep whiff, or will you have samples on hand?
A: It will be a bit of everything and more. County Farm Park is teeming with plant life. We’ll know what we’ll experience when we get there. How we experience things will depend on in-season plants and amounts growing in the landscape. If it’s fragrant, edible and plentiful attendees will be able to smell it and eat it. Shawn is brewing up some interesting things to taste and I’m bringing a few plant materials used in perfumery related to what we’ll encounter during each day’s scent hike. Supporting handouts will help attendees retain what they learn at "Follow Your Nose in the Great Outdoors." This will allow people to immerse themselves in the experience of being outdoors and using their sense of smell.
This is a record of plants I observed during a walk-through at County Farm Park recently:
Miss Kim lilacs perfume the air next to the playground. A few feet away fresh spruce tips have emerged from their papery brown casings. They are soft and frond-like. The irises in the park’s Perennial Gardens are blooming. If you bend over to smell them you will wonder why you never stuck your nose in an iris -- irises have a variety of smells that resonate with their color and type. The ones in the park smell of pound cake while others smell of grape candy, musk, powder, and violet.
A few feet away one finds edible autumn olive blossoms. They infuse the air with a creamy floral scent that acts on the mind like the body-warmed scent trail of a delicate French perfume. They taste like honeysuckle nectar, only richer. In the community garden, late spring violets nestle beneath blades of grass adjacent to a patch of mint and other fragrant plants (the violets are bearded like the purple irises in the Perennial Gardens). They taste like they smell and are divine.
Nascent poppies and peonies grow side by side. A single poppy bends with the weight of its flower head, a flouncy vermillion skirt in search of a fairy. Nearby, closed peony buds exude a sugary secretion that is the delectation of ants, a sign that the flowers are getting ready to bloom. Serrated leaves of robust catnip grow closer to the ground. They tickle the nose with a terpenic aroma that resembles the smell of cannabis when crushed between the fingers, a sensation that is sure to draw knowing smiles from people who are familiar with the distinct skunky aroma that lingers outside street-level dispensaries in the city.
Q: You'll also be teaching participants about “scent mapping.” What is that and how is it accomplished?
A: I created a framework for sensory evaluation inspired by mind-mapping techniques. This makes the process of describing scents more attainable. Participants are encouraged to use feelings and memories to describe a smell. Once they work through their subjective experiences as a group I teach them how to transform these experiences into evaluative descriptions. They often end up doing this for each other over time, especially as they get more comfortable with revealing what they feel, remember and relate to.
Participants learn that there are no wrong answers when it comes to describing a smell because everyone experiences smells in their own way. The most powerful thing I remember from my own training is how the collective experience of shared stories brings people closer together. These experiences, as counterintuitive as it sounds, are also self-authenticating. This was a key learning in my perfumery training and one I wish to share more widely as sensory evaluation techniques taught to perfumers improve interhuman relations.
Most people’s experience of learning in traditional classroom settings includes wrestling with right and wrong answers. At Smell & Tell you’re an expert because no one else has lived your life and can describe what you’ve experienced, so when it comes to describing smells there are no wrong answers. Imagine what a roomful of people who have been liberated from self-criticism and judgment experience in this kind of setting. This is one of many reasons Smell & Tell series at AADL is so popular. You’re allowed to be who you are and come out a better version of yourself through your own insights. I love being a catalyst for this!
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
➥ "Follow Your Nose in the Great Outdoors" is at County Farm Park on June 2 and 3, 2-4 pm each day. You must register for this event by emailing your name, phone, and your chosen date to firstname.lastname@example.org.
➥ "Tincturing Memory" on Thursday, July 12, 6:30-8:45 pm, fourth-floor meeting room, downtown branch.
➥ "Nostalgia: The Smell of Books and Aromatic Passages" in Literature on Wednesday, July 18, 6:30-8:45 pm, fourth-floor meeting room, downtown branch.
➥ Programs for August 15, September 19, October 17, November 21, and December 19 are in the works. Check the AADL calendar of events for more info.