Nose Dive by Catherine Haley Epstein * Book Review

Nose Dive: A book for the curious seeking creative potential through their noses (2019) by Catherine Haley Epstein is an adventure for your nose in art, anthropology, and science. You will be amazed at how much you didn’t know about this oft-neglected sense. Epstein is an artist, award-winning writer, designer and curator. She wrote a great review of Milan’s Esxence for us earlier this year, and I was delighted to receive her book available for purchase HERE!

As Epstein explains on her website MINDMARROW, “something is in the air with respect to our most powerful and least regarded sense.” Her book “demystifies the world of scent, provides springboards for further study, and presents exercises for shifting gears with your nose.”

As you will quickly realize, Nose Dive is informative yes, but also a lot of fun. Full of irreverence and humor, this is not just a book about perfume or the rarified, secretive  world of the fragrance industry. And, although Epstein considers the science of how scent affects our emotions, as is so often repeated (a la Proust’s madeleine), She is more interested in the cultural contexts of scent, and how we, as lay-people and artists, can train our noses. “Just as you can train your mouth to enjoy blue cheese or fresh peaches,” she asserts, “you can train your nose to assess and enjoy thousands of smells, new and old.”

Epstein also tells the story of her “accidental journey into scent making.” Since 2007, her work has been inspired by the myth of Psyche and Eros. “Having this story as a framework for my art helps me organize questions, and allows for unbridled explorations of mediums and narratives. Psyche’s four tasks are symbolic of our universal life journeys: sorting the seeds, filling the flask, finding the golden fleece, and learning to say no.”

During her artistic investigation of Psyche’s filling-the-flask task, Epstein made her first scent experiment. She bought some essential oils from her local health market and mixed them up in some high-proof alcohol. Then she put them in baby-food jars in her closet and waited. “I eagerly smelled them at the six-week point and, much to my chagrin, almost passed out in disgust. I laughed hysterically and then threw them all away.”

Discussing her failure with friends, someone suggested she look up Mandy Aftel, the queen of natural perfumery. Epstein was able to get into one of her small workshops and was given the tools and know-how to fulfill her own scent task. I am fortunate enough to have smelled one of these scent explorations—finding the golden fleece . It smelled of soft wool and fresh hay and sweet yellow-gold light.

I should say, however, that Nose Dive is not just about pretty smells, but also about challenging and ugly ones. I particularly enjoyed learning about the artists who use scent or elicit scent-concepts in their work, for example Piero Manzoni’s “Merda d’Artista” (“Artist’s Shit,” 1961), which he priced  with the price of gold ($37 at the time). No one knows if there is really excrement inside, but as Epstein writes, “the gesture is magical and super-scented by our imagination.”

As Epstein explains, “the four broad frameworks you can use to harness scent are Conceptual, Material, Actual Juice, and Observation.” Nose Dive explains how all kinds of creators can expand their aesthetics, intellects and artistic vocabulary by exploring scent: “The outcome of scent-based projects and exercises is never the point. It is always the process that is most important. By shifting your consciousness as you think in smells within these frameworks, you will return to your usual practice—whether that’s creating sculpture, films, or business presentations—with a renewed, more elastic insight into all aspects of your task at hand. You will come to challenges with more comfort in ambiguity, and you will make decisions in a more nuanced way.”

At the end of each interesting chapter Epstein offers an inspiring and challenging scent exercise. From asking us to imagine what we might include in a scent capsule of Earth for aliens to asking a friend to describe your scent signature, I’ll bet you smell better by the end of Nose Dive! And if you want to learn more, Epstein provides a bibliography and list of resources to keep the olfactory party going.