‘Headspace’ Distills a Poetic Environment of Scent

By Keith Burrows

Keith Burrows

“I don’t have many ‘yucks,’” Melissa Langholff tells me. “There just aren’t a lot of smells or tastes that really bother me.”

I had asked her what her least favorite smell was. After a few moments of thought she admitted that she is not a fan of the smell of the shredded tire mulch used in playgrounds: “It just makes me nauseous.”

Smells have always been important to Langholff. Most of her career has been spent as a chocolatier, where aroma is one the crucial elements, but Langholff’s obsession with smells goes back much further than that: “As a kid I would take a jar or little bottle and put mostly flowers, but also grasses, sticks, rocks — anything I thought smelled good — into water and let it sit for a while before straining it out and applying it to my pulse points (I was very serious about application methods).”

Chocolatier and aroma artist Melissa Langholff presents “Headspace: A Scent Exhibition.” In this melding of olfaction, objects and memory, six thoughtfully composed scents will explore themes of taste, language, loss and joy. Visitors will also have the opportunity to participate in the creation of a communal fragrance. Exhibit opens 5-9 p.m. June 4 at 160 High St. in Mineral Point.

Recently, Langholff has taken up this interest in experimenting with perfumes again, finding it freeing to focus on scents without having to worry about taste, texture and appearance like she does with chocolate. “I like the clarity of working only with scents,” she explains. “They are something that plays a role in so many of our experiences, but they are not often the focus.”

In June, Langholff will be sharing some of her new perfumes at “Headspace: A Scent Exhibition” in Mineral Point. Her show will include six different installations that combine one of her perfumes with an object and text. The exhibit, at 160 High St., will be open 5-9 p.m. June 4 as well as other dates not yet determined at the time of publication. 

The name Headspace comes from a technology used to study the aromas of living flowers or plants, or even entire environments, that takes a snapshot of the odor compounds present in the air. 

One of the aromas she has named Church Street. It was crafted to remind her of the smell of her daughter as a newborn. The scent includes rose, lemongrass and oakmoss and is paired with one of her daughter’s toys and the following text:

Moving through the world buoyed along by
the urgency of the corporeal world in young
motherhood. A tiny scalp sun warmed and
spicy. Your neighbor’s garden gently
trespassing across piles of toys and half
folded laundry. Every repetition an act of faith.
Endless ablutions in the kitchen sink.
Unrestrained love, the most intense fear
of your life, bubbles of laughter.

Other installations are inspired by different people in her life, or by specific memories, like sitting in a Santa Fe hotel in the early morning listening to the sounds of travelers around her. She says that she sometimes works to replicate a particular smell she has come across, but more and more often she starts with an outcome in mind, and then she has to hunt down the ingredients that can be combined to give the effect she is looking for. After locating a botanical ingredient, the next step is to distill the essential oil from it.

In addition to the six scents Langholff has developed for the exhibit, there will also be the opportunity to participate in a community perfume design project, where guests can smell a fragrance in progress and add a drop of an oil of their choosing.

She explained to me that the name of the show, Headspace, comes from a technology used to study the aromas of living flowers or plants, or even entire environments. Developed in the 1980s, Headspace can be thought of as a “fragrance camera” that takes a snapshot of the odor compounds present in the air around a particular plant or in a particular environment. After capturing the molecules, they are analyzed using techniques like gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance to identify the exact molecules present and their relative concentrations. This way, plants can be analyzed in the wild (in situ) rather than the laboratory, and while still living (in vivo) rather than after being collected.

Langholff mentions that one of the difficulties in designing a scent-based exhibit is that people’s sensitivities to smells vary significantly, and the sense of smell gets worn out faster than other senses, an effect called olfactory fatigue or nose blindness. “Even when I’m working on the scents, I can only really work for an hour or two before I’m exhausted, but that is actually something I really like about the process,” Langholff says.

When asked what her next plans were, Langholff said that she’s still exploring and open to many possibilities. For now, she is planning out a scent garden so she can grow more of her ingredients herself.

Keith Burrows is a scientist with Cardinal Glass and lives in Mineral Point. He and Leslie Damaso publish the popular Driftless Appetite blog at www.driftlessappetite.com.