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Art professor helps people see smell

"Coffee" from Mia Mulvey's Olfaction series. Photo: Mia Mulvey

In Mia Mulvey’s world, odors aren’t just things you can smell. You can see them, too.

Mulvey, an assistant art professor at DU, has an exhibit of ceramic sculptures of molecules on display at Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery through June 28. Inspired by research on smell, Mulvey crafted her sculptures to resemble the molecules that combine to create a specific odor. In the series, orbs of different hues are connected in various symmetrical patterns.

“Many scents are a combination of several molecules happening at the same time, and then your own experiences based on those scents can enhance them, make them pleasurable scents or terrible scents,” she says.

Mulvey also was inspired by Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, which talks about four ways plants entice humans to help them flourish: beauty, intoxication, control and sweetness. She gave each quality her own artistic spin.

“For example, [in the sculpture depicting] hemp, it wasn’t so much the smell of hemp or marijuana, but I chose the molecule that hashish dogs use to sniff out drugs,” says Mulvey, 39. “That was something that fit under control. It is a scent that dogs use, but maybe it’s not a normal scent of marijuana that we would recognize.”

"Chocolate" from Mia Mulvey's Olfaction series. Photo: Mia Mulvey

Mulvey, who has worked at DU for seven years, often draws from the natural world when creating her sculptures. For an upcoming series that will be on display at Denver’s Vertigo Art Space in September, she has been working with 3-D scans of animal skulls.

She stresses, though, that her work is not meant to teach viewers more about science.

“It invites questions, definitely, but I’m not so concerned with somebody looking at my work and understanding molecules or chemistry,” she says. “I’m more interested in that feeling of ‘Wow, what is this?’ and trying to find out a little more about it. I am not a scientist, so I too am limited.”

Tara Robinson, Pewabic’s curator of contemporary ceramics, built a show around Mulvey’s “Olfaction” series titled “All Together Now.” It includes work by five other artists who construct work in series or themes. She says Mulvey’s molecules stand on their own as art — even if you don’t know what they’re supposed to be.

“It isn’t really meant to teach you about the science of smell; it really is an aesthetic exploration of the idea that scents have different formal shapes,” Robinson says. “Instead of just making shapes in the abstract, the shapes represent something in the actual world but they’re on a sort of micro basis.

“There are a lot of ceramics that depict the natural world — everything from broad landscapes to flowers and fruit, that sort of thing — but this is a large exploration of something that you can’t see with your naked eye. That makes it a little bit different.”

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