The Art of the Smell: Faculty exhibition celebrates southern N.J. scents

The Art of the Smell: Faculty exhibition celebrates southern N.J. scents

Sweigart, left, and Kitson

The humble trillium – a genus of plants that includes dozens of species – may not be a household name, but the smells it engenders certainly are: cheese, wine, candy, overripe fruit, even wet dog.

This month, two Rowan University professors paid tribute to the trillium and other odiferous organisms with a show at Rowan College of South Jersey's ARTS & INNOVATION CENTER in Millville.

Dubbed “Fragrant Spring,” the show celebrates the scents of southern New Jersey, including those of the endangered trillium, and explores what native scents mean to animals, plants, people and pollinators.

Donna Sweigart, chair of the Department of Art in the Ric Edelman College of Communication & Creative Arts, and Dr. Jennifer Kitson, an associate professor with a dual appointment to the Department of Art and the Department of Geography, Planning & Sustainability in the School of Earth & Environment, have long had a passion for plants, and previously collaborated in scent specific projects at the Philadelphia Flower Show and on Rowan’s Glassboro campus.

“The engagements in Philly were very student involved. This is a professional research exhibition,” Sweigart said.

Working with a Cornell University plant biologist, Sweigart and Kitson used a chemical analysis of a trillium’s scent to develop smellable components for their exhibition and they made rock candy and cotton candy scented and flavored with other native species.

Exhibition literature notes that the charismatic trillium, a favored food for deer, “support biodiversity, yet they are vanishing due to human development and invasive species competition and predation.”

The exhibition also includes live trillium as well as 21st Century reproductions of them.

“We have 3D-modelled, 3D-printed trillium embodied with the scent,” Sweigart said. “We also have a real trillium on display that people can smell.”

Sweigart and Kitson previously worked with the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia to create a “smell fan,” a boardwalk-style wheel-of-chance exhibit for the Flower Show. Visitors spun the fan, and where it stopped determined which part of the complex trillium bouquet they’d sniff from a perfumed paper strip.

Further melding science with art, Sweigart and Kitson produced a wide range of pieces for the Millville exhibition, including a display showing how trilliums in the wild germinate after ants eat a protein coating, then disperse the plants’ tiny seeds.

They illustrated the powerful scents of other wild plants with rock candy made from mountain mint, eastern red cedar (a juniper), spicebush and hyssop, all of which are native to southern N.J.

“We gave out samples of the cotton candy,” Sweigart said. “Dr. Kitson used natural sugar, spun it in a cotton candy maker, and sprinkled it with crushed spicebush seed.”

Sweigart said the exhibition was designed to be fun and interesting but also educational, steeped in research that’s expressed in visual and sensual formats.

“When you present people with multi facets of one idea, they’re able to accept the information on different levels,” she said. “With this exhibition, you can see the artwork, taste the cotton candy, and use the custom-made stamp to make bookmarks. The gallery is filled with backyard bird sounds, and that places you in the environment.”

Running through May 28, Fragrant Spring is a free exhibit at the ARTS & INNOVATION CENTER, 321 High Street in Millville. For information on hours, call 856-765-0988.