What Does Blowing Glass Smell Like? Diffusion Stations As Art in New Exhibition

The multi-sensory, rainbow-infused exhibit at Heller Gallery is Katharine Gray’s first solo show in the Chelsea space.

Rainbow glass. (Photo: Fredrik Nilsen)
Rainbow glass. (Photo: Fredrik Nilsen)

The art of glass blowing is alive and well in a most curious, colorful and scented sort of way—and in New York. This Makes Me Think of That is a multi-sensory, rainbow-infused exhibit at Heller Gallery, Katharine Gray’s first solo show in the Chelsea space.

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The artist said she designed the exhibition “to create some kind of simulated experience for those who will never enter a ‘hot shop’ or step foot on a glassblowing pad.”

First, there’s perfume. The Los Angeles based glass artist, in a stroke of pure poetic genius, has collaborated with Opus Oils perfumer Kedra Hart to create four scents that capture the fragrances wafting about a glass studio. Visitors are invited to place their faces over four tall elegant funnel-like flacons, which are essentially diffusing stations, and take a whiff.

“As soon as you walk in the hot shop {glass studio}, you get a blast of heat scented with beeswax,” said perfumer Ms. Hart who hung out in a hot box for a few hours for inspiration.  She made “Wax,” the most conventionally pleasant scent, with honeyed, smoky materials including beeswax absolute and the very pricey choya nakh, distilled from crushed dry roasted seashells which gave a smoldering sensation.

“Paper,” another scent, mimics the odor of the damp newspaper that’s used wet and folded as a shaping tool. “You can’t ever touch the hot glass with your hands directly, it’s too hot,” she said.

Scent flacons at the exhibit. (Photo: Heller Gallery)
Scent flacons at the exhibit. (Photo: Heller Gallery)

“I loved that you could faintly smell the ink,” said Ms. Hart who based the wet newspaper scent around oak moss, with a little bit of oud, which she said has the beautiful decay of dampness. A new form of kava kava added the kick of the ink.

A third perfume, “Block” replicates the charred cherry wood shaping tool the glass artist dips in water to put a cooling “skin” on glass while working. Seaweed absolute is one of the surprising ingredients, along with vetivert, patchouli and carrot seed.

Finally, there is the musty, funky scent of the warm glove used to protect the glass blower from the intense heat when they are actually heating the glass in the furnace or glory hole. It is called “Sleeve,” named after the protective Kevlar sleeve worn by glassblowers, and as expected, had a peculiar olfactory charm lost on most visitors who sniffed it at the gallery.

“It was basically a sweaty glove,” said Ms. Hart, who said she went through all the sweat molecules in her database seeking ingredients. “I have smelled fresh sweat that smells good but this glove had been used for a long time. It was the most challenging of all.”

Was Ms. Gray at all concerned with putting people off? “No, not really,” she mused. “I found that when I would visit Kedra to smell what she was working on, even with the most off-putting smells, I would want to keep smelling. There was something still vaguely attractive in each one.”

For A Rainbow Like You, the title of the visual stunner of the show, Ms. Gray used bright theatrical spotlights to heighten and project the colorful effects of the glasses she made, elevating the prosaic to the celestial.  Ms. Gray said she was inspired by stained-glass windows but she was going for a more utilitarian sort of rapture.

Ms. Gray had never seen any famed Murano glass from Venice when she blew her “first glass blob” in art school in Toronto when she was 19, but watching that glass magically transform through heat and breath was all it took for her to be hooked on glassblowing— heat, sweat and all.

In the show she also shares the auditory experience—put your ear up to a hand-blown drinking glass and hear a recording of glass blowing. But despite the table of glorious, colorful hand-blown glassware dazzling in the reflective light it’s the quirky perfumes that secretly steal the show.

If you’re bored with your Chanel No 5, Flower Bomb or L’Eau d’Issey, you can always take the olfactory experience of the hot box home with you, and though it’s a lot pricier than anything you’ll find at Sephora, it’s much more unique. Price, by the way, was no object in creating these perfumes.

The gallery is selling limited-edition sets of the artistic scents—tiny vials in a gold leaf box —for $900 but Ms. Gray said they are more to “consult,” to remember the hot shop experience than to wear. Ms. Hart, however, does create seductive, heady, whimsical scents with enchanting names such as Pan, Absinthia and Babylon Noir. The show runs through July 31st.

Heller Gallery 

Katherine Gray

Opus Oils


What Does Blowing Glass Smell Like? Diffusion Stations As Art in New Exhibition