With the smell of spring hanging in the air, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students met up with Andrew O’Brien, an associate professor in the UTC Department of Art.
They arrived at Sterchi Farm along the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway where honeysuckle was in full bloom. Armed with bright yellow vests and large tote bags, they turned on their walkie-talkies and fanned out to cover the most ground.
They scoured the trails for blossoming Lonicera japonica, a honeysuckle variety, along with other varieties of honeysuckle—a non-native, highly invasive species—and tossed the flowers into their totes.
Why were they spending the morning gathering honeysuckle blossoms? It all started with a grant. O’Brien was awarded $10,000 through the Wheeler Odor Research Grant, funded through the William H. Wheeler Center for Odor Research at UTC.
While O’Brien is no botanist or scent specialist, he leaped at the opportunity to incorporate something new into his art.
“That’s one of the great things about these funding opportunities; they allow you to break new ground with your work, take risks and collaborate,” he said. “It has allowed me to be a little more ambitious and try something that is certainly more experimental.”
O’Brien grew up in rural southern Maryland where, as in Tennessee, honeysuckle runs rampant. He said he was amazed to find that honeysuckle is primarily native to Asia and some parts of Europe.
O’Brien is a photographer who focuses on his “relationship to landscape and thinks about how it’s embedded with deeper cultural issues and questions.”
One of his latest series, “Drift Alignment,” showcases his personal connection and focuses on cultural issues. He describes the series as “a complex and contested history of the U.S.-Mexico border through the practices of astrophotography and celestial navigation alongside traditional photography and video.”
He plans to showcase his body of work, titled “Stringer’s Ridge.” which depicts the park in North Chattanooga of the same name.
The park is practically in O’Brien’s backyard. This showing will have a scented twist.
“We’re going to start doing some test installations with the work and smell together. We’ll diffuse [honeysuckle] into the space and see what that feels like,” said O’Brien.
When people view the photographs of Stringer’s Ridge, they can be enveloped by the scent of springtime in Chattanooga. However, O’Brien is still far off from the scented showing.
Creating a substance that can be diffused into a room is a labor-intensive and long process. He uses a method called enfleurage, where the flowers are laid onto a layer of fat—such as vegetable shortening or coconut oil. The fat is infused with the scent, which is then combined with pure ethanol. The scent is transferred into the alcohol, which can be used to make products like perfume.
The finished product is called an absolute.
Creating a honeysuckle absolute requires hours of manual labor. O’Brien doesn’t have access to a commercial honeysuckle farm; instead, he and his students forage throughout the week.
“We’ve collected around a kilo or so at this point,” said O’Brien. The hundreds of blossoms they’ve collected will be converted into a small but valuable absolute.
“The honeysuckle absolute you can get online is a little syringe that can cost $300, sometimes $500, depending on how it’s processed,” he said.
O’Brien has enlisted a team of student workers. The grant’s funding pays for six students with majors ranging from art to biology to pick flowers and create a honeysuckle absolute. This interdepartmental project allows students to experience more of what the University offers and draw connections to different subjects.
Alec Groome, a Health and Human Performance major, is one such student; O’Brien recruited him in an organic chemistry class.
Throughout his time working on this project, Groome said he has noticed connections between art and science.
“I think molecules are beautiful. They can be shaped like stop signs and have a crazy amount of connections,” said Groome.
Psychology major Anna Mandel is another student worker fascinated with the overlap between chemistry and art.
“Anything in art, any medium you use, pencil, paint, there’s chemistry involved,” she said. “Like fragrance, it’s weird to have the art and chemistry cross over—but when you think about it, they complement each other.”