The Cambrian

Uncommon scents add fine sensation to artwork

“Old Edna, Blue Belly Barn” by Laurel Sherrie.
“Old Edna, Blue Belly Barn” by Laurel Sherrie.

I am an artist and I’ve been working …

I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot live without the sense of smell. I never really thought much about my own particular sense of smell except when my dog has “stomach issues,” or I sniff test a shirt to see if it’s safe to wear in polite company. In fact, I now believe that if I could not smell the sea air, my mind would go blank and I would lack for images to paint, and then I would starve to death.

When Harmony Café chef Giovanni Grillenzoni decided to launch “Dinner & A Movie” at his restaurant in coordination with the Pewter Plough Playhouse, it assaulted my senses like a full-court press. Giovanni’s restaurant is directly across the street from my studio, which makes me hungry pretty much all the time. When I walk past in the morning, even my dog wants to stop and eat the smells coming from his kitchen. Mercifully, he does not pipe the aromas street side.

When I learned that Giovanni was going to create a menu to accompany the award-winning “Cinema Paradiso,” I knew it was futile to resist because the combination started flooding me with visual images and imagined olfactory and gustatory sensations. Naturally, I went to the dinner and saw the movie (both perfection), however, the residual effects are the strongest.

In his classic novel, “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck wrote, “Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then — the glory — so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.”

Within that poetic observation lies my simple epiphany. We are a product of our combined senses and their creative expressions. Our senses are designed to interact.

The relationship between art and cinema, for example, is one of reciprocity with acts of exchange and inspiration. Unbidden images flood our conscious mind as we gather impressions nearly every second of the day. This is why we react as we do to certain smells, tastes and, yes, art. The fact that we are not a population of overstimulated maniacs is practically a miracle considering the inundation. Somehow we instantly and simultaneously process and filter hundreds of impressions and, voila! out pours our preference, or in the case of masterful creators: art.

After seeing the Sicilian countryside brilliantly depicted in the film and sating my appetite, I set my mind to explore the vagaries, beauty and idiosyncrasies of our own environment with its unique smells and vanishing habitats as captured in art. Consider the iconic California ranch as depicted in Laurel Sherrie’s “Old Edna, Blue Belly Barn,” the image used for the exhibition at Art Center Morro Bay. The theme is “Homage to the Ranches.” This piece is simple, honest and unpretentious, yet engaging with an evocative narrative. It’s almost a relief to the senses that are often overwhelmed with scenic imagery.

There have been many painters who have successfully captured the modern California rural landscape, especially during the early 20th century. Artist Guy Rose (born 1867, L.A.) grew up in the state and with an impressionist style influenced by Monet. William Wendt, who moved to Laguna and later founded the California Art Club, captured the magical quality of both the rugged landscape and coastline. These men and many others inhaled our indigenous smells and expelled the breath of expression we recognize as a valuable commemoration to our environment, creating a permanent record to stimulate the senses of future generations.

Consciously or not, we are the product of our senses. Those who translate the sensory exploration into art should be celebrated. And, yes, that definitely includes a sense of smell. How else can we avoid becoming immune to the subtle majesty of our environment and the image-inducing aromas coming from just across the street? Without those, we could all die, or at least starve to death.

Patrick Dennis’ column appears the second Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian. Find him online at


May 4 to June 12 — A tribute to a rapidly vanishing ranch lifestyle from the local landscape, Morro Bay Art Association is proud to present “Homage to the Ranches.” Artwork in this very special exhibit will depict the picturesque ranches, barns and rolling hills of San Luis Obispo County. This juried exhibit will be judged by Cambria artist Stephen Kellogg. Art Center Morro Bay, 835 Main St., Morro Bay.

May 5 to May 30 — Artists and Cambria Garden Club members will showcase flower arrangements paired with related floral paintings in “Petals and Palettes.” Allied Arts Association.