Irina Adam’s “Pitch Pine Pollen,” A Transforming Forest

By David Strunk

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A rtist Irina Adam’s latest exhibit, “Pitch Pine Pollen,” showcases an evocative exploration of the forest through scent and accompanying photos. The exhibit takes us on a journey through the lifecycle and significance of pine pollen. Each piece in the collection tells a story, from the initial release of the pollen grains into the air to their role in the growth of new pine trees. Adam raises awareness about the critical role pollen plays in plant reproduction and its broader implications for biodiversity and ecosystem health. She recently sat down with Plantings to discuss her upbringing and the relationship between olfactory art and climate change. 

Tell us about yourself and your work. 

I’m a perfumer and multimedia artist. In May, my exhibition, Pitch Pine Pollen at Olfactory Art Keller explored how aromatic plant extracts are mementos of places important to us. In my case, it’s a secluded coastal area on the Long Island Pine Barrens. 

I’ve been making stuff since I was a kid, but I went to college and got a BFA in photography and studied botany during my time as well. I’d been working in photography but along the way I started making perfumes. I got a job in ethnobotany when I moved to New York at the New York Botanical Garden, and I studied with an herbalist. So I’ve always had my feet in both worlds, being an artist and also working with plants. I started making scent compositions about 15 years ago, just natural perfume with plants, because I loved the smell of plants. 

I use perfume to tell artistic kind of stories. My photography is stories about landscapes, or about meeting an animal in, the woods, or about really interesting combinations of plants. I really believe you can get to know a landscape like a friend visiting season after season, year after year – cultivating a relationship.

Would you talk about your work in ethnobotany?  

Ethnobotany is the study of how people use plants. I worked with a natural botanist who studied the use of plants by indigenous people in Micronesia, the Dominican Republic, and some other locations. I was a research assistant for many years. I did original research in the Dominican Republic and wrote a book while I was there about a specific Micronesian island and its uses of plants. I have also taught some classes, too. 

Irina Adam Art exhibition

So tell us about your exhibition “Pitch, Pine, Pollen” at Olfactory Art Keller and the forest behind it.   

The perfume was inspired by the meditative feelings and memories I have of a particular pine forest. It has a warm and piney scent. While I don’t know what memories the smell might trigger for others, it holds special significance for me. 

This forest is unusual because it sits on a sandy area between the ocean and the bay. The soil is poor, so not many plants grow there, resulting in a landscape dominated by pitch pines—very interesting-looking trees. There are also oaks, beech plums, some junipers, and various berry bushes where wild cranberries and blueberries grow. The ground is covered with unique heather flowers, adding to the forest’s distinctiveness. 

For New York State, this forest is quite unique. I began photographing it because the pitch pines have fascinating shapes to their branches, many of which are over 200 years old. These branches often catch fallen pine needles, creating shapes that resemble creatures floating in the treetops. Some people have compared this to Spanish moss on the West Coast, as it also forms intriguing shapes in the trees. When you look up, it sometimes seems like humans or animals are hanging around in the branches. Some shapes are recognizable, while others are abstract and star-like. 

Walking through this forest is a meditative experience for me due to the clean air and the smell of pine. Photographing it became another form of meditation, allowing me to engage with the unique forms created by the pine needles. I initially started photographing the forest because of its distinctive landscape, and it has continued to captivate me ever since. 

Going way back here, are there any moments from your early life or childhood that you think have inspired the scents and images you capture?  

As a kid, I grew up in Romania in a big city, but my parents would send my sister and me to a babysitter in the woods during the summer. She would let me wander around the woods as long as I came back before dark. Being allowed to wander in the forest by myself as a small child built a trust in nature, giving me a feeling of safety in the woods. Even as a child, I started really enjoying walking in the forest. 

When I was twelve, my family moved to Indiana, which was a very difficult move for me. It was a surprise, almost a shock, and it wasn’t planned. I felt extremely homesick and just wanted to go back. The way I started to get comfortable living in Indiana was by finding a forest nearby that I could walk to. I found it very welcoming and realized that my home was the whole planet, not just a particular place. As a teenager, I experienced healing in the forest after experiencing displacement and trauma. Nature gave me a sense of belonging in the world, even when I was going through a tough time with family and society or feeling displaced. 

That move encouraged me to find comfort in hiking and nature. It made me see nature and landscapes as more than just a background but as something significant. In general, wild places remind humans that we’re not alone. Sometimes, I felt like giving up on people and just going to the woods, where I could be myself around the trees… I also love animals and interacting with them, experiencing interspecies communication. This connection with nature and its inhabitants deeply influences the scents and images I capture. 

Continuing with the idea of “my home is the whole planet” and feeling that sense of belonging in the woods, do you view your most recent piece as a record of the state of natural fragrances? Are you concerned that these smells might be disappearing due to climate change and other factors?  

While the particular plants I’m working with aren’t endangered, there are some plants and animals in this forest that are. This forest is the first I’ve been photographing and working with artistically where I’ve witnessed such decimation. I’ve seen forests I love, and one day I go back, and half of it is cut down by some company, which is really sad. In this case, within a few months, most of the trees died because of beetles that kill a tree in two or three months. 

Olfactory Art Keller Irina Adam Art exhibition
Irina Adam’s “Memento Plant Extract.” Image courtesy of Olfactory Art Keller

As you watch these landscapes disappear, do you think it impacts our collective memory? Do you believe that as future scents and ecosystems start to dissolve, it will create less of a connection with our Earth and our ancestors?   

I think that as forests change and trees disappear, a lot of knowledge is lost—culturally, ecologically, and in many ways we may not even understand yet. For example, right now, I’m upstate, and there’s an invasion of moths eating the leaves off some trees. Climate change is causing unpredictable shifts, and we just don’t know what’s going to happen. 

The idea of losing scents and, consequently, collective memory is both sad and fascinating. When I first went into the forest and it had no smell, it really drove home the reality that most of the trees were gone. Before, I had seen some destruction, but the absence of the familiar forest scent made me truly believe it. My friend, who lives out there, warned me that I wouldn’t see the same forest next summer. At first, I didn’t believe her, but she was right. This is the first time I’ve experienced a landscape disappearing right before my eyes. 

It’s interesting to think about the impact on our collective memory. As these natural elements disappear, we lose not only biodiversity but also a connection to our cultural and ecological heritage. 

Does climate change affect the way you approach new projects or select projects? Is it playing a role in how you begin to create your art?   

Not so far, no, not at all. I was already photographing this forest before it started changing, and this is the first time I’ve seen something like that personally affecting me. So, no, I haven’t selected projects because of that. 

However, I thought about the role of ‘witnessing’ during this project. I feel that the way nature heals is by letting us be who we are—witnessing us as we are. Witnessing can be healing, even if you cannot directly help nature, as you are together, not abandoning it. 

Also, only by being there, watching, noticing, and recording, can you understand what’s going on. These climate-induced events are new and unscripted—you never know how a forest will change. 

I thought about these aspects while working on this project, particularly as I personally experienced significant health challenges during this time—I had COVID very badly, and then I got Lyme disease last year while photographing this project. I felt very connected to what was happening with the forest being overtaken by these little bugs. 

It really brought home how humans are not only destroying forests but also ourselves. I was living through that. 

After this current project, and continuing with more olfactory art, what role do you think olfactory art, and other arts, have in conservation?    

I don’t know what role olfactory art should have in conservation. I think my work aims to provoke emotions and help people process their feelings. The scent evokes strong emotions and memories and incorporating it into artwork can help people connect more deeply with nature and conservation efforts. 

Scent plays a role in conservation too by making people notice when plants or ingredients that they want are rare or not available, and why. Also, people get curious—they love learning about scent and smelling the natural ingredients of a perfume. 

There’s a quote that says, “You will only care about what you know about, and you will protect what you care about.” I believe olfactory art might help people care more about conservation. When people experience scents as part of art, they engage their senses and foster a deeper connection. 

Smells, especially those of plants, can be healing, like in aromatherapy or artistic perfumes, promoting calm and well-being. When you smell something, you’re taking in molecules that become a part of you, which is a fascinating concept. It’s a unifying experience, especially in urban environments where nature can feel distant. 

For me, nothing else can transport me mentally the way a scent can. 

David Strunk is a dramatic writer based out of New York City by way of the Deep South. He works with World Sensorium Conservancy as a contributing editor and producer for WS/C Kids. You can reach him here

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