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Painters blend and layer pigments to make their art. Musicians layer sound. Zane Zillner, working in his fantastic-smelling little office at Hapenstans Salon, layers smells. While he earns his living as a massage therapist, it’s Zillner’s artistic approach to aromatherapy that makes him interesting. Most of us think vaguely of aromatherapy as candles and bath salts (not the kind that makes you high, the stuff you actually sprinkle into bath water), but Zillner’s palette is much more colorful and ambitious.

“It’s about bringing the sense of smell to San Diego,” he says.

“Aromatherapy is big in Europe, and has been for decades. When it started to catch on in the US, people were using a lot of synthetic scents, because the real essential oils can be expensive due to the process that’s necessary to distill them. My favorite example is rose oil.”

Zillner holds up a tiny bottle that can’t contain more than an ounce of fluid.

“For a bottle this size, it’s $180. It takes a ton of rose petals to make one litre of rose oil. Granted, these things will last for a while.”

Zillner explains how most of the essential oils are so strongly concentrated that they can’t be applied directly to human skin. There’s some cool material science at play in the use and blending of these oils.

“Essential oils aren’t technically oils, they’re volatile aromatic compounds. That’s the correct term for them. They’re in their own sort of realm, as far as liquids are concerned. They’re not water soluble, they’re actually soluble in fats. Some of these things are very powerful, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Most people have never smelled some of these things before. We take our sense of smell for granted. We smell scents, but we don’t really pay close attention to it. The sense of smell is directly connected to the limbic system — our emotions, our memories, all of that — so smells can create an immediate response in people.”

Those memories and emotions can be accessed, and that’s where Zillner gets artistic with aromas. Part of his practice involves sitting down with people and blending plant essential oils together. He makes massage oils, scented sprays, and oils for “anointing” the skin so that a scent can linger for hours at a time, almost like a perfume, though he stresses that there is a big difference between the harsh, synthetic scents in most perfumes and the subtler odors of the essential oils that he uses.

The basic idea is to trigger people’s emotions and memories, to evoke a cathartic response in someone by going straight through the paleomammalian brain and summoning associations and memories that can have a physiological response. The comfort of smelling a familiar odor is familiar to almost everyone. Zillner just takes it to the next level, literally interpreting Aristotelian aesthetics in the process.

“Whenever I am blending for someone, it’s not so much me choosing the oils. It’s more of an intuitive guidance that comes from what people say and what they want to achieve, and reading what would be beneficial for people. Generally, I use about four or five scents per blend. Otherwise it becomes hard to differentiate between what’s what. I’ve made blends with eight or nine essential oils, but that’s for specific uses where I’m looking for the energetic qualities of the oil as opposed to the physiological effects of scents.”

Zillner describes a sense of synesthesia — the confusion and combination of multiple sense — at work when he blends scents together. Sometimes, he sees the scents as having colors or flavors, even anthropomorphizing them to a small degree, thinking that they have their own “little personalities” to work with. Combining the essential oils together is tricky because the scent doesn’t achieve immediate unity. It takes about 24 hours for everything to mingle. At first, it’s like each scent is on its own, but as time goes by they blend together to form a new, unified aroma.

“When I blend the aromas together, it’s like I’m walking into a room full of people that I don’t know. Imagine a workshop where you don’t know anyone, and you’re checking everyone out and thinking, ‘OK, these are the people that I’ll be hanging out with for the next few days.’

Over the period of those two days, you start to make connections and bond with everyone. That’s how the aromas work. If you like it now, you’re going to love it later because it just gets better!”

The aromatherapist never knew he would end up approaching the sense of smell like a painter approaches a blank canvas, or a sculptor faces an unscathed block of stone. A year after massage school, Zillner connected with a mentor. She introduced him to her collection of essential oils and he was hooked.

“It was one of those things where I was naturally good at it. I intuitively grasped it and I felt like it added another dimension to my massage practice. Aromatherapy is a great bridge between the physical and non-physical world. So much of the world is built on feelings and the energy that exists in connections between people, and these essential oils act like a connection between two worlds. The oils are themselves physical, but they’re so subtle and volatile that they will completely evaporate and diffuse into the environment.”

Zillner’s connection to smell is mystical and metaphorical — Tom Robbins might have based Jitterbug Perfume off of him in some small way and he probably could have been a phenomenal sommelier — but considering the biological mechanisms at work, it’s hardly unique. Dealing with such a basic sensory experiences means that anyone is susceptible to the aromatherapist’s effects.

“The biggest thing about making a scent for someone is that you have to really love it. Otherwise, you won’t want to use it. When you smell it, it should feel like a missing puzzle piece, like a smell that’s always been there and you never knew it before. It should be pleasing and enjoyable. Taking care of yourself shouldn’t be a task. This is my art. It’s mutually creative. And it smells good!”

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