Susan Barbour is a poet-scholar, artist, wine educator, and perfumer. Her poetry and essays have appeared in literary magazines including The Paris Review, Catapult, Five Dials, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Oxford Poetry, and her scholarship has been published in academic journals such as Textual Practice, Transatlantica, and The Oxford Review of English Studies.
Barbour is a self-taught artist whose work focuses on the role of the woman's body in making and inspiring art. Her poetry book manuscript, NUDE UNTANGLING HER HAIR, recounts her experience of learning to draw while working as an artist's model. She has exhibited experimental hair drawings, prints, and installations at galleries in Los Angeles and Italy and has shows forthcoming in New York City.
A trained wine expert, she has also been researching smell and its effect on human behavior and the verbal imagination. She frequently lectures on the poetics of smell and organizes olfactory-themed workshops and installations around the world. Her unique wine tasting events and human body odor workshops invite audiences to trust and understand their own sense of smell and to reclaim the power of their noses. She is also an independent perfumer and has created a collection of original scents inspired by human connection, events in nature, and pieces of music.
Barbour earned a B.A. in English from Dartmouth, an M.A. in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and a D.Phil. in English Literature from Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar and The Somerville College Graduate Scholar in the Humanities. She also holds the Level 4 Diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and is a certified French Wine Scholar. She has been the recipient of fellowships from The Beinecke Library at Yale, The Bogliasco Foundation, The Dora Maar House/Brown Foundation, The Huntington Library, The Jentel Artist Residency, The Rothermere American Studies Institute, The Siena Art Institute, and The Institute for Art and Olfaction. She has lectured at Johns Hopkins, École Polytechnique, and Merton College, Oxford and also held research positions at Columbia University and Caltech. She currently divides her time between Los Angeles and Europe.
In 2005 I walked into a life drawing studio and asked if they were hiring models. I needed the pocket money to support my poetry writing. The studio told me that as a model I would get to draw for free, so I began my arts education on both sides of the easel. This experience led me to publish poems about life drawing and to develop an experimental drawing practice. When modeling I would pick a spot on the floor or the wall where I could fix my gaze and so steady my pose. Soon I was afflicted by pareidolia, the tendency to see patterns where there are none. I began seeing faces and body parts in wood grain and dimples in the plaster. One day, years later, I was taking a shower and fallen strands of hair came loose in my hand. I smeared them across the wall so they wouldn’t go down the drain. I looked and saw the clear image of a woman’s elongated back, a chignon at the nape of her neck. With a few strokes of my finger the rest of her body soon appeared. And so I began using the shower as my studio.
Like the manuscripts of a poet, drawings strike many people as the private, material trace of the artist’s mental and emotional state, as well as a record of their virtuoso hand movements. The shower drawings illuminate what has always been true about the cultural significance of figure drawing, from Pliny to the present: we are voyeurs not only of the depicted nude, but of the artist in the act of creating. Using a remnant of the body (a strand of hair) to depict a body, the hair drawings confound the normal operations of signification. Each nude is an icon of an absent model as well as an index of the absent artist.
First I took photographs of the drawings in situ. Eventually I found a way to capture and transfer them using frisket, the adhesive transparent film that watercolorists use to protect portions of their paintings. These transfer drawings complicate the postmodern cult of the sketch because while the in situ drawings retain the original aura, with the tile background and the water droplets, they also exist only in mechanically reproduced photographic prints. Meanwhile, it is the secondary transfer that contains the original drawing—a line that also constitutes the ultimate autograph since it contains my mitochondrial DNA.
A strand of freshly fallen hair reminds us of the line between life and death. Spun into the image of a sensual nude, it suggests that our sensuality comes from our mortality. We are most alive—most human—when we remember that our bodily forms are temporary.
In this, these drawings share profound overlaps with my olfactory artwork. Through public workshops in human body odor, multi-media installations, and an artisanal perfume line, I explore psychological reactions to the body’s aromatic signature. By framing and encouraging reflections on the body’s traces, my work seeks to interrupt the pathways of our most subconscious judgments and to foster more mindful encounters with others and the world around us.