Mireille Eagan On Food in Local Art

"By presenting our meals as something to be observed, artists show that the food we eat says a great deal about us and the time in which we live."
Jelly shelf by Mary Pratt (1999)
MARY PRATT. “JELLY SHELF” (1999). COLLECTION OF EQUINOX GALLERY

I sat down by an artists’ fire at Middle Cove. It was obvious who had built the fire, as the wood pile had been constructed in the form of a house and tripods with cameras brought to record the burning structure.

After counting seven other fire pits, I looked toward a gathering of chefs who were preparing a large feast to the far side of the beach. I dipped a lobster claw in butter as I watched, thinking of stories told to me as a child by those older than me — that they would often be ashamed to eat lobster, that they would close their curtains to hide their poverty from neighbours. The chefs were eating lobster as well.

Art takes the temperature of society, reflecting its political and economic trends. In this province, the portrayal of food by artists reveals considerable changes over a short period of time. With subject matter ranging from Helen Parsons Shepherd’s studies of pears to Grant Boland’s jar of moose meat, art produced here shows the various realities of life in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Many portrayals of food are unabashedly beautiful. They are a celebration of what we gather around, the touchstones of our daily lives. Art also has the unique and powerful ability to deliver a real punch-to-the-gut with seemingly simple subject matter. Politics are present in the most seemingly benign of circumstances, as Bill Rose shows with Zone of Silence. Disney’s version of Pocahontas is placed on the front of a Cheerios box, accompanied by the phrase OKA HAUNTS US. The playful nature of advertising becomes a backdrop for criticism of a saccharine, sanitized history of Aboriginals.

Service station by Mary Pratt (1978)
MARY PRATT. “SERVICE STATION” (1978). COLLECTION OF THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO

When the topic of food in art is mentioned, many will think immediately of Mary Pratt. Pratt reveals the beauty found in everyday rituals. Her glowing portrayals of fruit and jellies accompany often grotesque imagery of fish, moose carcasses, chickens, and roast beef. By celebrating the beauty of what might be considered ugly, Pratt shows that a meal comes from hard work and, often, slaughter. As she has said: “You can’t have a party without a sacrifice.”

The food that arrives on one’s plate therefore comes from somewhere, and many artists eloquently remind us of this process. With her 2008-2009 piece Dressing Up Work, Pam Hall emphasized the value of women’s work in places like Auntie Crae’s and Icewater Seafoods by quantifying the amount of time spent by its workers on their allotted tasks.

Jamie Lewis’ Ghost Series, taken a year before the cod moratorium was announced, speaks overtly to mass cultural change in this province: “At that time, nobody really knew the moratorium would take place. Once the inshore fishery was shut down, people who knew the ocean knew it was never really going to be able to come back even if the fish replenished. The young people would not have the type of training that they had, starting with their parents on the boat. We lost that whole aspect of our history.”

The art created in this province is as varied as the food on our plates. By presenting our meals as something to be observed, artists show that the food we eat says a great deal about us and the time in which we live.

Article by Mireille Eagan.

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