(Richard Nickel, “Pea Pod Family,” 2020, Ceramic and low fire glaze, 46 x19 x15 inches, Courtesy of the artist)

By Jeff Maisey

Since the beginning of the pandemic, visual art museums and galleries as well as the food and beverage cultures of Hampton Roads have provided a much needed glimmer of normalcy and hope. 

Keen to observing the “here and now,” Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) created an intriguing concept for an exhibition set to open February 6 and be on view through June 6.

Nourish, as it is titled, pairs 12 artists and food experts in a collaborative effort to focus on a broad range of causes such as food insecurity, honey bee populations, sustainable farming, native plants and ecosystems, waterway health, and health.  

To fully gain an understanding of Nourish, I hope the following interview with Alison Byrne, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Education, Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Betsy DiJulio, vegan cookbook author, artist, art educator, and contributing writer for Veer Magazine, will provide perspective. 

VEER: How did you develop the theme of “Nourish” as an exhibition? Was it based on your observations of our culture during the pandemic?

Alison Byrne: The idea for Nourish came about some time ago but we were looking at a much later date. Our work is all about being culturally responsive, so exploring food as a subject matter was relevant before the pandemic and is even more poignant now. We decided to move it forward to highlight that great work being done by artists and food experts in our region during the Pandemic. 

The origin of artist/expert collaboration stemmed from a pop-up exhibition we did in the ViBe Creative District in 2019 where we paired artists together to work on a collaborative piece. We received such positive feedback from the artists about the whole experience of collaborating that we brainstormed ways to take it to the next level and incorporating food made so much sense. More than anything else food is our common ground. It connects us, brings us together and helps shape our identity. It can be celebratory and pleasurable, but it is also complex and tied to issues of gender, race, religion, and class. Food helps us understand our neighbors, friends and community and that is why, in these challenging times, an exploration of the intersection of food and art is incredibly relevant and resonant.

VEER: Creating exhibitions “in the now” is a cool concept but hard to plan for. There is an immediacy that makes it exciting. What are your thoughts on this compared to scheduled exhibitions that may be a year or two in the planning?

AB: We typically like to plan 2-3 years in advance for all the main gallery exhibitions, but since we were closed to the public for part of 2020, we needed to reexamine our exhibition schedule and move projects around. The Nourish exhibition was originally slated for a later date, but we decided that not only was the topic of food and all of its facets especially important right now, but also we knew that this was a challenging time for artists and wanted to provide a creative and energizing project to those who we invited to participate. We want to invest our resources in our community, both finically to support the artists in the creation of new works, but also our staff and studio space. As a non-collecting contemporary art museum, we collaborate with artists who are creating artwork about living in our world right now. It is always timely and can open many pathways to dialogue, partnerships, and a unique experience for visitors to see the world through the minds of artists living in our community, responding to issues that matter to us right now. 

For myself and Heather Hakimzadeh, my co-curator for Nourish, this has been one of the most enriching and rewarding projects of our careers. Being able to be a part of the creative process with each of these artists from day one is very special as has being able to document the entire process on film for a documentary we are making. I learned so much about what’s happening relating in food in our region and am so proud of the work being done; whether, it’s the amazing Milk Bank at CHKD, or the oyster restoration work being done by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to learning how to grow my own edible garden from Yolima Carr from the Elizabeth River Project. It’s been an eye-opening experience. 

VEER: What was the process for selecting artists and mediums? 

AB: Heather and I spent a lot of time thinking about world-class artists that happen to be working in our region, who we have worked with before, who we wanted to collaborate on a bigger project with, who we’ve admired from afar and wanted to get to know. Ultimately the deciding factor was really artists who we knew would be interested in a very unique and creative challenge, would really enjoy the process, and deliver some incredible artwork for the exhibition. 

Sam Hundley  
“Queen Bee,” 2020
Mixed media assemblage            
Courtesy of the artist

VEER: Did the artists select a partner or did you suggest collaborators?

AB: For the most part it was like a giant game of matchmaking. Once the artists agreed to participate in the exhibition, Heather and I met with them over Zoom and discussed their areas of interest relating to food. From there we started to think about the possible partners, and it was the same consideration – who from our community is an expert on this topic and who would be open, willing, and enjoy the process of collaboration with an artist? Some artists came to the meetings with very specific ideas of themes they wanted to explore, from there it was about us coming up with the right partner. Others knew exactly who they wanted to work with. For example, Betsy DiJulio requested a partnership with Kevin Jamison of New Earth Farm and Commune. It was such a fun experience and joyfully all the pairings have worked out just the way we hoped. 

VEER: Additional thoughts on the exhibition and its complimentary presentations?

AB: Nourish is the anchor exhibition in a suite of food-centric exhibitions. We are thrilled to be partnering with the Chrysler Museum of Art to show works from their collection in an exhibition called American Appetite. We have also partnered with Real Food Films, which began as an international competition for short films on food, farming, and sustainability.  Many gifted storytellers from around the world have shared their powerful food narratives and we have curated a selection of these that will be screened in four different locations around the Museum. I’m also really pleased to welcome artists of all ages and experience from our community to get involved and exhibit their artwork in the Open (C)all: Food and Memory exhibition. 

VEER: The concept of a visual art, food and cause exhibition seems right up your alley, Betsy. How were you approached to participate and what was your reaction?

Betsy DiJulio: Alison Byrne, deputy director of exhibitions and education at MOCA, mentioned quite a while back that she had something in mind for me which, of course, piqued my interest.  But I wear a number of hats and wasn’t sure in what capacity she meant, and it didn’t matter, I was all-in.  When I received a letter from her and curator, Heather Hakimzadeh, to participate in “Nourish,” I was so surprised and gratified.  Even so, because the project is built around pairs of artists and partners who work in the food industry in some capacity, I wasn’t initially sure if I was being invited as a food writer/blogger or as an artist. It has taken me some time to actually refer to myself as an artist, so, I was even more gratified to learn that I was being invited to participate as one of a dozen regional artists.  And I am in some fine company.

VEER: How were you paired with Kevin Jamison?

BDJ: Alison and Heather made the final pairings after consulting with the artists about their level of interest in various niches within the food industry, from farm to table and beyond.  As a once-upon-a-time hotel and restaurant major (who later changed to a philosophy major, much to my father’s dismay), an erstwhile caterer, and an aforementioned vegan food writer/blogger, I have a keen interest in restaurants and cooking, but also a deep concern in regard to where our food comes from and how it gets to our kitchens and tables.  Like many “foodies,” I am fascinated by the aesthetics of food, as well as what food and nourishment means on personal, social, and political levels.  I had interviewed Kevin for stories in the past, am a fan of his concept for Commune (with locations in VA Beach and Norfolk), of Prosperity Bakery, and of New Earth Farm–coincidentally, Alison and I took a cooking class together there a few years back–and thought that there would be many intersections between our interests, passions, and causes. I was right.

VEER: Can you describe how this collaboration worked?

BDJ: Collaboration is such an “it” word of the last few years, but this project truly is a collaboration, that is a “laboring together,” and not just among the artists and their partners, but the artists and MOCA educators, curators, preparators, videographers, and more.  The project is structured so that not only have rich conversations and art emerged between the direct participants, but long roots are being established out into the community.  As just one example, the MOCA staff is volunteering each week at a local food pantry.  Additionally, the programming aspects of this project are layered and innovative; I think the public will be energized and, well, nourished, on many levels by what is offered.

Beyond that, though, I feel sure that each pair of partners has worked in organic and individual ways–no pun intended–that make sense within their contexts as busy professionals.  Kevin and I have only been able to meet once, but in that one meeting–socially distanced last summer at a picnic table outside Prosperity–I gleaned enough “food for thought” for several shows.  Incidentally, though food is a long-time passion of mine, or perhaps obsession, I have made surprisingly little art about it and certainly not related to the specific topic I eventually chose after my conversation with Kevin, who is so knowledgeable, and hours and hours of reading, visual research, and brainstorming.

Covid has curtailed opportunities for the larger group to convene, but all of the artists were invited to a lively and unique Zoom meeting to interact a bit.  And, finally, MOCA has made participation in this exhibition not only joyful and energizing, but feasible, as they have provided generous financial support to artists in the form of materials reimbursements and stipends as well as both moral and technical support.  They have been readily available to consult and problem-solve and I have taken full advantage.

Betsy DiJulio
“Untitled,” (Part 1 of 6), 2020
24 x 30,” acrylic, iron oxide, and graphite
Courtesy of the artist

VEER: Can you describe your artwork that is to be exhibited and specific elements that resulted from the collaboration?

BDJ: Of course.  My head was swimming after my meeting with Kevin and it took quite a lot of effort and time–many dog walks and hikes–for me to roll each of the topics around and sift my way through them until my heart and head could agree on a direction.  After I had winnowed down some options, I met with Alison and Heather to discuss and they encouraged me to focus on one idea, namely the contrast between two approaches two farming: industrial monoculture and organic polyculture.  With the working title “From the Ground Up,” my contribution to the show is an installation-based diptych of sorts with one half devoted to each approach to farming: soil, field, output, and ramifications in regard to people, animals, and environment.  Each half of the diptych is made up of four parts: a large blind embossing, a 4 x 4′ charcoal drawing, a 24 x 30″ acrylic and mixed-media painting, and a surprise element (hint: test tubes and dried plant material).  It is all quite metaphorical–at least I hope–and not preachy; a visual meditation on what is lost and gained in the process of growing our food.

Here I would like to give a shout out to Ken Daley and John Runner of Print in Newport News.  I am not a printmaker and have never made a blind embossing, much less a pair of really large ones.  Naively,  I thought I could find a YouTube video and DIY my way to the images I had envisioned.  Not so much.  As I have done many times for technical advice, I reached out to Ken, a revered and now-retired printmaking professor from ODU, who put me in touch with John, a former ODU student and now master printmaker and professor in his own right.  Ken had sold his enormous etching press to John and it turns out that I needed both.  Were it not for John, there would be no embossings, blind or otherwise, and I was married to this idea as a way of conveying both presence and absence in regard to sterile soil vs. that which is teaming with healthy microbes.  John and I met at Print three times.  Initially, we consulted and made some test plates, after which I went home, researched cardboard thicknesses and sand grit, ordered what I needed, and laboriously made my plates.  The second time, we, or rather John, printed the embossings with me assisting, and at the third session, we created torn deckled edges for each print.

Through this process, I have gained renewed respect not only for printmakers, but for installation artists.  You cannot imagine how much research it took–especially during this pandemic–to locate exactly the right size and shape test tubes with corks and to design and have fabricated plexiglass brackets to hold them.  After completing the two large charcoal drawings and moving them to the driveway–in the dark and freezing cold–to “fix” and hand-deckle the edges, I am bowing in the direction of those who work with this medium at this scale on a regular basis.  The approach I devised working with a beautiful roll of cotton rag paper on a large DIY wall-mounted easel was to lay down a field of charcoal powder with rags and brushes and then use both additive and subtractive methods to create the rows of crops and other landscape elements.  I am here to tell you that standing on a ladder, eraser in hand, vigorously removing material and “drawing” into that charcoal powder was a workout.  It helped that Urban, one of my trusty hounds, kept a watchful eye from a few feet away and that my fiancé, Bob, held a light for me in the driveway.

VEER: Any other relevant details?

BDJ: Knowing the work of virtually all of the other artists and food professionals included in this show — not to mention MOCA’s track record and reputation — I truly feel this exhibition and attendant programming is not to be missed.  Visitors will discover so many relevant and timely layers of this onion to peel back, from food deserts to body image and way beyond.  I would want to have a seat at this table, so to speak, even if I wasn’t an exhibiting artist.