Friday, July 10, 2009

Reconnecting with Magic

Bill Luchsinger, Karen Strohbeen & the Art of Food

From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the Renaissance still life, art has made the most lasting impressions about food and agriculture through the ages. Such artistic subjects have often defined Iowa to the rest of the world. Grant Wood‘s “American Gothic” clings to our identity with the tenacity of a humiliating high school nickname. Trying to push beyond such stereotypes, contemporary Iowa artists are using food ambiguously in their work. T. J. Moberg has sculpted both gorgeous fields of grain and sarcastic parodies of food-laden Latin American folk art busses. His “Bus to Hell” carries a cargo of slowly decomposing McDonald’s French fries. Fred Truck has constructed multimedia visions of perfect persimmons and onions, as well as his trademark “Mr. Milk Bottle” series, a satire of industrial food. Painter Jesse Fisher has revived the Renaissance still life, but given her food subjects morbid makeovers to confront “the transitory nature of our vanity.”

But when it comes to contemporary food art, no one cuts to the chaff like Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen. The Madison County couple has been planting, nurturing, weeding, harvesting, cooking, drying, drawing, painting, photographing and eating the subjects of their art since the 1970’s. They have also been working in digital art as long as anyone, pioneering the genre years before David Hockney “discovered” it.

Their popular work might well be more recognizable than that of any Iowa artist since Grant Wood. Certainly, Strohbeen is the most frequently identified Iowa artist. That’s because of the couple’s nationally syndicated television series “The Perennial Gardener with Karen Strohbeen,” which Luchsinger produced and directed. Though it’s been years since that series was retired at PBS, the couple still attends farmers markets at the crack of dawn, in order to avoid being waylaid by fans who confuse Karen with Mother Nature herself.

“The gardening show came about because we wanted to share the ephemeral moment with others Our art developed then for the same reason.- to try to preserve that ‘blink and you miss it’ second when a growing thing meets the perfect moment, when Fall turns lovely and you want people to be there, but they can‘t be there. That’s why the documentation became important,” Karen explained.

When asked why food appeals to them as subjects for art, they both laughed.

“If you had asked why we make art of sex, you would solicit much the same answer. Food and sex are two of the most elemental things of life. Food is promise,” Luchsinger explained.

“And like sex, food is an individual thing. There’s so much that can be fun about it. At every stage. The seed is the promise of the tomato. When you see food on the plate, that’s art. You play with possibility, with the promise. In the Renaissance food displays were a rare decadence. Oranges were as rare as fountains or palaces. Now it’s everywhere, the abundance is so bountiful it’s taken for granted,” Strohbeen added.

Both artists made their first food art for personal reasons. Because Bill is dyslexic, visual puns appeal to him. He painted a head of lettuce on a roller skate, as a way of saying “Let us roller skate.” Karen’s first food subject was an attempt to have her cake, instead of eating it.

“It came at a time when there were too many festive family events in too short a time. The cake was important symbolically to the occasion, but we were sick of the calories. So I decided to try to make a cake that we could have for the celebration aspect, without having to eat another piece of cake,” she explained.

“There’s always been a celebratory aspect to our food art. When our TV show went national, we went to Citronelle (restaurant) in Washington, D.C. to celebrate on Valentine’s Day,” Bill explained.

Childhoods in a Dish

They both have maintained strong connections to childhood memories and ancestors too.

“So often, when I’m peeling tomatoes, I see my grandmother peeling tomatoes. I see her standing there and doing it just so,” Karen explained.

Both Bill and Karen believe that visualization of food is as important to cooking as any recipe. In Karen’s case, art becomes a surrogate for recipes - because she doesn’t use the latter. She just starts mixing what’s at hand and tasting her way through the creative process.

“Because I expect to make it better each time,” she laughed.

“One of the first computer pieces we ever did was of three loaves of bread. We get that out every time that we make bread. It is the recipe,” Bill said.

Each artist is particularly attached to one food that evokes childhood memories: green tomato pie for Bill; and rye bread for Karen. Those connections run deep and cross oceans.

“I was raised by grandparents and my grandfather was Swiss, so no tomato ever made it to red in my youth. Green tomato pie was made by my Irish grandmother, who learned it from her Swiss mother-in-law. We ate it all the time. I never remember a time of life without green tomato pie. I was much older before I valued the recipe and my grandmother wasn’t eager to share it. So I found another recipe and I think it’s the same, except that we use lemon juice where she used vinegar,” Bill recalled.

Karen’s family came from Germany to Walcott, Iowa.
“Things were made precisely the same way time and time again,” Karen said, adding that her own spontaneous attitude to cooking could be a rebellion against that Teutonic recipe dogma.

“Everyone in Walcott made the exact same rye bread. A cousin of mine went to the town in Germany where the family originally came from, and said that they make the exact same rye bread there too,” Karen laughed.

“But, we grind our own rye flour for that bread just as Karen’s grandfather did,” Bill said.

“But I don’t ever make it the same way twice. I add different kinds of nuts and figs and things to it,” Karen interjected.

“And a single slice of that bread is a complete meal,” said Bill.

Beet Therapy

When Bill was recovering from cancer surgery last year, Karen tried to tempt his appetite by suggesting different foods. Nothing worked until he visualized beets. They worked so well that Bill wanted to eat them every meal for quite awhile.

“There was this dark red earthy attraction that brought me back to the basic elemental thing. Food is so basic. It’s the ultimate creation from the four elemental forces - earth, air, water and fire,” Bill explained.

Other specific foods have special meaning in their art and lives.
“I love tomatoes, not just because I am an artist and they are amazing to look at either. I save their seeds. I have to save seeds, to plant them in winter, then transplant them in Spring and weed them in Summer. It’s an entire year’s cycle of anticipation, and it’s one that never disappoints me,” explained Karen.

“Tomatoes are like lobster and sweet corn. There is such a narrow window of opportunity to enjoy them, so we eat them every day when we can,” added Bill, going on to explain that they won’t eat typical supermarket tomatoes, which are picked before they ripen, usually in Mexico, waxed and shipped north to be exposed to gasses that assimilate ripening.

“People eat for different reasons, not just hunger and not just aesthetics. A good friend of ours told us ‘If I had two loaves of bread, I would sell one to buy daffodils.’ Well, we need both. I thought once I would just draw a slice of tomato, but I couldn’t. There was too much going on: the wet; the seeds; the colors; the multiple textures. I couldn’t get to the essential focus. A tomato is endlessly complex. All food is, it’s magic, but we don’t look at it that way. There is so much people don’t see when they look at food because it’s so common,” Karen mused.

Bill thinks that taking food for granted is a modern Iowa tragedy.
“Compared to Native American art, we have acquiesced, we have happily allowed our food to become industrialized. And that diminishes the magic,” he said.

“We all get more disconnected from the food magic. Even where we live, deep in the country, we lose track of it. Life happens too fast. We had a wild turkey lay eleven eggs outside our window and we didn’t connect with it - we just eat the eggs,” Karen said.

“Our attitude about food is designed for disconnection. Life has become about speed and getting it over with. I don’t know where or when that started., but now we have the most bountiful, beautiful food crop in the history of the world. And we intend to use it to drive our cars,” Bill concluded.

Bill Luchsinger’s Green Tomato Pie

6 cups unpeeled tomatoes, sliced an eighth inch thick
Pour boiling water to cover and let stand.
In another container combine:
1 cup sugar
Fourth a teaspoon sea salt
3 tbsp flour
Fourth a teaspoon ground nutmeg
Fourth a teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
Grated rind and juice of one medium lemon
2 tbsp butter

Drain the tomatoes and stir in the mixture. Fill pastry-lined pie dish with filling and lattice the top.

Bake in a preheated 450F oven for 8-10 minutes. Reduce heat to 375F and bake till tomatoes are tender, 40 minutes or more.

Strohbeen Family Bread

2 tbsp salt
3 tbsp shortening (bacon grease)
1 quart boiling water
1 package yeast
1 quart rye meal (we grind our own from organic rye berries)
1 quart white flour
3 tbsp wheat germ

Combine salt, shortening and boiling water in a bowl. When it becomes lukewarm, stir in the yeast. Add flours and germ and beat till stiff. Put in a bowl and cover with cloth. Let rise till double, about one hour.
Meanwhile put an additional quart of white flour on a work surface.
Take sponge out and slowly knead in flour till stiff. Put back into bowl, cover and let rise till double, one to two hours. Divide into three, form loaves and put into greased pans. Cover and let rise 45 minutes.
Bake in preheated oven at 375F for 15 minutes, then reduce to 350F and bake 45 minutes. Turn off oven and leave for five minutes - remove and butter tops. Cover with paper towels, towels and let cool. (our family wrapped each loaf in aluminum foil.)

Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen are represented exclusively by Moberg Gallery in Des Moines and Corner House Gallery in Cedar Rapids.

Moberg Gallery
2921 Ingersoll Ave.
Des Moines, Iowa 50312

CornerHouse Gallery and Frame
2753 First Avenue SE
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402
319-365-4348; Fax: 319-365-1707;

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