My mouth started watering as I walked around the “Big Food” showing at the Watts Fine Art Gallery in Zionsville. I had received an announcement about the paintings of giant pieces of pie and enormous bowls of Fruit Loops, and the pictures on the gallery website had been intriguing. But I never imagined a painting of a s’more the size of a flat screen television would actually make me feel hungry.

My friend, Kay, and I walked around the small gallery deciding which of Mary Ellen Johnson‘s precision realism paintings looked most authentic, as if a hamburger the size of a laundry basket could look “real.” But each painting had a detail that brought life to it – the shimmering syrup on the cinnamon roll, the cracked edges of the graham crackers on the s’more, the corrugated lining of the cardboard pizza box.

We were admiring the melting ice cream dripping off a giant piece of cherry pie a la mode as the artist walked up to us. She and her family were there for the Gallery opening from their South Carolina home.

“How long does it take to do a piece like that?” I asked, pointing to the glistening cherries and flaky crust.

“Oh, it varies,” she said. “Some turn out to be a lot more difficult than I expect. That one definitely was.”

In the case of the pie, it was the shadows on the cherries that gave her fits. Though Johnson works from photographs, each painting is a composite of many photographs, merged together by her artistic eye.

Her art doesn’t start with photography, however. Her art starts with cooking; each of her food paintings is a dish she either cooked or prepared, including the bowl of Fruit Loops which she meticulously arranged with her fingers in the milk long before she placed them on canvas with a brush and oil paint.

While I drooled over the baked goods hanging there on the walls, the pieces that turned out to be my favorites were not the ones that made me hungry. In fact, I normally wouldn’t even eat the food I was drawn to. But her paintings of the steamed mussels, the freshly rolled sushi, and the shrimp cocktail caught my eye with their bright colors, their dramatic lighting, and a mood of sophistication you just don’t get with a giant waffle.

The concept of painting food seems almost too simple. I was drawing and painting fruit in my earliest art classes. But the attention to detail this artist brings to the stuff we all eat reveals the holiness of ordinary things. Johnson’s paintings give us a giant glimpse of what fills our plates and sates our souls. “We are what we eat” took on new meaning as I was staring down a pizza bigger than my head.

These food portraits also serve as an historical record; M&Ms, hot dogs, Life Savers: these are early 21st century relics, evidence that we were here.

Rich Kirkpatrick is a curator of relics in his own right. He wrote earlier this week in response to an old art journal he recovered from his attic. Pencil sketches of a rotary phone and halogen lamp offered a glimpse of the life he and his wife were piecing together shortly after marriage. The lamp he understood. They were everywhere back in the early 90s. I had one myself, actually.

But the phone? It was circa 1970s, and to still be holding on to one of those 20 years later said something about the Rich of 20 years ago.

Two items from yesteryear remind me of how time flies and of how ordinary objects become museum pieces or end up in a sketch book.

In her artist’s statement, Johnson says her work “stirs visceral and psychological impulses; it evokes nostalgia and an intrinsic yearning for gratification,” and she is right. In the 20 minutes I walked around the gallery, I felt hungry (the pizza we ate later looked a lot like the pizza painting we saw in the show), homesick (all the women in my mom’s family make such good pie), wistful (would I ever be able to afford art like this), cold (the giant ice cream cone looked like it just came out of the freezer).

But the paintings also made me want more.

As we walked forward and backward, looking at the paintings close, then far away, Kay opted for the long view.

“I think I like them from far away better,” she said. “They don’t look as real when you’re up close.”

“You’re right,” I said, trying out the two views of waffles as an experiment.

“I think it’s because of the light,” I conjectured. “In real life, when you move up close to an object, the light changes. The light in these paintings is all as if it’s far away.”

That’s the more I was looking for, I think.

The far away light, the Light that makes every day things shimmer and causes people to long for home.


If you live in the Indianapolis area and would like to see the Big Food, the exhibit will be hung at Watt’s Fine Art in Zionsville through November 5.

Go THERE and visit Rich Kirkpatrick, and then come back HERE again!

The painting, “Big Shrimp Cocktail,” is by Mary Ellen Johnson; the rendering above is linked directly to the artist’s own web site.