Not everybody can claim their sculptures are built from the actual ingredients for a healthy life, but children’s book creator Saxton Freymann offers work that is good for the body as well as the mind.
Freymann’s books with partner Joost Elfers — which include “Food For Thought” and “How Are You Peeling?” — take on the task of getting kids to identify with their fruits and vegetables by creating small sculptures that put those items into human context. Freymann might fashion something as simple as peppers that have visible emotions or as complicated as radishes driving cucumber cars as a way to draw a kid into self-realization, as well as art.
Freymann’s work will be displayed as part of “You Are What You Eat: Food As Art Material” at KidSpace at Mass MoCA, which opens on Saturday, Oct. 3.
Arranging fruits and vegetables into unexpected figures was not always recognized as Freymann’s main artistic talent. Prior to the series of books, he was almost strictly a two-dimensional artist — the bulk of his studies at Williams College were in print making, and he had worked a number of freelance jobs doing illustration.
It was a chance encounter between Freymann’s wife and Elfers that sent him on the course that would lead him to sculpting with food. Elfers was trying to get American interest in a food photo book he had created and also to find some new blood to inject into the project.
“This was just the kind of weird job that I was looking for at that time, saying yes to anything that came along — and it actually sounded like so much fun,” Freymann said in a recent interview. “I ran to the store and got some fruits and vegetables, and my inclination was to make little characters out of them.”
Over the next 10 months, Freymann found himself working on what would become a book called “Play With Your Food.” Originally more of a group project, he saw other collaborators fade away as he mastered the work and took it on himself. This book was not strictly for children, but Freymann realized the potential and soon he and Elfers had secured a deal with Scholastic. That was a decade ago, and Freymann has been creating these books ever since.
But food art does not mean all food as materials for construction.
“I set myself some very clear parameters early on, so I don’t do meat; I don’t do bread,” Freymann said. “I don’t do these because part of what I like working with is specific familiar kind of prototypical forms. A leg of lamb or a chicken drumstick doesn’t have the same kind of purity, and it certainly doesn’t have the same kind of cleanliness or color or texture.”
Fruit and vegetables are clean and easy to work with — and they also offer more possibilities when Freymann goes to the grocery store to rummage through likely items for his next creation.
“You look at a fruit or a vegetable and it has a stem, so that looks like a nose or a tail, and one thing leads to another,” he
said. “One of the things that I like about the things that I’ve made is the transparency of the process. You see in a glance what was involved. You look at it and say, ‘Yeah, I can imagine him picking that potato up at the grocery store and saying that this looks like an anteater.’ There shouldn’t be any mystery when you look at one of the pictures. The idea is that you can see the whole process in the final product.”
The variety of fruits and vegetables — colors, shapes, textures, some with nooks and crannies that can create many possibilities or suggest one overriding one — offers a spectrum for Freymann to work from.
He points to a third item that is a total blank slate that hands itself over to his imagination completely — like a kiwi, which he describes as “really just a furry oval.”
“It has a monkey nose on it, but the face isn’t there; the expression isn’t there. You have to give it the expression. With a pepper, it’s happy or it’s snarling because the mouth is already there,” he said.
What delights Freymann about the spectrum is not the limitless possibilities but the repetition of forms that gives him the option of working from the same base on vastly different ideas. He loves to revisit the same shapes and go in different directions with them.
Since his books are arranged topically by different themes, it gives him the opportunity to require different things from the same items and gives his eye the chance to be continually challenged on its creative quest.
“When I was doing a book about emotions, everything was a face,” he said. “I wasn’t noticing the dogs and the pigs and the elephants; I was just seeing faces — noses and eyes and mouths and expressions. When I was doing my book on vehicles, I was seeing things that could be sliced and make a wheel. I was seeing hubcaps; I was seeing propellers, wings. When I did a book that was all set underwater, all of a sudden all of the vegetable forms became very streamlined and like something that belonged underwater.
“There is this kind of process of constantly returning with different criteria or looking in a different way. That’s what the books are encouraging people to do anyway, and I had to do it one step ahead of everybody else.”
Freymann sees his process as central to the way of the artist, an adaptability of form that is specific to the function — work in one medium often trains expertise in another and, all combined, perfect the creative eye as it looks to the world for inspiration.
“If you do visual art, I think a lot of the skills that you develop are transferable from one medium to another,” he said. “I spent my whole life drawing faces and making little characters, so it was not a leap to do that in three dimensions.”
He points out that a huge part of his job involves letting the organic form dictate what transpires — in other words, the food does a lot of the work for him.
“A lot of what skill I bring to whatever it is that I’m doing is more about seeing than craft,” he said. “I am in awe of craftspeople who do this meticulous and careful stuff. That’s really not the point of what I try to do with the food. The whole strategy is to do as little as possible and to let the original form shine through.”
Freymann does not see what he does as being a special talent that is his only — it is, rather, a standard artistic one that he utilizes as a central part of his work.
“Most visual people have, at some point in their lives, noticed that a tomato looks like Richard Nixon or an eggplant looks like a penguin,” he said. “It’s not an enormous leap to notice things. What I did was I just went very deep into that — what for most people is a casual thing that they just happen to notice.”
What does make Freymann’s work special is that it is aimed at kids, with the notion to help train their eyes creatively. This skill of looking at one thing and seeing a number of other things can transform the way a child looks at the world, opening up possibilities in all realms — and solutions.
“It’s something that people, but particularly artists, have done for centuries — to look at stains on the wall and stars in the sky and see patterns and shapes and force chaos into some kind of recognizable order,” Freymann said. “It’s a pretty basic human impulse, and it’s a very central starting place for creativity to recognize that one thing resembles another — and you can find resonance in something that brings you to other, that winds up referring to other things. That’s the basis of all art, so it seems like a good place to start, especially when you’re literally showing it in action. You’re taking a simple familiar object and turning it around in your hand until it starts looking at you.”
In personal appearances, Freymann finds that lots of kids are inspired by his work to do their own food creatures, which certainly adds validity to his efforts but also begs the question of dispensing of the material — that is, what should kids do when they are done with the work? Freymann encourages them to do as his family does.
“I always tell kids when I see them, ‘Don’t forget to eat this stuff at the end. Occasionally parents come up to me and say, ‘We have all of these rotting guys in the refrigerator,’ and I say that there has to be a term, a period of enjoyment followed by a period of eating.
“You can make a banana octopus and eat the banana while you’re doing it, but you have to learn some kind of Zen-like ability to detach yourself from your creation at some point, because it’s going to wind up going the way of all things anyway. You might as well get some nutrition out of it.”