'Sustenance' Explores Local Food Through Art 

Boise State exhibit highlights food-related work from more than 40 Idaho artists

"Devotion," cast bronze, french fry, glass, LED, recycled candlestick.

Cami Ruh Clemo

"Devotion," cast bronze, french fry, glass, LED, recycled candlestick.

Food is an increasingly contentious topic, especially in an agricultural state like Idaho. From quarantines and confined animal feedlot operations to wolves and water rights, the politics of how and what we eat frequently wind their way onto the front page. Which means that now more than ever, food issues are ripe to be examined through the artistic lens.

"For all time, where there are things that are happening in cultures--whether they're being dealt with politically or in any other social way--it's the artists who make the tough commentary; they write the stories, they paint the pictures," said Susan Medlin of the Treasure Valley Food Coalition.

Medlin collaborated with Boise State Visual Art Center Gallery Director Kirsten Furlong to create a new food-themed exhibition called Sustenance, which opens at Boise State's Hemingway Western Studies Center on Friday, May 11, from 6-8 p.m. The exhibit is a bookend to a year of local food-related lectures and events at Boise State.

"If you think about pillars of a culture, it's food and art. Period. If you want to talk about sustainable community, then to me, you talk about food and art, and that was the whole genesis of the conversation," said Medlin.

The conversation developed into an exhibit that highlights food-related work from more than 40 Idaho artists and also features an intimate farm-to-table gallery dinner from Chef Benjamin Thorpe of the Cornerstone Bistro in Middleton on Thursday, May 10.

"It is such a specific topic, and I thought about doing an invitational exhibit but I could only really come up with a handful of artists that I thought were already doing work that would fit," said Furlong. "We decided to keep it local--to Idaho artists--because we wanted to deal with what's happening here."

Though Furlong fretted that she might be inundated with a pile of pastoral still lifes, the submissions were as broad as the topic itself.

"I tried to keep it really open as to what the issue of food could be about so I suggested land-use issues, water rights issues, things about farming, things about animal care and human issues in relation to animals, local, global food issues whatever they might be, things related to obesity, food in the schools," said Furlong.

Artist Earle Swope saw the call to artists and decided to get his daughter--and her fellow students in Mrs. Mizuta's second-grade class at Washington Elementary--involved.

"I saw this prospectus come up and so I thought it would be cool to introduce the kids to that because they know how you become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman or a reporter because there are parents that come in and describe that to them, but I thought art is something that they do in school but it's just kind of a side bit," said Swope.

So Swope and his army of second-grade artists deliberated on the notion of food security and ultimately agreed to construct a sturdy 3D castle out of recycled food packaging.

"Initially, we told them bring in any type of boxes but it has to be food. ... We got just about every kind of box that you can see--lots of mac and cheese and cereal boxes because they're kids," said Swope. "But it was kind of funny to see there's generic cereal boxes and then the high-end co-op super Kashi crunchy organic stuff and then everything in between. ... You can just kind of observe the demographic just by looking at the boxes."

Other interesting takes on the theme include metalsmith Cami Ruh Clemo's french fry reliquary, Eric Obendorf's photographs of his body that explore personal weight issues, Stephanie Bacon's canning-themed work, and John and Miranda Anderson's large wall sculpture about yields and water issues in the grain-rich Palouse region.

But acquiring the art for the exhibition was the easy part. Getting permission to stage a local-foods dinner in the gallery proved to be much more of a struggle. Because Boise State has a university-wide contract with food service giant Aramark to handle all things food-related on campus, students and staff aren't allowed to bring in outside caterers.

"Of course, you can't do an exhibition about local food issues and then have food that's trucked in from who knows where, so we started the process about a year ago of getting an exception," said Furlong. "It was a very long process involving the legal departments all the way up to the very top administration really just to have an event and bring in our own chef and have locally sourced food and wine."

It's these types of institutional barriers to local foods that the Treasure Valley Food Coalition is working to better understand. The first phase of the nonprofit's Southwestern Idaho-Eastern Oregon food assessment project was completed in February and showed that more than 90 percent of farm sales in the area involve animals or feed for animals, while less than 7 percent of farm production can be eaten by consumers directly. Medlin hopes that Boise State's Sustenance exhibit will help draw attention to the region's food insecurity.

"It should, like all art, provoke some thinking and some conversation," said Medlin. "And to me, it just makes so much sense to sit down in the middle of it and eat."

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