A Conversation Between "In That Case" Collaborators Artist Helena Keeffe and Chef and Food Activist Jessica Prentice

Jessica winnowing nigella seeds for A Salad of Wild Weeds and Seeds 
Photo by Helena Keeffe

For the second iteration of The Contemporary Jewish Museum's In That CaseHavruta in Contemporary Art, San Francisco artist Helena Keeffe collaborated with Richmond, CA-based chef and food activist Jessica Prentice. They reflect on art, working together, and what is "necessary."

Helena Keeffe (HK): Jessica, when I first approached you about working together I was nervous that the art context wouldn't interest you, but I knew you had worked with artists as a chef at Headlands Center for the Arts, so I figured there was a chance. Museums make artwork and other cultural artifacts available to the public in a way that is quite different than publishing a book or making food available through social entrepreneurship. What were your thoughts when I first presented this opportunity? Be honest!

Jessica Prentice (JP): The art context was exciting, not off-putting. My main concern was whether I would have the time to devote to this collaboration. But I actually really love the opportunity to work in different contexts. Each one is a different lens that is interesting to look through. The questions brought up by my work are (I think) universal ones. I've chosen writing and social entrepreneurship for practical reasons (writing because I like to write, and social entrepreneurship because I need to make a living!), but feel constrained by them sometimes too. In writing you're confined to the written word, and as an entrepreneur you can only really do things that make money (ie. are profitable). Art always feels like something that is a bit separate from the regular economy, where there might be more freedom and creative license.

HK: The economy of art definitely has a unique position within capitalism, and many artists struggle to find the time to be fully engaged in an art practice due to the pressures of the cost of living, but it is great to be reminded by someone with a fresh perspective that there are great privileges within art, and the relative lack of constraints is a big one. 

I was struck, when reading The Ohlone Way, by the description of how art/craft objects functioned for people living in pre-European Bay Area tribes. Basket weaving seems to have been the most highly developed artisan skill and it was used to make both practical things like seed winnowing baskets, but also elaborately decorated baskets given as gifts and traded by families in marriages. From what I understand, however, there were not particular people who were the basket weavers. It was a skill that every woman learned, though some were known to be exceptional weavers and their work was prized. We have touched on the subject of grief in our project and this is something I grieve—the loss of a place in our culture for carefully handmade things that have value beyond luxury.

JP: Yes, one of the things we talked about a lot was what is a "luxury" versus what is a "necessity." I think our corporate capitalist culture's skewed values are reflected in this. For example, we tend to think of a cell phone as a necessity. It is something that you "have to have." Of course, if you really take a step back and think about it, it's a luxury. But on an everyday level we treat it as a necessity. Organic food, on the other hand, we often think of as a luxury. But I would argue that food that is free of poisons and that doesn't destroy the ecological basis for life is actually something we all need. It is a necessity. But if you suggest that someone who says they "can't afford organic food" but who "can afford a cell phone" might consider shifting the amount they pay on a cell phone towards purchasing organic food, you're called an elitist. I wonder, though. I think about a beautiful handmade basket and think it might be a luxury; but beauty, sustainability, and function are (in my view) necessities. If a basket accomplishes all these things simultaneously, is it still a luxury?? And isn't it interesting that when an Ohlone person died, his or her baskets were burned with him or her on the funeral pyre. But we put these baskets in a museum and keep them temperature controlled. . .

Helena crying while cutting onions for Grief Soup
Photo by Helena Keeffe

HK: As you know I'm writing this from my temporary home for the month in Mexico City and it is very striking to see how commerce and food co-mingle here. Some of the most popular places to eat are street food stands, including tacos sold out of the trunk of someone's car or from a basket strapped to the front of a bicycle. It's a massive city with millions of people constantly on the move yet things seem to function on a more human scale than the big US cities I'm familiar with. Human voices call out to announce that the gas truck is coming down the street to deliver propane, human hands ring bells to let you know the trash truck is coming down the street, women enter restaurants selling flowers and pastries, as many as they can carry in an armload. Taking all of this in, I have been thinking a lot about what we gain and what we give up in the name of convenience and efficiency.

On another note, I've been thinking about the Passover Seder as April 3rd approaches. I think I mentioned to you that my interest in working with food, the table, and the meal as forms for conveying stories stems in large part from my fondness for this Jewish holiday. I have vivid childhood memories of the story of the Jews being liberated from slavery, illustrated through taste, smell, texture, and visual symbolism. The way that we went back and forth with the recipes you wrote, the objects I made for the table and our collaborative planning of A Menu for Recognizing Invisible Forces was, for me, an ideal realization of my desire to work with the meal as a collaborative social space. We started by sharing our interests and values, exchanged ideas and texts, and then started to tell a story that had resonance for us in the hopes that others would connect to it as well. This kind of art is hard to preserve in a museum and what's on display is in a way a second part of the project made for a secondary audience, an audience beyond those who attended the dinner event. My hope is that museum visitors will imagine themselves creating something like this for themselves, or at least finding ways to bring meaning to the ritual of the meal in some small way.

In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art is based on the Talmudic principle of havruta—the study of religious texts by people in pairs. The root word haver—“friend” in Hebrew—emphasizes the communal nature of learning, and the havruta learning model reflects the Jewish affinity for asking questions and grappling with complex topics, together. Each local artist invited to participate is given the opportunity of working with an established writer, scientist, thinker, or academic in a field of their choosing.


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