Color Palate - Local New Jersey artist explores our relationship to the midday meal
Inspiration often hits unexpectedly. For one visual artist, hip-hop and happenstance combined to bring a food-inspired body of work to the table.
Eating is a common thread, binding us together. What we consume reveals who we are—our habits, lifestyle and culture.
Chesterfield artist Lora Marie Durr explores these subjects in her series of paintings titled What’s For Lunch, a collection that’s part visual essay, part visual feast, all centered around this daily meal.
Durr, an artist and art educator, began this series after a point in her career where she felt making art simply wasn’t enough.
“We often don’t pay too much attention to mundane objects, though they are still part of our daily lives,” she says. In her search for inspiration in the still life genre, she turned to the work of other contemporary artists. “While I was attracted to food painting, most artists were beautifying it without much of a story or room for interpretation.”
Later that year, inspiration struck when she attended a lecture by Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC, who shared his experiences working with art and middle school students. McDaniels’ message was this: In art, if you’re doing what everyone else is doing, stop and do the opposite.
“It’s like a light switch went on,” says Durr. “I began to think about the food paintings I was attracted to and how perfectly posed, staged and lit they were, and began to wonder what the opposite of that would be.”
McDaniels struck another chord; Durr had also worked with middle school students, for 17 years.
“I thought about my middle school students who were underprivileged, and how what they ate and what I ate was very different, and then I had an idea. What if I asked people to send me pictures of their lunch, just as it is? Nothing fancy or edited. I wanted to see what people threw in a bag and called lunch.”
Durr began asking people from all walks of life to submit photos of their lunch, requesting their first name, age and career, which she used to title the pieces. She then created oil paintings of the submissions, all 12 x 16 inches—the size of a standard placemat.
“It’s the opposite of staged perfect images of food. It’s more raw and real, and it became fascinating to see what people’s food said about them,” she says.
Along with images submitted from friends, colleagues and strangers, Durr includes portraits of lunches from her former middle school students who participate in the free lunch program, as well as lunches from the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK).
With a broad range of submissions, stories began to unfold, as well as a few surprises.
“I was impressed with the lunch pictures from TASK—they looked like well-rounded meals—but [I] was surprised [when] comparing them with the pictures from the middle school free lunch program—what was on their plates looked far from real food,” says Durr.
Submissions include an image of a simple cup of coffee from a time-pressed teacher, snippets of meals framed by dashboards and cup holders and others next to mouse pads and keyboards.
Durr also notes with surprise the number of people who were embarrassed to send pictures of their food. “Some people would apologize for how basic their lunch was—but that’s the point. You don’t have to be embarrassed by your food—it’s your food,” she says. “What happened to our culture, where people are so obsessed with posting pictures of their food? It’s a strange thing how people are putting food on pedestals. It wasn’t like that before.”
Basic or not, Durr sees beauty in food of all types.
“Color has always been the driving force behind why I like to paint, and food in general is typically quite colorful—even the bag of chips or hoagie from Wawa has a lot of color and is fun for me to paint,” she says.
Durr shares her love of food and painting in her current work teaching art to high school students. She brings in doughnuts for her students to paint; doughnuts were the subject of her first food painting.
“It’s nice to see my day job and my passion come together,” she says. “It’s really important to inspire kids to come up with their own interpretations and have something to say, rather than just create something that’s visually appealing. It’s a starting point for a bigger conversation,” she says. “Food won’t always be one of the subjects in my curriculum—but the notion that art has a deeper meaning is what I will always push for, no matter what grade level I teach.”
The What’s For Lunch series is part of a group show curated by Durr titled “The Shared Meal,” on display April 30–June 1 at Artworks in Trenton, 19 Everett Alley, artworkstrenton.org. Opening reception: May 4, 7–9pm. The show features the work of eight artists. To view more of Durr’s work, or to submit a photo of your lunch, visit loramariedurr.com.