Recently we caught up with Jeni Britton Bauer, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and founder of Columbus-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams to get her take on art, thinking like an artist, and her inspiration for creating an ice cream tribute to George Bellows.
Why does art matter to you?
Art answers the emotional Why? When I dig deep to find out, I gain new perspective. It’s time travel. Why this? Why that? Why now? Why him?
What role does art play in your life?
It expands into the cracks and fills the gaps. Art helps me draw conclusions and make connections. When I think, I use all parts of my brain. It’s like when you work out, if you worked only one arm, you would have one big arm and one small one. Artistic thinking, which is not necessarily creative thinking, is a vital part of my thought process.
In ice cream I use art thinking when I decide what I’ll do with, say, a raspberry. Raspberries are a beautiful and perfect fruit in color, texture and flavor. There is nothing better than a raspberry and nothing you can add to a raspberry to make it more perfect. I can honor a raspberry by making a sorbet with as little else as possible. Just a bit of sugar. Pulverized. This is art because I have chosen to leave it almost in it’s original form. If I added tarragon to it, or mint, or even honey, which seem like fine things to do, I would have distracted the flavor. Because you can’t make a raspberry better or even more interesting. However, in a sorbet form, rather than a whole raspberry, the flavor is pink-red, and surprisingly grassy, a little tart and a bit sweet, a tiny bit biting and bitter. Things you may not even notice when chomping on a fresh berry.
Anything that a raspberry touches is given a kick in the pants. Think of a simple cake with raspberry sorbet melting into the crumb, or a rich chocolate cake. A scoop of dense raspberry sorbet plopped into a cup of Watershed gin with a sprig of lavender hanging off the rim (you smell it as you bring it to your nose), is the ice and the mixer in a fresh cocktail I call Rouge Your Knees. I can make fresh raspberries into a sauce and swirl it through a soft farmstead cheese ice cream. Raspberries become a tool in my ice cream arsenal to make softer flavors sing. I may use the sorbet to pop other flavors, but I’ll never add something other than a touch of sugar to the raspberries. They are perfect already.
Art answers why. Just because you put something together, should you? If you ask yourself this question about everything you do, art will play a big part of your life, too.
How are food and art alike?
They are both essential for survival.
What about George Bellows inspires you?
I am lucky to have seen the Bellows show at the National Gallery in Washington D.C and again at the Met in NYC. To see so many of his pieces here in his hometown is really wonderful. To see the paintings all together was life changing to me. I truly fell for George Bellows. I spent hours visiting the paintings. I jumped into them, especially the New York scenes. I love to compare his work to Winslow Homer, another of my favorite painters. I think that George Bellows’ work is edgier, it’s tougher, it’s bolder, and harder to take in, and that’s what makes it so strong for me. You can read his faces in his portraits. You can smell the air in his landscapes. You can feel the salt on your cheeks when you see the spray of the wave in his seascapes. And you begin to feel what his subjects felt. Some were suffering or struggling and the way he paints them you feel their struggles. Often the faces are smudges of many colors of paint, but they come through vividly, as if I know them personally. I also love the colors that are in each painting. If you look closely you will find may colors.
Tell us about how you created the George Bellows flavor
My great grandparents had a big old house in Maine that I visited when I was 9 years old. It had secret passages behind walls, the kind where you pull the candlestick and the wall opens up. Those passages were hiding spots and escape routes on one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad. You could get all the way out to the back of the property through the wall of the living room. When you emerged, you would be in the middle of an old graveyard. Spooky. That summer I spent time frolicking in the cold New England waters. I ate salt water taffy, iced coffee and lobster for the first time. There is something about Maine that I got a glimpse of that summer that has stayed with me all these years, and that I revisit in Bellows’ paintings of the sea, especially the painting Churn and Break, which also has a name that sounds like an ice cream flavor. The sea churns, the ice cream churns.
It’s not just the sea that is salty, it’s the air. I wanted the ice cream to taste like salt water taffy. And we use salt from the sea, so the ice cream has that flavor. The cookies are colored to match specific parts of the waves. Inside you will find a fresh plum sauce. They are in season in Ohio, so it’s good timing, but it also adds the deep purple color of the rocks in the painting. I also think that plums have a salty scent to them. That’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. Even plum blossoms smell salty to me. So Sea Salt and Plum Jam was my tribute to George Bellows’ painting Churn and Break.
How does the Columbus community incubate creativity?
I make a distinction between art and creativity. Creativity has very little to do with art. You can be an artist and not be an especially creative thinker (as my raspberry example above). But, I’m not convinced that you can be a scientist without being a creative thinker. So let’s all agree that creativity is very important. It’s important for artists, scientists, mathletes, farmers, chefs, and moms and dads. If you can’t think creatively then you rob yourself and your community of the ability to change the world.
When you encounter a brick wall, you may turn around. I see potential in a brick wall, I see opportunity. Sometimes I can get over it, sometimes I can knock it down. And I get to reap the benefits of what’s on the other side. Creativity is seeing potential and opportunity where others don’t.
So how do we nurture this in Columbus? We are lucky to have such incredible art museums, fountains, parks, devoted musicians, and playthings. We are lucky to have artists living here and to have entire districts devoted to art. But let’s do better because it’s important. Kids used to learn to draw in school. Really draw. Now we don’t. Drawing is important because it can help you explain things to people. It can help you work through a problem. I think everyone should learn to draw. It’s like I said above, if you only learned math and science then it’s like a body builder who only works out one arm and one leg. We have to do a better job nurturing whole brain thinkers. That has to start in kindergarten and before. Art incubates creative thinking because it forces you to move emotions and thoughts through your body and finger tips and transpose them onto paper, canvas, or other mediums.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Frank Stella, George Bellows, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, and my daughter Greta.
George Bellows and the American Experience will remain on view at CMA through January 4, 2014. Jeni’s Sea Salt and Plum Jam Bellows-inspired ice cream will be served exclusively at our annual Art Celebration and ArtFUSION on October 19, 2013.