words by alice fleerackers art by mike geno
Sometimes hunger makes people do crazy things. But for Philadelphia-based food artist
Mike Geno, a rumbling belly kick-started his career.
When he was a poor grad student, it was that familiar gnawing at his stomach that
motivated him to paint his first food portrait: a big, juicy steak. Recalling the experience,
he describes entering an almost trance-like state, “zoning-out,” and connecting to the
piece of meat on a level he’d never been able to with any other painting. When he
finally stepped back to evaluate his work, it became abundantly clear: he’d found his
subject. Since then, Geno has painted hundreds of food portraits, including everything
from crisp bacon strips to plump jelly donuts. But what he’s best known for are his
cheese portraits—the crumbling, oozing, mouthwatering compositions make up the
bulk of his portfolio.
alice fleerackers: Why did you start painting cheese?
mike geno: I had turned 40 and someone gave me a gift certificate for this really
fancy cheese shop. I decided, “I’m gonna go crazy. I’m gonna spend my $25 on one
wedge of cheese.” I hadn’t painted in a while, but seeing this wedge—there was
something about it. I said, “Oh my god, you have to paint this before you eat it.”
Then I was at this party, and I met this amazing woman at the food table. She had this
blog called Madame Fromage, and she wrote about cheese. I was kind of struck by that,
so I emailed her. I sent her an image [of my cheese painting], and I said, “Are there
enough cheeses that I could paint maybe 25 to 30 of these?”
She emailed me back excitedly, and opened up this world of cheese. We started
going to cheese shops together, she introduced me to people. I started painting
cheese, she started posting them, and it kind of took off that way.
af: Do you do a lot of research for your work?
mg: I like to have an idea about where it’s coming from and what its relevance is
before I paint. The cheese portrait series became a portrait series because I was
thinking about the personality of the cheese, the history and the region where it
comes from, and all the people who are connected to it.
af: Who buys your portraits?
mg: The audience is more food fan than art fan. My biggest patron is this really
wonderful, generous man in San Francisco. I call him my Cheese Daddy. He
called me years ago, and asked if he could commission seven paintings right away.
He’s a cheeseaholic, he said. He later explained to me that he was representing
his friends and family with these paintings of cheese and bread. He was letting
his friends pick the subject. If someone said, “I love Manchego,” I’d paint
Manchego. A certain bread from Paris he had overnighted to me for his mom.
It was crazy.
af: Do you only paint fancy cheese?
mg: I have a Velveeta in there. I loved doing that; I’ve always had a fondness for
kitsch. Food can definitely go into the kitsch world.
af: Do you ever eat the cheese you paint?
af: Then you’ve tasted a lot of cheese by now. Is there one country or region that has the best?
mg: That’s a very cruel thing to ask! I’m not going to answer that. If I’ve learned
anything, it’s that there’s great cheese everywhere.
af: Do you think about cheese differently now, after all of these paintings?
mg: After five years or so, I’ve become part of the community, I think. I know
a lot of cheese-makers, I’ve been to a lot of events, I’ve heard so many talks—
I feel like I know a lot about cheese that most people don’t.
And I think about cheese now—that’s the difference. You know how with your
computer, you’ve always got your operating system running? [Laughs] Cheese
is kind of my operating system.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Sadmagazine is at: http://www.sadmag.ca