mike geno

Esquire Magazine, Spain

September 2012

To be sure, hunger stokes ingenuity, and with a thin wallet to boot, the statement must ring true for an ex-butcher, American teacher, and painter in his spare time. His first obsession was the rubber ducky (just like you'd see in the home of new parents), the coloring and shape of the animal fascinated Mike Geno just as it would a child. And that's how his first series began: portraits of objects -- nearly all of them plastic -- of arresting shapes and loud colors.

His second phase, the one that would take his portraits to the gallery scene, arrived on the heels of a rumbling stomach. Mike was hungry and the only picture in his mind was of a pork chop. "The truth is that I couldn't permit myself to have it, but I joked to a friend, 'I'd like to paint something appetizing.' After laughing, my friend said, 'Just do it.'" He went to the butcher, bought the meat (having been a butcher himself, he knew exactly what kind of cut he wanted), and -- we imagine him salivating -- painted a portrait before eating his model. And after that, Mike became a "food painter," as he calls it.

The term is fitting. Mike's obsession with food is apparent at first blush, but to be clear, his palate is refined. None of that American fast food stuff. "I know it's part of my culture, but as I see fast food in a more nostalgic sense, like growing up with a hot dog in your hand. I think people now are more open towards eating better. There's more information out there, like foodie blogs. Like many, I only have one or two Cokes in a year."

It was one of those food blogs that propelled Geno to create these portraits of cheeses from all over the world. After his meat phase, the Philadelphia professor brought some of his work to sell in a small cheese shop. There, once more, he caved to the temptation to live beyond his means and bought a piece of expensive cheese. "That's how my cheese adventure began," he says, laughing. "I didn't know much about it at the time, but I did know someone who loved cheese, the woman behind the blog 'Madame Fromage.' So I got in touch with her to ask for insight, and I began to learn from there. At first she gave me advice on what to choose, but before long we were going on cheese runs together. And the proprietors were passionate about cheese, too."

But which cheeses to paint? Geno paints what catches his eye, much as he did with his early work. Which is to say, he can only express himself through objects that appeal to him visually, and that visual aspect is the starting point. "When I see a cheese, it has to make me want to eat it even if I'm not hungry." From there, taking also into account the texture and size, if the chosen cheese tastes good, it's cast immediately. That said, they also must be artisan cheeses, not mass-produced. He considers the cheese-makers to be artists, and himself "an artist who recreates the art of others."

If it seems odd that a fellow would dedicate himself so wholeheartedly to painting food portraits -- he boasts fifty kinds of cheeses, plus donuts, breads, and meats ("and I have a waiting list.") -- what's even stranger is Geno's painting ritual: He studies up on his chosen subject, on the process of its making (he even has fans who send him emails with historical information about their country's cheeses), and he takes a couple photos in case something goes wrong. Then he puts the model at his side, and he sticks a canvas to the studio wall in front of him. "I don't like to work with photographs. Painting them directly yields better results. I can see more details, and even the smell inspires me and helps me to get to the essence of what I'm painting. And, better yet, I have the motivation of eating it once I'm done. That is pleasing." Depending on the difficulty of the piece, Geno can clock up to seven hours non-stop to finish a painting; there's always the risk that the food can become deformed if too much time passes. The most complicated portrait was of the Manchego, the porousness of the subject put Geno's patience to the test.

Though he assures us he's not yet tired of cheeses, Geno says he's not afraid to expand his shopping list. Once he finishes his pending projects, he's going to try his hand at Japanese food. "I want to have a show in California, which is the place in America where I think they appreciate Japanese food the most. I don't know too much about it, but visually the food is very beautiful, and it will be a challenge to learn about it."

Given his trajectory and his plans for the future, it seems Geno will continue to make food the hero of his paintings. It's what moves him the most right now, he says, and literally what puts food in his belly, in addition to his work as a teacher. So why stop now? Moreover, he is dedicated to food and to the endless dinner tables where the conversation inevitably turns to gastronomic topics. "In the past decade I've realized that food can bring people together from different walks of life. We all eat, so food has a significance for everyone."

When we ended on the question of Geno's favorite cheese, he can't suppress his laughter. "I couldn't pick one! It's like asking a parent which child is his favorite. For me it's the same thing!."

artical written by Lidia Maseres,
translated by Alex Morales

Esquire, Spain interview of Mike Geno
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