Artist explores a ‘Flavorful’ nation through foods
On Jan. 6, 1941, at a time when western Europe lay under Nazi domination, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress about the necessity of war, delivering the historic “Four Freedoms” speech.
This speech, which appealed to Americans’ most profound beliefs about freedom, so impassioned artist Norman Rockwell that he immediately set about creating a series of paintings on the “Four Freedoms” theme.
Today, those paintings are some of the most iconic images of America. Not the least of which is “Freedom From Want,” which features the halcyon scene of a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner.
Like Rockwell in his day, many artists of today have been stirred by the events of our time. And one of them is Mt. Lebanon artist Elizabeth Myers Castonguay. “I was unusually on fire,” says Castonguay about her work on the series of 18 large acrylic-on-canvas paintings she began the day after 9/11.
Currently, at La Fond Galleries on the South Side, the paintings make up the bulk of Castonguay’s solo show, “America the Flavorful.”
Like in Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” Castonguay’s paintings use food for an impassioned appeal. But in her paintings, Castonguay says, “I use the vehicle of food and drink to try to illustrate the diversity of humanity.”
The message is clear at the entrance to the gallery, where the first painting visitors encounter, “Embracing Diversity,” depicts several hands holding eggshells of a different color than their skin. Of the yolks that fall from each egg, one is a globe of Earth.
On a pedestal in front of the painting, Castonguay has set a bowl of brown and white eggs and a bowl of yolks. Castonguay likens the yolks and the eggshells that contain them to people, “Once you take away the superficial qualities, we are all the same,” she says.
Two more paintings in the front room use eggs symbolically, but in reference to creation. From there, the subjects begin to move into other foods with the pivotal painting “Different Shell, Same Egg,” which features a brown and white egg, yolks, and slices of pies and cakes.
Next to that painting is “Flavors of Humanity,” in which cookies and other desserts associated with different ethnic identities begin to appear. And in the painting “America the Flavorful,” a variety of sweets and desserts from baklava to Belgian chocolates are depicted.
Because these paintings are the earliest in the series, there is a sketchy quality to the renderings of each subject. Castonguay says that is a result of them being painted relatively soon after 9/11.
“I didn’t know how much time we had,” she says. “Our lives were so disrupted, and I just had to get those thoughts down.”
By the time she began painting “Toast to Freedom,” which features drinks of all nations such as French champagne, German beer and a margarita, among many others, things had calmed down, she says, so she began spending more time completing each element in each of the subsequent paintings.
She also began tackling the diversity theme through the use of other subjects such as coffee and teapots in “Coffee and Humani-Tea,” fruits from most continents in “Fruit of Diversity” and “Fruit of Diversity II,” and various shoes of ethnic identity for “Many Moons,” which is based on the American Indian saying: “Don’t Judge a Man Until You’ve Walked Two Moons in His Moccasins.”
For Castonguay, a caucasian American, diversity is a theme that extends beyond her paintings. She is a founding member of the 2-year-old, multi-ethnic group Celebrating Diversity, which seeks to “encourage interaction and friendship between people of all colors and cultures.”
The group is just one of the many influences that have inspired these recent works. Those influences include current affairs such as the continuing conflict in the Middle East, the subject of the culminating work in the exhibition, “Fear of Diversity.”
Like its counterpart at the entrance to the exhibition, “Embracing Diversity,” the painting depicts hands holding eggshells from which yolks are falling. But here, Castonguay has placed light and dark eggs in hands having respective skin tones. Spatters of blood-colored paint cover the canvas, as well as a bowl of brown and white eggs that sits on a pedestal in front of it to drive home the idea of ethnic tension.
In addition to the overriding theme of all the works, what will strike viewers most about these paintings is the dark palette and super-realism with which the subjects are depicted. What lies at the base of this is an overall exceptional handling of the medium of acrylics. Here, Castonguay handles it as though it was oil paint. This skillful execution saves the works from becoming overly sentimental or sweet and supports what La Fond Galleries’ director Michael Hertrich says: “It’s unlike anything being shown in Pittsburgh at the moment.”
|‘America the Flavorful’|