Recently, I sat down with food portraitist Mike Geno, who has recently gained much media attention for his richly textured cheese portraits. Cheese and art, two of my favorite things, combined in one person! I was thrilled! We talked at length about Mike’s incredible journey as an artist and as a foodie. I thought I’d share with you Mike’s exact words. There are many, though, so I’m breaking this up into two posts!
What inspired you to become a painter? How long have you been doing it professionally? How did you know that it was the right path for you?
Though I was always kind of creative and drew and painted like most kids do when they’re young, I never had an official art class until I was a freshman in college. I was going to a local campus of Penn State right out of high school and took drawing as my “blow off” course, to ease the transition of what I expected to be a lot harder school work. I was hooked, and after a second drawing class, I had filled my arts core curriculum requirement.
However, I couldn’t stop thinking about the world in a compositional way; I would be in my car and see potential drawings. My drawing teacher suggested I try oil painting as an elective. The first painting was one of those “Eureka!” moments. It felt as if I’d painted all my life, it was so natural and intuitive. That was 1990… oh, I’m so old.
Had you intended to paint food from the beginning of your career? How did that begin?
Food didn’t occur to me as a subject until after I had grown up as an artist, so to speak. Earlier, I [had noticed] how [my enjoyment of] color, movement, shape and texture, within painting, was starting to emerge as a noticeable pattern to me.
Later, in grad school, I found myself too serious about my work, [which] killed the creative process that I had taken for granted. Finally, out of frustration, I decided to do something absurd, paint something not serious at all. I started painting rubber duckies. Immediately, I noticed my love of this type of form—its curve, the unexpected variety of yellows from one ducky toy to the other—they’re much more challenging than most would suspect. It also suited my personality, being more fun. [I found] pleasure [in] seriously painting a child’s toy, making my audience scratch their heads and ask why I would paint such a subject so well.
I started a series of toy paintings based mostly on their quality of shape/form, and because they often [are] not perceived as worthy of such efforts. My final accomplishment [in grad school] was recognizing the need for more [subjects] in my thesis exhibition. Drawing from my past experience as a meat cutter, I started making paintings of various cuts of raw meats as I had the ducky paintings. They went beautifully together since the meat wasn’t as saccharin as the toys. I hung the toys and meat facing each other in the gallery and everything seemed to come into place just right. This was 2001, before I ever really saw a contemporary meat painting other than illustrations by Mark Ryden.
What are your favorite foods to paint?
Moving back to Philadelphia after three years in the Midwest was wonderful. I was so happy to be back with some local food staples that I would never take for granted again. I started focusing on local foods as my subject, [particularly] the Philadelphia pretzel[s]. My attraction to their shapes and surfaces was similar to my attraction to toys. It made sense to me that I was meant to paint what I was most attracted to. The food I found most appetizing was a natural choice. Bacon compositions were my full focus for over a year. Cheese was a gift –literally. When I received a gift card for a beloved local cheese shop (Di Bruno Brothers), I spent it all on a hefty wedge of Gorwydd Caerphilly with no knowledge of cheese at all. The texture and color was so beautifully cake-like, I found the greatest urge to paint it when I opened it up at home. That was my initiation to this incredible world of cheese. (Can you hear the opening credit music to my biopic? I’d like to believe Danny Elfman composed it.).
What are your favorite cheeses to paint?
After painting over one hundred cheeses from around the world, I have the hardest time naming my favorites. I love so many for different reasons. The indulgent ones are often the first to come to mind like Chiriboga (made with Bavarian crème), Délice de Bourgogne which is like eating summertime, Bayley Hazen Blue, mellow, yet still balanced, with that all-important blue cheese zing. Montgomery’s Cheddar is like the perfect storm of flavor and texture that is worlds away from most other cheddars.
What haven’t you had the chance to paint yet, but would love to?
That’s a tough question. In fact, I’m not sure I want to know. I find it works best for me to let the subject find me. If I look too hard, or direct it, sometimes it’s less genuine. Often my subjects are a result of something in my life. Cheese kind of tip toed across my path and accidentally became a new direction I wasn’t expecting. The local food, too, was not planned, just recognized. So, I’ll let you know when I know. (wink)
Check back soon for the 2nd part of our interview!
Please note: All copyright in these photos is owned by Mike Geno. These images are reproduced here from his website with his express consent. Please do not use, reproduce, distribute, or display them without his express permission.