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Feb. 7, 2005


U-M artists explore food, from tiller to table


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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Canoeing down the Huron River, watching movies and digging leeks in a freezing rain doesn't sound like any art course you've ever encountered, but for Nick Tobier, an assistant professor the University of Michigan's School of Art & Design, a wide-ranging class about food turned out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of his career.

"I have really never had such an inspiring experience with students," Tobier says of the class "Food: from Farming to Feasts." The undergraduate students worked with individual farmers, bakers, jam and jelly makers and tamale chefs, to see and experience where food comes from and how it gets to their own plates. And then they turned these experiences into art.

"I think that we as a group of artists went out into the world with this spirit, these abilities and this willingness and transmitted a lot of that exuberance, optimism and possibility to the people we met," Tobier said.

To facilitate their exploration of the links between food, culture and society, the class connected with all sorts of vendors who sell their products at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. They dug potatoes on a hot late September afternoon and cooked together on electric burners in the studio, all the while talking about family, culture and the political aspects of food. They also managed to fill the School of Art & Design with the fragrance of fresh beets, apples, garlic and leeks.

"The class really allowed me to take what I had learned growing up on a family dairy farm and transfer it to the Art School as well as to the community," said student Tim Raynard. "Overall, the class helped me to grow in appreciation of food and all the symbols, feelings and atmosphere that surround it."

The class began with a canoe trip down the Huron River that set the tone for working as a group. That experience led to reading and discussing great books and films and then to getting their hands dirty harvesting root vegetables.

Then the students transferred their experiences to visual images via text, photographs, graphics, design and ceramics, all cementing their new relationship with foods and their sources, ending the project with an understanding and appreciation of the producers and their products. At the Ann Arbor Market, the students constructed an exhibition explaining their experiences and findings, allowing customers to become more familiar with the sources for the produce, flowers, herbs, and baked goods displayed for sale on tables, the tailgates of trucks and in baskets and pots. A pamphlet with photos and comments from the journals kept by the students added to the display.

The students found more than an explanation of how their food is produced. Some obtained instruction in the Turkish language and anecdotal advice for the next step in life from Sevgi Ozdemir of the Anatolian Bakery.

Students found that producing a saleable product was not the only intent when they worked with Scott Robertello of Kapnick Orchards. Robertello's efforts to perpetuate the health and beauty of the land as well as nurture his orchard became readily evident, as did his program of teaching local school children about farming and that apples come from trees, not from grocery stores.

"I was impressed with both the openness of the students to share their ideas with each other and to describe what we were doing to the many great people we met," Tobier said. "In every case, this group was met with equally open farmers, bakers and chefs. "

As a culmination of their varied experiences, the students prepared a meal for Ann Arbor's DeLonis Shelter, showing themselves and others that the artist has a potential to nourish society.

"I miss that group," Tobier said. "That speaks volumes about what the class accomplished for me as a teacher. I was surprised at how much we all let our guard down and really worked together, as opposed to the more typical models of either the isolated artist genius or the competitive student."

U-M School of Art & Design

Joanne Nesbit
Phone: (734) 647-4418


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