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May 30, 2007

Saxton Freymann — 'The Willy Wonka of produce'


Say what?

Long story short: for the past decade the New York City artist has transformed fruits and vegetables into minimalist carvings.

Now, I know what you're thinking: that you've been doing it since you were a little kid.

But hiding your light under a barrel (or, in your case, the edge of your plate) doesn't qualify.


Jeff Houck profiled Freymann in a February 28, 2007 Tampa Tribune story, which follows.

    Culinary Cutups

    Some people look at a banana with a couple of nicks and bruises and see a piece of ripe fruit.

    Saxton Freymann sees a spotted giraffe. Or a pack of yellow dolphins frolicking amid a seabed of edamame pods. Or a napping yellow Labrador puppy.

    Some people just see the world differently. Freymann is the Willy Wonka of produce.

    Take a look, count to three, sculpt a broccoli tree.

    The New York City artist combined his unique vision with a talent for transforming fruits and vegetables into minimalist carvings to create a career that has spanned a decade. A collection of his works, greatest hits culled from various children's books and other projects, has been compiled into the new book "Food Play" (Chronicle Books, $16.95).

    The story is entirely visual, with green pepper frogs, weightlifting mushrooms and grumpy oranges with wrinkled navel noses for a face. In fact, the only words in "Food Play" come in Freymann's dedication in the first few pages: "For my family, who ate most of the contents of this book."

    Speaking by phone from his home in New York, he recounted how the improbable became fanciful and attracted the adoration of children and adults alike.

    How did you get to do this? How did this happen?

    The kind of short version is I was doing a lot of things. I was a painter, making paintings and drawings and living from one oddball art-related job to another. New York City has plenty of those.

    My wife was working at a publishing company and through someone at work met this publisher-packager named Joost Elffers, who is kind of a crazy Dutch guy. He had packaged a book with someone in Europe that sold mostly in Germany and was mostly about the history of garnishing and showing all the possibilities of decorative food carving. He couldn't get an American publisher interested in this book that he had done. They thought it was too European or too formal or whatever. But he thought that carving food was an oddball sort of interesting design topic, so he was kind of casting about looking for talent to deep and get into doing something like this.

    My wife perked her ears up and said, "My husband would be perfect for that." [laughs] And she called me up and said, "Here comes another cool, weird job for you."

    What was it that she thought you would be able to acccomplish?

    First and foremost? It was a job. That was her main impetus. The fact that I'm a genius was totally secondary. [laughs]

    Unemployed genius is such a rare commodity these days.

    Exactly. She knew that I had done lots of nutty, wacky things. As it turned out, she was right. It came very naturally to me. My impulse was to make little characters, which brought it into a different direction that was appreciated by the American audience.

    So I went to a grocery store, and I bought some things and turned them into things, took some shots and sent them off to Joost. He called and said, "This is wonderful. Why don't we begin?"

    Over the course of about a year, we had about 10 sessions with a photographer where we would just arrive at the studio with bags of groceries and I would basically play.

    He put together a beautiful book with a talented young designer and a writer. It was just a remarkable project because Joost did put together a beautiful book with the things that I made. What was miraculous was that it wasn't a photography book, it wasn't an art book, it wasn't a children's book. There was absolutely no category for it, so the only way it was going to sell a single copy was if every bookstore in the country stuck it out on that table in the front as you walk in. Which is what happened.

    Sort of an impulse buy kind of thing.

    Right. You see it and you go, "Oh, that's really cool." That led to doing several children's books for Scholastic and now this book for Chronicle, which is a collection of things we've done for the last 10 years.

    Some of the books were very simple and were just a single object on a page. Others were extremely complex and difficult to do. One, which is out of print and difficult to find because it came out the week of 9/11, unfortunately, was the most laborious one. I created this whole world, and it has a narrative "Wizard of Oz" type of story. There are broccoli meadows and artichoke cities. I mean, it's crazy. One of the side effects of that book is that there are things that you would have never seen if you weren't looking for them. What "Food Play" allowed me to do was go back and isolate some of these elements and stick them in dialogues with other images.

    I'm actually proud of "Food Play" because, even though it's a compilation, it's really its own book because of the dialogues that are set up on each spread.

    There is a narrative thread through the book, in the photos that are on facing pages. There isn't a sense that it's disjointed.

    That was one of the challenges. I have this body of work, and some of it was done for very specific reasons and specific context. For example, I did a book called "Fast Food," which is all vehicles. I have all of these different objects, so when Joost said, "Why don't you pull these things into a collection that will go back to our original audience?" it was really fun to go back and look at the pictures. Without a narrative, how do you put the things together? Well, there will be the same fruit for a couple pages, or when you turn the page, there will be some sort of continuity. That was a lot of fun for me to morph, going from spread to spread, matching a mushroom that's a house with a mushroom that's a face. Or a pepper that's a car with a pepper that's a frog.

    Would you qualify this as sculpture?

    You know, I don't know what to call it. When I first started out, it was almost like performance art. I'd show up with groceries and the photographer would say, "What's the first shot?" The clock was ticking, the meter was running, and it was like I had to get something in front of the camera. I was a much more plodding, slow-moving artist before this. I wasn't used to doing things so quickly. That was fun. Also, the produce doesn't take that much to alter it. The best things I make are subtle, things where I do the least intervention on the original form. Then there's the element that you want it to look as fresh as possible in every way.

    This is one of those things that looks easy but is the furthest thing from it when you consider the fruits and vegetables. Not every eggplant wants to look as pretty as you want it for as long as you want it. Just because you're working with a banana doesn't make it a banana that you want to eat. You don't want it to turn someone's stomach by looking at it.

    It's funny. The first designer I worked with was this Dutch guy, and he was really into it whenever there was an abrasion or some type of sore-looking thing on the side of one of these things.

    Hey, look! Its soul is screaming!

    Right. A lot of those mushroom elements were originally published in these extremely complicated composites. The opening of this book, which is called "Gus and Button," is this story of Little Gus. He's a little mushroom guy who lives in this mushroom world in a mushroom house. The opening scene is in his living room. He has mushroom parents sitting on mushroom easy chairs with a mushroom table and a mushroom TV with a mushroom fireplace, mushroom light fixtures, mushroom ottoman, mushroom dog. Every single thing in the photograph, and there are about 60 things, is made of mushrooms. You can't do all of that at once because the mushrooms dry out and they brown. That became a tricky thing to keep up with.

    The other thing is that when I was working with the mushrooms, the studio smelled like a forest. It was such an intense, loamy smell. Their smell is unlike any other vegetable. That pressure in the studio was eased somewhat about five years ago, when I got a camera and started shooting things myself. It made things much easier and much more inexpensive.

    Is there a vegetable that you particularly like working with, one that's more expressive than the others?

    It's like choosing your favorite child, and it really depends on what you need. Pumpkins are so ridiculous because they're beautiful and their color is so intense. You can carve crazy teeth, and they have that wonderful surface under the skin that you can sculpt. They come in such a great variety of sizes and shapes, and the stems give you such great noses.

    Pumpkins are wonderful, but oranges are similarly magical. They've got the pith underneath that you can carve, just like a pumpkin. They've got the wrinkles, too. There's something about the scale and familiarity of an orange and the surprise that it's a face.

    I don't like to do too much to them. I like to leave as much of the original organic object as possible. That's what gives you the pun, when it completely continues to be a tomato or a pumpkin or a mushroom and yet it's something else.

    I try to remain as elegant as possible. I don't like to mix two different kinds of fruit. It's very pleasing to me when I find, for example, that if I want to make an ant, all I have to do is put three cherries together and the stems were the legs. It still stayed within the realm of cherries.

    Well, there are a couple levels here. You have the simplicity of making a mushroom snowman by piling three mushrooms on top of each other and then poking out the eyes and mouth. Then there's the "I see dead people" kind of experience you must have where you walk through a produce section and see a piece of ginger and think, "Oh, that looks like a lobster."


    I'm sure plenty of people noticed this stuff. Just no one decided to spend 10 years doing it.

May 30, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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