A Conversation with Rosemary Liss

by Emma Jo Shatto

Rosemary Liss creates artwork that explores her relationship to nourishment and food. I was fortunate to sit down with her following a trip to Alaska, and prior to her most recent exhibition “Villus” at the Little Berlin gallery in Philadelphia, PA.

The Baltimore native attended the Baltimore School of the Arts before studying the liberal arts in Massachusetts at Wheaton College. A decade later, she has returned to her hometown, and has been exhibiting, attending residencies, and exploring a new world of ‘comestible’ based work.

You recently took a trip to Alaska, can you tell me about an important moment from that trip that affected you or your practice? 

I had brought some gouache and watercolor paper to Alaska to do small sketches, but found that the endless days of light and manual labor were much more conducive to hibernating in the cabin, drinking countless cups of tea, reading, and writing letters. I read a book every three days and wrote excessively long letters.

When I was traveling last summer my letter writing evolved. It became the building block for many of my artist statements, as well as the foundation for future projects. My highly personal messages to friends, exes, and lovers allowed me to become more comfortable expressing myself with the written word. I began to unfold all the fleshy onion layers beneath to find deeper meaning in how I interact with my body, other people’s bodies, and the earth’s body. 

Salmon Liver (early morning pick): Ekuk Alaska, 2016

The letters I wrote during my time in Alaska became the inspiration for a small book I just self-published with my friend, poet Lily Herman, a fellow crew member at “fish camp.” We combined a series of images and text from our time in Ekuk to produce “Tide Book” which was released in time for Fields Fest. The book debut last week for a full moon reading that was at The Bell Foundry where I shared letters written about heartbreak, anxieties around physical intimacy, and digestive desires.

I ended with tips and tricks on caring for and enjoying your crystal dildo, like recharging with the full moon: “The moon holds within it incredibly potent & healing & activating energy. On the night of a full moon, put your crystal on a windowsill that faces the moon’s light & keep it there while you sleep.” Crystals love moon-baths! I could do an entire interview on the life changing, body expanding wonders of my rose quartz, but I’ll save that for next time. 

Why did you decide to return to Baltimore after graduating from college?

The impetus to return to Baltimore after college was not what has kept me here these past five years. In 2011, I had just graduated from college, and I was secretly overcoming a heroin addiction. My student loans were about to kick in. I was completely disconnected from my body and had lost any decision making intuition. I was exhausted.

That first year home I think I made a total of two paintings. I spent more time paralyzed with fear. I drank too much and worked too much. It wasn’t until I got really sick that I realized I had to look at what I really wanted. Illness seems to find us when we are not truly engaged with our”selves”.  

Kombucha Mother Installation at the Nordic Food Lab: Copenhagen Denmark, 2015 - ℅ Katie Ball

Kombucha Mother Installation at the Nordic Food Lab: Copenhagen Denmark, 2015 – ℅ Chris Tonneson

I started going to acupuncture, which changed my life. I began to understand my body, to really integrate with all its layers of being, listen to its messages – its by far the smarter half of you – the brain voice (the ego) is usually full of shit.

I made big changes: I left financial stability to pursue more creative outlets, I began to understand that how I ate was as important as what I ate, and I saw the multiplicities within my relationship to food.

I began to see my health through the weblike connection of somatic nourishment. Mostly I learned to own my needs and desires. This is still a work in progress. It’s only in the last year that I truly feel like I’m getting to a place where I am confident and grounded in this vessel. But all the things that I gathered along the way have filled me with a new kind of energy which drives the destruction of my studio practice: slowing down the creation and consumption of my food, my breath, and my orgasms.

How has the world changed since graduating? How has your practice grown and in what ways?

Instagram is a thing now, and it has directly influenced how we document and share our images. I used to pay my photography teacher, or do a trade with a friend to get high-rez photos for my portfolio. Now, I mostly use my iPhone to document my work and my process. I am completely autonomous. It takes less than 30 seconds to upload and share images with thousands of people. There’s a beautiful immediacy to it, but we’ve also lost something. 

Our attention spans have shortened, but we are able to “see” and experience a multitude of tiny images more rapidly.

We look at art in bed, while we shit, and while we eat. It opens our worlds, but simultaneously distracts us.

We lose some of the intimate experiences right in front of our faces. Maybe we miss the way the sun moves across skin, or the layers of taste we experience with each bite.

I know how easy it is to lose yourself in that specific style of self deprecation that whines, “What’s the point of doing this art thing? Everyone out there is sexier, doing it better, and making it more unique than I am.” I’m all about harnessing the benefits of these technologies, but I admit I fall easily into the self destructive k-hole that is the scroll down of social media feeds.

I just got back from a six week trip to a remote fishing village in Alaska where I was cut off from all these vices and devices. I was surprised how little I missed it. I only really felt its absence when our crew had serious debates in the cabin. We made a “google that” list for our return to the lower 48 that included:

1. “Did Marilyn Manson write Personal Jesus or is it a cover?

2. What does Cathexis mean?

3. Can any infusion made from a plant be called a tea? Is meat tea a thing?”

Fermented Paper Mobile Install at the Nordic Food Lab: Copenhagen Denmark, 2015 – ℅ Chris Tonnesen

When I was abroad last year I didn’t have a studio, so my Instagram took its place. I used its’ platform to document my travels. But mostly it housed the images, texts, and installations I was creating: found visuals, food textures, and digital manipulations within art spaces that existed only within my screen, a series of images that someday may or may not be activated into a 3D world. Today, I’m back in a brick and mortar studio, but in some ways I miss the freedom of having nothing.

Beyond the digital, my practice has been highly influenced by the struggle to find time and a balance between working and making. When I stopped “working” and all my actions, including whatever my day job was, began to influence my practice, or feed my practice, or be my practice, it opened up all the possibilities and my creativity shifted.  

What interests you about food, experience, and art making?

My shift into comestible based work grew from the realization that I didn’t have to compartmentalize my interests. I was working at Hex, a fermentation company in Baltimore. I was learning all about the micro-biome and gut health. I was up to my eyeballs in cabbage and salt. I was helping make 400 pounds of kimchi a week. I was learning to taste new flavor combinations: kimchi with almond butter, garlic oregano kraut on pizza. Texture, flavor, and color combinations filled all my holes.

As my interests melded, my voice became clearer, and it allowed me to do more projects under food related themes. Last summer I was the resident artist at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen where I created two permanent installations for the lab. And I continued my travels with a trip to Berlin to participate in “Everything Under the Sun,” a project hosted by Agora Collective that focused on issues surrounding economic systems, globalization, and climate change through food binaries.

Aquaponics meal at Agora: fish head, ceviche with coriander, sauerkraut, red cabbage slaw, mixed greens with pomegranate, Berlin Germany, 2015

Aquaponics meal at Agora: fish head, ceviche with coriander, sauerkraut, red cabbage slaw, mixed greens with pomegranate, Berlin Germany, 2015

The optic of food provided an arena to acknowledge many topics. I realized my orbit through self healing was the very fodder that drove my practice. Now, I’ve become increasingly interested in all its complexities. Food sustains us, but it also provides medicinal and hedonistic value.  I’m interested in all those nuances: from the aphrodisiac elements to the grounding and uplifting capabilities, but also the extremes from overconsumption to orthorexia.  

Since moving back to Baltimore, what experiences have you gained through the local art community?

I’m so lucky to have been born in Baltimore and to have returned and benefited from many of the incredible opportunities in this city. I would not be able to work the jobs I do and pay the rent I have in a bigger metropolitan setting. Yes, we still struggle to build a viable art market. It’s more lucrative to make work here and sell outside the city, but that’s also why I feel that this space is the perfect home base.

I love leaving to work on projects and travel knowing I’m returning to something beautiful: a community that continues to foster love and support. Of course, this is a bit sugar coated, but I’m an idealist. I used to feel I was running away, now I realize I’m just leaving to re-calibrate and reflect on what I have. We are responsible for creating new kinds of systems and ways of being artists that corroborate with this community. It has to make sense here, scenarios within New York City or LA’s art world are not applicable paradigms for this city.

When I first moved home I felt like an outsider. I had not graduated from MICA and while I had a few friends showing work or playing in bands around the city, I felt I was grossly disconnected to “the scene.” I started forcing myself to go to openings and events. Over time, through my own work and my own relationships I began to find a place within these spaces. Yet, one of the biggest lessons I learned was to stop going to things I didn’t care about. When I started really constructing my interests and worrying less about what other people thought, I found my place within this constellation. Projects and opportunities began to find me more organically.

You have a show coming up on September 3rd, can you tell me more about what you are planning?

Yes! I’m so honored and excited to be participating in the group show “Villus” at Little Berlin in Philly. The exhibition is centered around ideas of fermentation and colonization within the body and the globalized world beyond. The curator, Will Owen is a member of Flux Factory and a lead-designer of the Fung Wah Biennial, which worked with Current Space in Baltimore.

Each Saturday during the show’s run, one of the participating artists will cook a meal that connects to their project. I’m working on something really special that gives a nod to traditional Japanese Kaiseki meals and ideas centered around intuitive eating and body awareness.

Without giving too much away I will just say that there will be some form of guided meditation before the meal to help people be completely present with their bodies as they meet each dish. I will be serving something really tasty with inari and black rice.

Obviously, sour and fermented foods will have starring roles in each course. Maybe, I’ll make more whey jello. The whey jello with activated charcoal was a big hit during “Hands Please,” my project on food and chakras that I presented Thomasson Theater in June.

Whey jello with beetroot and spirulina powder for “hands please”, 2016

Whey jello with beetroot and spirulina powder for “hands please”, 2016

I’m not sure what visual components will be part of the physical show, but I will spend a few days playing around in my studio picking up pieces of wood and fabric, and making a mess with alginate until something forms. I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between physical and emotional boundaries, and the overgrowth of yeast – bracketing points of entry – so there’s that.

This past week you participated in the Field’s Festival. How did you participate in the festival and what did you take from it?  

I think Michael Farley’s “all the instagram’s I should have taken at Fields Fest” for Art F City is a pretty complete image of last weekend’s vibe. He describes the aesthetic of the festival as “psychedelic decay,” an apt description due to the themes of creation and destruction that seemed to permeate camp ramblewood.

When a customer asked Ali Moss how she would describe our menu for Wyrd Kitch’n she suggested “post-stoner.” It carries on the exploration of outlandish flavor combinations. Instead of hummus on cold hot dogs, or doritos dipped in french onion dip we provided mind-blowing dishes that would actually help you poop! 

From rice bowls with buckwheat, and millet topped with a rainbow assortment of pickles, to snack packs with cultured cashew cheese, mushroom paté, and hand made dolmas. We also sold an absurd variety of ice pops with heady flavor combos like my favorite: yellow watermelon with yuzu kosho and vegan cookies (like miso peanut butter with sesame seeds).  Wyrd Kitch’n is the brainchild of Ali Moss and Katrina Ford and springs out of their own journey to create healing and nourishing food that is full of flavor while simultaneously available to everyone.

My goal for cooking at Fields was to convince Ali and Katrina that we should do more events because everything they make transmutes into digestive gold. I was hoping that this festival would allow us to create dishes that would be satisfying and challenging for those exploring illicit substances. I realized, however, that spending money and eating food is not really on the top of your list when your body becomes a fractal and you end up lost in the woods at night looking at the paw paw trees. I think exploring taste and eating while being on psychedelics will have to be a future project outside the catering sphere. Our stand was still a success and the overwhelming feedback has motivated us to think about doing more events in the near future. We also hope to create more intimate dinners and thematic tasting menus in the upcoming year.

Mostly, I’m thrilled that we were able to contribute to such a magical weekend. You know a festival is a success when you get to sit next to a pond, while receiving free acupuncture with a blanket of dulcet sounds washing over you when suddenly your period, which was a stressed induced two weeks late, arrives. So thank you Amanda Schmidt and Stewart Mostofsky for providing a supportive space that truly sums up Baltimore’s zeitgeist.

What is on the agenda for the next couple of months as far as making and creating work?

I like to make lists. I’ve found when you form your ideas on paper it releases them into the ether, and allows you to focus on what’s happening now. If you don’t spend all your time obsessing about the future, things seem to come at you in just the right way. So here’s my list (a combination of planned projects and dream ideas) as of August 2016:

  • Grow algae and design food projects with Modern Nature
  • Cook chicken well – not well done 😉
  • Get better at sauces
  • Learn to prepare traditional kaiseki and ichiju-sansai meals
  • Write an article about eating fish livers in Alaska
  • Collaborate with my ladies in Copenhagen and Berlin -more sexy dinners!
  • Do I still want a studio?
  • Apply for residencies and grants: What? Where?
  • Cook outside, move my body outside
  • Have sex that feels good/eat food that tastes good

Rosemary’s collaborative and experiential exhibition, “Villus” with begin at 5 PM at the Little Berlin gallery in Philadelphia, PA on Saturday, September 3rd until September 25th.