Portland artist’s bite-sized props are pretty enough to eat

As a child, Portland artist Louisa Donelson spent “years” making miniatures for her dollhouse – pie plates from bottle corks, dinner plates from buttons, a crib from half an eggshell covered with lace.

“I spent a lot of time creating worlds as a kid,” she said, “like a lot of kids do.”

Six years ago, after giving birth to her first child, Colette, she found herself returning to her childhood preoccupation, trying out a very small, very realistic food sculpture every day she was home on leave. motherhood from her then job as an educator at the Portland Museum of Art.

Some days his creations were simple, maybe a pea-sized piece of cheese. “The nap wouldn’t happen,” she recalls. “Other days I might get more elaborate,” she said, trying her hand at a sushi roll the size of the commercial end of a chopstick.

The creations, made from polymer clay, became the genesis of Micro Picnic, a line of tiny, hyper-realistic food sculptures that Donelson transforms into jewelry that is playful, joyful, funny, wonderful and, she hopes, thought-provoking. . . She sells the jewelry — cufflinks, earrings, necklaces — on her website and, recently, at Handiwork Studio + Market, just down the street from her own studio and home in the Deering neighborhood. Prices generally range from around $30 to $60, although more experimental and high-end pieces can cost upwards of $300. “Tiny, wearable art for big foodies,” the tagline on her website bed.

“It’s amazing how much detail she can put into such a small-scale representation,” said Jessica Thomas, owner of Handiwork. “Did she show you the fried egg?” Some are a little burnt around the edges, and some of them are a little softer. It’s just amazing! The objects are undeniable. From the moment you spot them, you know what they are. I love having them here. People respond to it with so much joy.

TO TAKE SHAPE

Joy was not what Donelson, a Rhode Island School of Design painting grad, had in mind when she launched Micro Picnic. For the new mom, home with a baby, work was a kind of exercise.

“Careful observation and sometimes the mundane is what interests me,” she said. “The idea of ​​slowing down and taking a closer look and paying homage to the everyday.”

She loved the challenge of tricking the eye. “How can I reproduce the scale, the textures, the brightness of a given food?” she would wonder. Crafting the answers took a lot of time, experimentation, and failure, and eventually included forays into salt flakes (for making onions on hot dogs), glass beads (for eggs for sushi), crushed stone (for toppings on all bagels) and mulch (for coconut shells).

Take this fried egg. A cook might simply describe it as yellow and white with crispy edges. “But if you actually look at it, how the yellow is integrated into the white,” Donelson said, “there’s all this luminosity. I spend as much time looking at food and the world as I do creating my sculptures or my paintings. It’s at least half, maybe 75%.”

A Micro Picnic hot dog cufflink. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

However, when Donelson looks at an all-purpose bagel, or a platter of Christmas cookies, an avocado or a pig in a blanket – all items she explored for Micro Picnic – it’s not food that she sees. It’s shape, shape, texture, color, light and shade, maybe why even though she’s been a vegetarian since she was a teenager, she makes necklaces in the shape of hot dogs and pepperoni pizzas (by the slice and whole pies) . If eating them does not please him, their graphic qualities do.

Food trends also factor into Donelson’s choice of subject. “Tacos and avocados were top sellers because those (foods) were so popular,” she said. “The year before, it was bacon.”

It was tricky, she said, because the bacon “is thin and crispy, delicate and in uneven areas, which is difficult to make, because my jewelry has to be durable.” Lately it’s been considered sourdough, and when a conversation about 2022 food trends drifted to seaweed, you could almost see the wheels turning.

“Wow!” she said slowly, stretching the word. “Seaweed. Oh my, the long kelp – you can almost imagine them like ribbons coming out of your ears. The greens, the reds! Really fun! That’s good!”

Donelson in his studio in Portland. Another wall in the studio is set up as an art space for her daughters, aged 3 and 6, with plenty of materials and projects they can work on and their own artwork hung. She also made them a play kitchen which is an exact replica of the family’s real kitchen. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

For Donelson, the hyper-concentration of working small, sometimes 6 centimeters by 6 centimeters, helps him think big.

“Looking at things on a small scale helps me understand the large scale of the world.” She hopes the jewelry – and her recent plein air paintings – will do something similar for customers, that they can be “a conversation starter”.

Although she loves to cook, that’s not what drives her job. For now at least, it takes a bit of a step back for the busy working mom. “I’m cooking right now not for fun but for sustenance, and it gives me more time in my studio, honestly.”

His paintings, some of which hang on ornate chinoiserie wallpaper in his cheerful, well-organized basement studio, are tranquil, painterly scenes of Maine shores, mountains, and lobster fishing boats. Donelson, who grew up in Massachusetts, moved to Maine in 2006 for a summer job at an art camp in Damariscotta. She never left. You might look at these recent paintings and think, “What beautiful colors!” “What beautiful landscapes!” “How loose and relaxed they look.” Or, says Donelson, you can think about nature and conservation, subjects close to his heart. “The coins don’t scream that,” she says. “You can choose to talk about it or not.”

The same goes for Micro Picnic jewelry. A customer may think, “‘Oh, that’s a pretty mango earring,'” she said. “Or can it be ‘What’s the carbon footprint of that?’ Art is a way to talk about some of the most troubling issues that need to be brought to light. Art allows the activist artist to “create a dialogue just a little more digestible, which is art itself. “. It allows her to take something disturbing and put “a beauty lens on it.”

As fun as Micro Picnic jewelry is, on its website it lists some of the difficult issues behind it: “our troubled, global, industrialized, imbalanced food system: the splintered collective perspective on farms and commerce; GMOs; carbon footprint, food insecurity and hunger; waste and depletion of natural resources.

“THESE SCULPTURES HELP US TALK ABOUT FOOD,” the website’s musings continue in bold and all caps. “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT FOOD, WE CONNECT. AND WHEN PEOPLE CONNECT, WE MAKE THE WORLD BETTER.

Louisa Donelson holds a micro-sculpture of a split coconut. She brings meticulous care to her pieces for Micro Picnic. For example, she makes whole sushi rolls out of polymer clay and then cuts them into individual pieces, just as one would for actual edible-type sushi. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

ALL TOGETHER NOW

Donelson, whose day job is as the organizational director of Side X Side (a Portland-based nonprofit that works with public elementary school teachers to incorporate more artistic processes), doesn’t wear her own jewelry, but she made an exception several years ago when she attended a community dinner in Portland amid sculptures by Daniel Minter, an event that, like her own work, intertwined food and art.

She wore it as a conversation starter, she said, to break the ice at a dinner party where she didn’t expect to know anyone, “knowing it would be an entry point.” Instead of “What’s your name?” she was hoping for something more along the lines of “Do you carry pizza?” She laughed and said the jewelry had done its job.

This dinner involved a day of community painting and other collaborations — between Minter, kids, and recently immigrated Maine chefs with established Maine chefs. Donelson also has her eye on collaborations these days — she loves the sense of connection they provide — for starters, with clients who would like to commission her to run Micro Picnic on food with personal meaning. For example, she made charm bracelets for a wedding party, which included miniature pastrami sandwiches from New York’s famous Katz’s Deli and a replica of a slice of the couple’s wedding cake.

She would also love to collaborate with “some of the dynamic, super creative restaurateurs and chefs,” she said, “creating custom pieces based on dishes. The number of opportunities in Portland is limitless.


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