My friend Jennifer Nitson wrote this piece for me to use a press release for the show – it’s a delightful piece of writing – It makes me laugh and it tells the story really well. Enjoy!
Meet Your Meat: Local artist makes introductions
By Jennifer Nitson
Sarah F. Burns was apologetic as she began the second in a series of paintings commissioned by Smithfields Restaurant and Bar.
“I’m entering pretty gory territory here,” Sarah posted on her blog. “Sorry if you’re squeamish or hate hunting or meat eating or anything like that.”
A long-time resident of Ashland and member of the local art community, Sarah knew some of her readers, fellow artists and friends would be aghast at the thought of the bloody, butchered bear carcass she’d carefully arranged in her studio. Meanwhile, she was preoccupied with how fast she would need to paint it. A classically trained oil painter who only paints from life – never from photos – it was imperative that she work quickly before what was left of the bear rotted.
“There was no way to put it back in the freezer,” she explained.
A blatantly “meat centric” eating establishment in a town known for its militant vegan and vegetarian factions, Smithfields owner Neil Clooney knew he wanted paintings that would evoke the intensity and satisfaction of the meat eating experience. Featuring locally-sourced meats, Smithfields specializes in serving up dishes that utilize all parts of the animal. Where else in Ashland could you find roasted bone marrow on the menu?
“There is no shying away from the truth about meat when you eat meat,” Clooney said. “A life is lost and someone has to take that life. It is intense and not to be taken lightly, but it’s immensely satisfying and most people love eating well prepared meat.”
In the eight pieces Sarah created for Smithfields, her goal was to draw on that honesty and intensity.
“I wanted to convey the guttural impact and visceral intensity of raw meat, and yet have the paintings contain enough humanity to be enjoyable while dining,” she said.
The paintings are done in a classic Vanitas style – a symbolic art form that originated in 16th century Europe. Vanitas paintings generally contain a moralistic exhortation to remember the fleeting nature of life, and are meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. At the same time, Vanitas pieces tend to be sensuous, almost indulgent, in style and subject matter. It has been said that some European painters of this time period felt they needed moral justification to make paintings of attractive objects.
Sarah needed no such justification. The commissioned paintings gave her the perfect opportunity to explore a conscious relationship with meat eating that is complex and life-long.
“I have been particularly interested in small scale meat production and nose-to-tail eating because I grew up in that type of lifestyle,” she said. “My father was a farm-kill butcher when I was born. That means he went from farm to farm killing livestock and brought them back to the butcher shop to cut up and wrap.”
The family also raised cows, sheep, chickens and goats on their Eagle Point farm. Sarah and her sisters were not spared the grisly side of this operation.
“I remember watching him chop heads off chickens and toss them into a squawking and blood-squirting pile.”
It may not come as a surprise that during their teen years, Sarah and sisters Miriam and Claire each in turn became vegan – an almost requisite rite of passage for many Ashland youth. What is notable is the conscious way Sarah has examined her path to veganism and back to meat eating.
“Now I kind of see that vegan period as an effort to maintain innocence in a sometimes horrifying world,” she said. “I see it as an attempt to combat and avoid the pains and realities of coming of age.”
Sarah set to work on the paintings in the dark days of winter. The cold was conducive to having fresh meat out in her home studio, but she struggled against the inflexible limitations of the too-short days.
“I feel like I just barely get started and then my light is gone,” she wrote in a January blog post. “So much work to do and I’m so eager to do it.”
For Sarah, creating the paintings became an adventure and a meditation on the ephemeral nature of life as she coped with the logistics of working with perishable meat.
With the first piece she enjoyed the luxury of being able to paint the myriad background objects before introducing a cow’s tongue to the still-life setting. She was also able to put the tongue back in the freezer between painting sessions.
Things got more complicated with the rotting bear carcass and the brace of chickens.
“Once arranged, the chickens needed to be left where they were in the studio,” Sarah explained.
She cleared her schedule for a few days and her husband Tom brought home three live birds, which he killed and gutted in the back yard.
The chickens were strung up, artfully, in the studio, and Sarah embarked on a three-day painting marathon. Dry ice was placed near the chickens, and she fashioned a hood out of a tarp to cover them at night. When the painting was finished, the chickens had not yet started to smell, and though the artist faced complex logistics and a scarcity of time, the painting produced conveys a simple abundance.
As the dark days of winter gave way to a wet Oregon spring, and as summer brings promises of long, bright days of plenty, Sarah’s paintings are finally finished and ready to take their places on the walls of Smithfields.
In the traditional manner of Vanitas painting, Sarah has explored with these pieces the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death, painting in a sumptuous style that both soothes and awakens the senses, while imparting a message:
“Life is short and you will die, so think about how you are living,” Sarah said. “And in this context, think about how your meat and food is produced.”
The public is invited to an artist’s reception for a series of paintings by Sarah F. Burns entitled “Meet Your Meat.”
The reception will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday, July 16 at Smithfields Restaurant and Bar, at 36 South Second St., in Ashland. Hors de oeuvres, wine and Prosecco will be provided and the bar will be open during the event.
Those in attendance will have the opportunity to meet the artist and learn about the inspirations and process involved in creating these oil paintings. The pieces were commissioned by Smithfields owner Neil Clooney for his meat-centric restaurant, which opened in Ashland in 2011.
“I’m excited for Sarah’s work to be hanging on the walls of Smithfields,” said Clooney. “She’s a fantastic artist and I feel the paintings will help the customers draw the connection between the life an animal lives, before being treated respectfully with cooking technique to provide that customer with a satisfying dining experience.”
To learn more about the artist, visit her blog at sarahfburns.com.