AURORA | Julia Child once said that, “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.”
Now, more than a decade after the death of the woman credited with aggrandizing commercial cooking in America, local mixed-media artist Viviane Le Courtois is working to solidify that sentiment stateside and take it to a distinctly unique level.
Late last month, Le Courtois opened a new exhibit at Denver Botanic Gardens entitled “Raw, Cooked, Fermented,” which features more than a dozen pieces of various media that use food to create art.
Hanging on the naked concrete walls of the DBG’s Gates Garden Court Gallery, several maple-framed pieces coyly hide ties to the organic world. Upon examination, a series of seemingly diffident sketches depicting different home goods like pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut is revealed to be stained with the respective juice of each concoction — a sketch of giant red mustard leaves pops with a magnetizing scarlet hue. Across the room, a series of embryonic prints made with kombucha hang beside a pair of cast iron artichokes.
Le Courtois perfected her still-secret kombucha printing process in 2004 by staining zinc plates with the bacteria’s highly acidic juices.
A program manager at Downtown Aurora Visual Arts by day, the Denver-based artist beams as she describes some of the smallest pieces in the new exhibit, which are comprised of several ceramic onions and garlic cloves. They’re foods her family has grown in her native Brittany, France for generations.
“When I was a kid we ate tons of artichokes and cauliflower,” she says. “Foraging, cooking, art, it’s just always been a part of my life.”
Le Courtois said that her fascination with the relationship between art and food started early in her childhood, when her mother scolded her for picking flowers out of the garden to make paint.
“Because that was all I had,” she says. “I had no art supplies, so I had to find my own.”
But it wasn’t until she was 19 years old and a student at art school in Niece, France that Le Courtois’ professional blending of food and art began to flourish. One of her first works at school involved making sculptures out of chewed up licorice roots.
A Denver resident for more than 20 years, Le Courtois is always working on a project that brings the kitchen into the studio — or vice versa. She’s typically working on some sort of new “kitchen experiment,” like growing a kombucha culture for her next round of zinc prints, or nursing one of her various jarred goods in her new house in the East Montclair neighborhood.
It’s that lifestyle that made Le Courtois’ work ideal for the gardens ongoing exploration and exhibition of the intersection between art and food, according to Kim Manajek, associate director of exhibitions, art and interpretation at DBG.
“It is a beautifully cohesive exhibition that is a perfect fit for Denver Botanic Gardens’ Gates Garden Court Gallery,” Manjek said in a statement.
Despite the divine match, Le Courtois said that she was challenged by DBG’s stipulation that she couldn’t use any truly live material in the exhibit.
“The show had to last for two months, and they didn’t want anything in the display case that could attract bugs,” she said. “I think it was a challenge for me to not work with any live material in a place that has a bunch of live things.”
Le Courtois will be leading a workshop at DBG at the end of July on how to grow your own art supplies.
Her completed works will be on display daily at the Gates Garden Court Gallery through the end of July.