Above the restless heads of students waiting in long lunch lines that extend beyond the double stairs at Sharples, three paintings — “Man Eating Crispy Chicken,” “Man Eating Greasy Pizza,” and “Woman Eating Juicy Wrap” — silently loom. True to their straight-forward titles, the individuals in these paintings seem to be focused — devoted, even — to the act of eating and nothing more. The eyes of these eaters, sometimes downcasted towards their food and sometimes directed ambiguously into the distance, never meet their viewers. These individuals are self-enclosed, their desire — hunger — and its need to be satiated, pure and frontal.
“I’ve always be interested in food, consumption, and the physical body gesture of eating,” said the artist Yixuan “Maisie” Luo (she/her/hers) ’19, who is majoring in studio art and minoring in religion. “For the paintings in Sharples, I found three of my friends from Swarthmore to model for me. I bought them food and they ate as I painted them. I want to capture the activity of physically consuming food — eating in a very ‘primitive’ way: the gesture [of] how people chew their food, how people bite into their food. This performative act of eating — it is a very natural thing for us to do.”
Luo created these paintings during her sophomore year, after she transferred to Swarthmore from art school. A lot of Luo’s recent projects, however, continued her interest in close reading and presenting what she calls “all things related to people.”
“I am very interested in ideas such as raw human needs, natural ways of living, and being present at the moment, ” Luo said. “It’s something that in the fast-paced, modern living style, people don’t really notice or pay attention to or appreciate.”
Food items, being integral to human life, often occupy important and unexpected roles in Luo’s art. A recent collection of self-portraits Luo created, bearing titles such as “Watermelon Baby” and “Watermelon Looking At Me,” captures her interest in learning about pregnancy, womanhood, the self, and different physical perspectives. Gradually looking from the bottom frame of “Watermelon Baby” upwards, the viewer seems to gaze out of the artist’s own eye — looking down at a pregnant body, with wisps of long, dark hair hanging at the edge of vision. As the gaze travels up the painting, however, the viewer will realize that the baby bump is actually a watermelon tucked inside a loose, blue sweater. The viewer’s gaze not only travels up the different spaces of the painting (and the different spaces of the artist’s studio depicted in the painting), it also travels through time where the reality of the artist’s pregnancy is slowly unveiled.
“During [my recent creative thinking] process, I’ve been reflecting on what’s most meaningful to me and realize that I can speak the most confidently about myself,” Luo recalled. “I started reflecting on my identity and the things around me and trying to use arts to capture my surroundings and thoughts. My recent reflection surrounds my identity as a woman, my interests of becoming a mother, learning about the process of pregnancy and giving birth, and the emotional physical connection between [a mother and her child] — knowing that I am not a mother and I’m not experienced on this topic at all.”
Luo chose to use the watermelon as a symbol because of its rich connotations across different cultures, among which are “fertility” and “freedom.”
“In Frida Kahlo’s last painting, she painted a watermelon to symbolize life,” Luo said, “It’s also red and very fragile — that reminds me of a living being. Also, the patterns on the watermelon are actually the stretch marks of a watermelon, which is similar to how a baby grows and stretches the skin of their mother. Another reason why I use a watermelon instead of fake pregnancy tools that you can buy on Amazon is to show that this is only my [personal] interpretation of the pregnancy process of women. I’m just trying to learn about it. “
Luo embraces all artistic mediums that allow her to express herself creatively. Besides oil painting, she also focuses on craftwork and folk art because she is deeply fascinated by how these disciplines integrate art into everyday life. Over the summer, she and Catherine Williams ’19 visited the famous quilt-making communities at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, to document the oral history of community elders. The month of researching, learning, and recording Gee’s Bend art and artists has inspired Luo to produce quilts of her own — featuring an apple core from different angles and degrees of oxidation.
“I know that the apple can have a lot of symbols, especially in the Christian tradition. It can even be seen as a symbol for evil desire, but I wasn’t interested in that aspect,” Luo explained. “The apple core is the leftover part of an apple that people [usually] throw away or compost. But it [contains] the imprint of how our teeth is biting into it — biting the apple is also a very ‘primitive’ act without any forks or knives. Every time you bite into it, the apple core is always different, so I’m very interested in the physical form of an apple core.”
“Also, the apple core has a shape that kind of looks like a body — maybe that’s also another reason why I’m interested in that. I find a lot of beauty in the form — it also changes color so quickly. I had an apple core model — a real apple core model — as I quilted and its color completely shifted. I kept putting it in the freezer because it took a long time to hand-sew that quilt. And every time I bring [the apple] out it just gets soggier and nastier and browner and browner. It changes all the time.” To Luo, the many, unexpected hues naturally developed by the apple core poetically echo the quilting process, where scraps of many-colored clothing, old and new, get pieced together.
Despite her knowledge of and creative works in multiple artistic disciplines, Luo hesitates to label herself an artist. “I think sometimes when I give myself a title, it limits myself into just focusing on one thing and [abandoning] any other possibilities in the arts. One of the things I learned here at Swarthmore is that I can do so many different kinds of things: being an art conservator, research about crafts, research about art in religious context or body space.”
“This reminds me of one of my questions to an elderly member of the Gee’s Bend community: if she ever considered herself as an artist — she has been hand-sewing all her quilts for her whole life,” Luo recalled, smiling. “And she just said ‘no, that’s just simply what I like to do. And I do it every day.’”
(The new exhibition “Piece Together: The Quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph,” which features work by a Gee’s Bend artist Luo studied and interviewed over the summer, is currently on view at List Gallery till October 28. A corresponding exhibition “Responses to Gee’s Bend,” which features 17 pieces of art (including Luo’s apple core), is also currently on view in McCabe Library’s Atrium. Multiple panel discussions about the List exhibition will be hosted in the coming weeks, the earliest of which is happening on Thursday, September 20 from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the adjacent Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema. The McCabe exhibition will also have a Curator’s Talk on October 23 from 4:30pm to 6:00 p.m..)