he world of Dartmouth-based artist Emily Lawrence feels like a pastel-filled, Betty Crocker spin on Willy Wonka’s factory: Her work is a visual feast (pun fully intended) as she makes portraits of people’s favourite desserts
and lines gallery walls with tiny, climbing shrimp tails and petit-fours
. With her, you never question that we eat first with our eyes. As she puts it: “Food for me is always my first jumping off point; it’s not hard to be inspired and influenced by food if we’re eating it three times a day—it’s not hard to think about it all the time.”
In particular, these days, Lawrence is thinking about the space where food and social media intersect: “We’re in this spot in the digital world where this Instagram foodie culture is so present and hard to avoid at all. And, I think the way that Instagram and digital media have transformed our relationship with food is really interesting,” she says.
Her latest project, Kids Menu,
puts the “cotton candy burritos
and freak milkshakes
” filling our social media feeds in focus: “Just the way that these strange hybrids that a kid would come up with; We’re fascinated by them because it’s new and exciting and plays into nostalgia—and the fact that it’s basically super-sized doses of sugar and fat and colour and that’s what we’re drawn to.”
“I sort of walk them through this game that I, personally, love to play all the time. Where I set out the parameter that you have a full day and there’s no food rules or restrictions and your stomach never gets full: What would you eat for every meal of the day?,” Lawrence explains of the project, where she encourages kids (and kids at heart) to partake in by filling out a worksheet available on her website
. (Past submissions have included a towering birthday cake with fries for candles and a pizza topped with gummy bears and sour candies.)
And since, as she puts it, we’ve become a society of food photographers endlessly documenting our next OTT treat (here’s looking at you, dalgona coffee
), why not do one better? “I think working with kids is the perfect way to invent food similar to the ones we see on Instagram all the time,” Lawrence says.
Emily Lawrence artwork
"I ask them to re-imagine those favourite foods with the ability to change anything they want about it, so we get like, monster goo Pop Tarts," says Lawrence of collaborating with kids.
She’ll take as many replies as she’s able to and create a digital artwork of each fantastical feast, for sharing on social media and, eventually, in a free-form cookbook project.
If viral food trends online are, in part, an argument of aesthetics (which they must be, at least sometimes—can that rainbow bagel from New York
possibly be edible with so much food colouring?); If they are equally a siren song that makes our brains light up like a city skyline (and they are, thanks to the promise of sugar and fat); If it’s a perfect illustration of how on social media, everything is a long game of imagine-pretend (we travel across towns and cities for these foods to amass likes, after all), Lawrence’s latest works feel both at once an extension of the culture she’s critiquing and the cure for it.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about diet culture and intuitive eating and something that we learn is oftentimes before children become immersed in diet culture they are naturally intuitive eaters,” she says. “Tapping into someone’s brain before they are completely immersed in what good food is, what bad food is, what they should be eating, what they should not be eating, how much is too much, knowing way too much about sugar from a young age—before they’re immersed in all of this, what their brains will come up with when I’m asking them to not have food restrictions or rules.”