by Chamidae Ford
Local chef, Kristi Brown, founder of That Brown Girl Cooks! and co-owner of COMMUNION Restaurant & Bar, has partnered with the Frye Art Museum to create a flavorful meal inspired by their summer exhibit, Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem.
As the name implies, the collection hails from The Studio Museum in Harlem. Founded in the tumultuous year of 1968, The Studio represented a space for Black artists to express themselves and work in a supportive and collaborative environment. Made up from pieces by over 80 artists, Black Refractions features work from the 1920s to the present and displays the wide range of styles and talents of Black creators.
The idea of creating a menu based on the artwork stemmed from the Frye’s Community Day, an event that aims to make galleries accessible to whole families, regardless of age. Since this Community Day would be virtual, it gave the Frye some flexibility with their approach.
“As we were kind of re-visioning how it could be as a virtual program, we had an early brainstorm of different ways to connect to the stories being told in Black Refractions, and part of that was obviously with the museum’s location, Harlem, where there’s a lot of deep food connections,” Michelle Cheng, director of education and community partnerships at the Frye, said.
Brown has had a whirlwind of a year. After opening her restaurant with her son in December, COMMUNION (aka COMMUNION R&B) has been named one of the Best New Restaurants in the World by Condé Nast Traveler. Brown has found this collaboration with the Frye an opportunity to try something new and explore a more creative side of cooking.
“I’m excited about this kind of collaboration,” Brown said. “I’m very interested in all the connections that food brings to folks, and so to be able to be a part of that thinking process was a really nice mental vacation.”
Brown’s process of turning these works of art into food was somewhat meditative. Grounding herself and letting whatever feelings surfaced by the images take precedence led her on a path to cuisine that speaks to those emotions.
“I just sat with the work, and one of the things with having a pretty decent mindfulness practice is … just to see how it made me feel. Right? Like what did it make me think about? And I just didn’t really make it much more complicated than that,” Brown said.
The emotional expression that the artists directed into their paintings in many ways mirrored what Brown was getting the opportunity to do.
“The [artwork] is so impactful,” Brown said. “I think when I was younger, I just didn’t understand the ability to have the freedom to explore your thoughts and translate them to some other medium. And so to think about how each artist had that ability to sit down and create that work is such a beautiful freedom, especially for a Black person.”
One of the main pieces in the exhibit, “Lawdy Mama” by Barkley L. Hendricks, instantly drew Brown in, inspiring her Golden & Buttery Hoe Cakes.
“[Lawdy Mama] with the woman with the Afro, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s golden. What can I do that would be similar to that?’ And then I thought, ‘oh, a hoecake,’ Brown said. Like it’s a gold, little patty: it is round, it’s big — it’s like the sun. That’s what that gold background made me think about.”
There is a heartiness to the dish Brown created while still managing to keep it fluffy and golden, a direct translation of Lawdy Mama.
Food can be a deeply emotional experience for people in the same way art can, and in mixing these two modes of expression, the Frye found that the world of contemporary art begins to feel more accessible.
“I think for a lot of people, conversations about contemporary art can be and seem intimidating. So this becomes another entry point for folks,” Cheng said. “I think we also really like the idea of engaging with different community members that people might not expect, like a chef working with something from an art exhibition. So I think we liked playing with the unexpected.”
The Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibit will be open to the public through Aug. 15. You can stay up to date on more collaborations between the Frye and local creators through their website.
“I think we wanted to really contribute to a local ecosystem of community members,” Cheng said. “At the end of the day, we just want to try to find ways to be more tied to the community. And I think that food was always that connector for people — it brings people together.”
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article listed Michelle Cheng’s title as “manager of youth and school programs.” This article was updated on 08/09/2021 with the correct title of “director of education and community partnerships.”
Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.
📸 Featured Image: Chef Kristi Brown (photo courtesy of the Frye Art Museum)
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