Laughing, New Havener Anna Bresnick motioned to the small, richly purple eggplant she was holding, said its name out loud, and then rolled it gently across the tabletop to her grandson, Elan Arias. He giggled, reached out, and inspected it before focusing on the next vegetable Bresnick was holding: a long, sweet cayenne pepper, waxy in the building’s low light.
Bresnick, her daughter Hanni, and grandson Elan came out to play with — and take home — some vegetables as part of Harvest Mandalas, a City Wide Open Studios commission at the John Slade Ely House this past weekend.
Run by Global Local Gourmet chef and activist Nadine Nelson, the project transformed the newly resurrected exhibition space into an experiment in what happens when installation art and public performance meet food sustainability.
The project ran as part of CWOS’ larger Private Studios Weekend, the third of four major weekend-long events during the month of October.
For Nelson, chair of the Cooking & Food Education Working Group on New Haven’s Food Policy Council, the project started years ago with the realization that the mandala, meaning circle or whole in Sanskrit and often a representation of the universe in Buddhism and Hinduism, was widely translatable to the culinary arts.
Other mandalas employed flowers, seeds, sand, and stones. Nelson decided hers would turn food waste into social sculpture, making geometric patterns with surplus produce donated by farms, grocery stores and restaurants. At the end of each mandala cycle, the food would be redistributed to food pantries or families in need, responding to the city’s growing rates of food and nutrition insecurity. But during the sessions, there’d be a mantra: Do play with your food, and think about its trip from art object to productive fuel for your body.
“The whole idea is that it’s a meditation, and when you’re making it, you think about some things that you might want to work on, some things you might want to be connected to,” she said on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync.” “A mandala is supposed to be about an individual ... but then each of us needs to be connected to a whole to make a beautiful piece ... I think that we waste food when we cook. This is a whole intervention to think about food waste.”
“No one wants to hear about eating their vegetables,” she added with a grin. “However, they might enjoy playing with them and experiencing the benefits of wellness while they’re there.”
Nelson knows how important that connectivity and emphasis on wellness, particularly through one’s food, can be. After moving to New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood from Canada when she was 10, she experienced emotional ups and downs with the city and its fraught, often difficult relationship with food.
“If you want people to treat you well, you have to treat yourself well,” she said. Changing the way people eat — and feel — “starts with self-care and putting yourself first. A lot of times, when I start my morning, I meditate, I do something called EFT, sometimes I do affirmations, I do some sort of physical activity ... and for me cooking is a meditation. I love cooking every day.”
“It’s easy for me to teach people how to cook,” Nelson added, noting the statistic that only one in three people generally know how to cook. “I’m a good teacher and that’s easy to do. What’s hard to do ... is changing the narrative and the story around self care. Many people are not taught to care about themselves. They’re taught ... that being a good person means caring about other people, and the last person they think about is themselves. So changing that story in people’s mind, and making people understand, especially when you’re the head of a household, that your care is really important for you to be able to care about everyone else. If we’re feeling good about ourselves, then we’re going to be united with other people.”
Working toward that goal, Nelson made the mandalas “as parts of bigger projects to have fun with the excess food” for several years, employing her training in garde manger and food styling from The New School and philosophies on self-care to get over what she saw as a huge food hurdle: making unfamiliar vegetables look good to people who had never tried them.
Still, she didn’t think of them as CWOS material until Artspace put out a call for commissions on its most recent “Game On” theme, and her friend suggested she apply.
As a specialist in experiential, hands-on learning, Nelson could visualize the mandalas filling up the John Slade Ely House, changing how the space was perceived as it was packed with living, vibrant, edible experiments and self-care stations for coloring, art viewing, and game-playing. The project — with the mandalas, for the first time, at front and center — could bridge site-specific sculpture, interactive game playing, food policy, and self care for New Haveners of all ages. Like her daughter Soleil, who would build them with her Saturday morning. Or Bresnick, who had come to teach Elan about the different between an eggplant, tomato, and pepper.
“I love to show people that you eat with your eyes,” she said. “Color, smell, creating a really great environment helps to have a really good dialogue not only about nutrition, but self-care and also waste. We have a lot of things in food that we profess as facts, and I think that I like to provide a different perspective. While we have people who are obese, we throw away food and we have people who are hungry. It’s not that we don’t have enough food. It’s like: What do we do with the food we have? And how does that help to be able to nourish people? And also, how do we be able to make sure food doesn’t end up in a landfill because we’re having issues with our environment?”
Nelson was firm in those principles from the start, as she was in her faith that the mandalas would work. But when it came to the produce itself, she didn’t know what she was going to get until close to the end of the week, when representatives from different farms began showing up with hundreds of pounds of tomatoes with green and white spider veins, dirt-speckled heads of cabbage, bendy red peppers, pungent bouquets of thyme and parsley, and eggplants small enough to hold in one’s palm. She let the vegetables do what they’d always done for her: Talk, and tell her where they wanted to be.
Saturday and Sunday, the colorful results greeted New Haveners who entered the house to build their own symbols, take a minute to refuel with a mandala salad, or visit with artists such as illustrator and cut-out virtuoso Marcela Staudenmaier. In one room, Nelson walked a new group of visitors through the project, motioning to a large mandala from earlier that morning as an example of what the activity was all about, and instructing them in the art of arranging just-orange tomatoes, whisper-thin radishes, bone-white turnip slices, and shaved lettuce. At a long table, three kids sat down to color in their own mandalas, pulling deep blues and oranges from a box of pencils that smelled like the first day of school. Passing through the front hall, visitors clambered up the steps to get a look at sculpture installed on the second floor.
Nelson smiled throughout the day, as new faces passed through the door and took in the bounty before them.
“If you concentrate on sharing that harvest — the seeds that you plant, the seeds that you cultivate and tend to, and how those things come to fruition — I think that our world would be a better place,” she said. “If we look at our lives, most people that we encounter are good people, and there are good things that happen every day. I just need to see them and acknowledge them.”
To listen to the interview from “Kitchen Sync,” click on or download the audio above, or check out the “WNHH Arts Mix” podcast on Soundcloud or iTunes.