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Fuller Craft Museum offers ‘Food Justice’ for thought

A new exhibition looks at how capitalism affects what we consume — and how we can grow ‘a healthier community through art’

Stefanie Herr, "Alcampo — Butcher Bobs Garden," 2012, photographic relief sculpture, hand cut and assembled, archival photo paper, conservation matboard, adhesives, freely based on USGS topographic maps.Caitlin Burton

BROCKTON — Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, it’s hard to imagine all the labor and capital that brought the feast to your table — land, livestock, transportation, packaging, grocery stores. That behemoth of a system, created more to make money than to sustain a society, has led to industrialized agriculture and food deserts, where grocery stores are distant and unhealthy food is cheap.

“Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy,” wrote food activist Frances Moore Lappé, author of the seminal 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet” — which offered recipes and pointers for feeding the world with fewer resources — and more than a dozen books since then.

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In Massachusetts, at least 1.8 million people — nearly a third of the population — are food insecure, according to a report released earlier this year by the Greater Boston Food Bank, with much of the burden on Black and Latinx households.

“Food Justice: Growing a Healthier Community Through Art” at Fuller Craft Museum examines the inequities of the food system though the tangible lens of craft. The exhibition, organized by Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, takes a canny approach: Craft and food share the immediacy and sensuality of the handmade.

Ceramic artist Anna Metcalfe uses those assets to reinforce the personal nature of sharing: breaking bread and building community on a small scale. Her “Pop Up Pollinator Picnic” features plates emblazoned with fruits and vegetables in a lovely array on the wall and stowed in a beehive-like box stamped with a beehive pattern that suggests interconnectivity —among people, but also among soil, plant, water, and insects.

Anna Metcalfe, "Pop Up Pollinator Picnic," 2016-2021, porcelain, glaze, transfer prints, wood.Caitlin Burton

The reasons for American hunger are many. “Food Justice,” which features 15 artists, could easily be twice as big and still not fill out the complex story. There’s not much here, for instance, on the carbon footprint created by Americans’ passion for meat. But there is a nod to pesticides and genetically engineered food in the weedy, animatronic “Monsantra Plant Bots” by Wendy DesChene and Jeff Schmuki, who together call themselves Plantbot Genetics, Inc. The piece skewers Monsanto, which has produced pesticides and genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans.

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The take-home message here: A capitalist approach to food as a commodity rather than as necessary societal sustenance is toxic. Our tendency to see what’s on the table as something to buy and sell has created mega-businesses that feed those with deep pockets, squash family farms, foster ignorance about where food comes from, and leave the hungry behind. In turn, governmental assistance programs grow into unwieldy bureaucracies.

Metalsmith Logan Woodle lives on a farm in Conway, S.C., which has been in his family for seven generations. He digs through the past, researching that land and those people. His comical, elegant pieces, such as the pewter “The House Built on Chicken Legs,” celebrates the granularity and stories of farm life. It’s a one-room cabin perched on a giant chicken leg. “We all leveraged what we had to get started,” reads wall text. “Some started with more, some started with chickens.”

Logan Woodle, "The House Built on Chicken Legs," 2014.T.J Roth

Stefanie Herr makes photographic relief sculptures, slicing and layering images of packaged food, like the red meat in “Alcampo — Green Valley,” to convey just how distanced grocery shoppers are from the slaughterhouse. In the stomach-churning “Happy Hunting Grounds — Carrot Cascade,” she plastic-wraps photo sculptures of carrots and a furry dead rabbit, a savage reminder of the food chain ordinarily hidden from us.

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Stefanie Herr, "Happy Hunting Grounds — Carrot Cascade," 2014. Photographic relief sculpture (triptych), hand cut and assembled, archival photo paper, conservation matboard, adhesives, freely based on USGS topographic maps.Caitlin Burton

But the most chilling piece in the show is Xena Ni and Mollie Ruskin’s installation “Transaction Denied,” largely made of grocery receipts and manila folders. The receipts are those of residents of Washington, D.C., who applied for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) after a computer upgrade in 2016. Some D.C. residents sued, alleging that the upgrade caused delays and missed benefits. The suit was dismissed but an appeal is pending, according to Jennifer Mezey, interim co-executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which represents the plaintiffs.

All the receipts are marked “Transaction Denied.”

Xena Ni and Mollie Ruskin, "Transaction Denied," 2019, mixed media, paper receipts, manila folders, audio clips.Caitlin Burton/ Fuller Craft Museum

It’s a paper nightmare, a forest of red tape that happens to be a picture of hunger. The receipts stream from the ceiling, opening only to make a path for the folders, suspended and labeled with steps to apply for SNAP — “FILL OUT 15-PAGE PAPER APPLICATION,” one reads, “*CANNOT BE COMPLETED ONLINE.” The folders are upside down, hinting they’ll lose your application, anyway. Ni and Ruskin add heartbreaking audio with old phone receivers you can pick up to listen to. They’ve interviewed people who struggled with the system.

“Living paycheck to paycheck,” says one woman, “is like a scheduled anxiety attack.”

Reflecting on the disconnection and damage done by capitalism’s approach to nourishment, “Food Justice” may make you consider what exactly you’re giving thanks for this holiday.

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“Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, in “Braiding Sweetgrass,” her treasure of a book about Indigenous wisdom. “That is not a gift of life; it is theft.”

FOOD JUSTICE: Growing a Healthier Community Through Art

At Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through April 23. 508-588-6000, www.fullercraft.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.