Since childhood, artist Leanne Rodriguez has viewed pieces of Jell-O as precious jewels. The dessert resembled jiggly, gelatinous blobs of rubies, emeralds, and topaz to her. Despite seeing the beauty of the treat favored by 1950s homemakers and hospital cafeterias, she never imagined she’d find her biggest professional success turning Jell-O into sculpture.
After years of experimenting with different mediums, the California-based Rodriguez began creating a series of realistic Jell-O sculptures in resin, starting with the midcentury glories (and gories) of gelatin salad. From there, it just, um, gelled.
“I never thought there would be such an immediate demand for these pieces,” the 37-year-old Rodriguez said. “The second I started doing this style of artwork, there was an overwhelming, positive response from people. I just cannot make it fast enough.”
Within minutes of posting a collection of Jell-O sculptures on her website, it sells out. Her 37,000 Instagram followers wait until she announces an upcoming drop, and they pounce. She’s since branched out to create deviled egg clocks, parfaits, resin tiki drinks, plus other inedible treats. Her gelatin salad lamps are particularly popular. Simple Jell-O sculptures start at $175. Larger, more detailed pieces sell for $2,000 and up. To date, she’s sold more than 150 pieces of the deliciously kitschy art.
“I’ve been working my glittery fanny off for years,” she said via a Zoom chat from her studio in Oakland. “I always say that I’ve been throwing cooked art noodles at the wall for years waiting for something to stick. This one finally stuck.”
It took a pandemic and a humble online art exhibition for Rodriguez, who uses the artist handle Elrod, to be able to quit her day job of 14 years and focus on her art full-time. The Jell-O sculptures began as a passion project in 2020. Working from home, she found herself with more time to play with her art. She created a collection of aspic and gelatin salads under the title Mexakitchen in the summer of 2020. A few months later, Pee-Wee Herman featured Rodriguez’s art on his blog. She’s been swamped since.
Herman’s endorsement helped Rodriguez find an audience for her wares. She refers to herself as “retrosexual,” and cites John Waters as an inspiration. It’s the kind of social media exposure that artists dream of. The day after Herman’s blog post, she had thousands of followers.
“I say he’s the king of kitschy weirdos, and kitschy weirdos are my people,” she said. “All it took was for them to catch the whiff of my work, and they came pouring in nonstop.”
While her art is playful, the process of recreating the look of Jell-O is far more complicated than opening a box of powder and adding boiling water. Each piece takes about two weeks for her to produce. It begins with thrifting for vintage copper Jell-O molds. From there, she creates silicone versions of the molds. Next comes sculpting the food that will be suspended in or garnishing the faux Jell-O. Finally, she’s able to pour the resin and create the sculpture.
“Resin is a cruel, expensive mistress to work with,” she said. “She is temperamental, just like a lot of the women in my life. So every time I do it, my butt cheek’s a little tight, my fingers are crossed, and I’m like, ‘Come on, let’s make it happen.’ It’s been thousands of dollars in mistakes.”
But when it comes together, her art evokes the halcyon days of 1950s suburban dinner parties, and cherished recipe cards tucked away in avocado-colored plastic boxes that sat proudly on Formica kitchen counters. The first time she was able to present her work in a gallery last summer, she set it up on a table as if it were a dazzling gelatin potluck spread, and the crowd ate it up — figuratively, of course. After 20 years in the art world, she found an audience hungry for Jell-O.
“When you speak your truth as loudly as you can, you’re going to attract your people,” she said. “What makes this art for me is that this is my truth. This is my gaudy, kitschy, sometimes grotesque truth, and I put it out there very loudly. I’m not a quiet person, and now I’ve accumulated my flock of people. I found them through this very unlikely art.”