By Liz Pearson
Like a wobbly first date, imagine developing a new recipe: arrange a pile of ingredients, force them to bump against one another in this vessel or that, and bully their awkward meeting with heat or cold or turmoil. All the while, hope for a positive result that breeds flavor and character. When done right, the process of recipe development is rigorous and airtight. Where the results of the dish might be delicious and inspiring, the prime value of a recipe lies in its reliability.
With a goal in mind – say, a blueberry tart or a fat, country ham – the cook rounds up requirements, ingredients, and some close guess of ratios and method jotted down on paper to start things off. After some years, the cook may even sense from the beginning whether the recipe will need two tests or ten, but truth be told, it is all rather unpredictable and messy. For a cook, comparing this style of cooking to the making of Fugitive Color is irresistible, almost palatable. For each organic paint color Cornelia White Swann creates, she first sets out to develop a recipe.
To do this, she leans against the white tiled countertop in her kitchen, crowded with plastic bags and paper cups, glass dishes, bottles, and tall, opened jars filled with petals, powders, and brushes. Looking around, there is fragrant elderberry, cochineal, savory manzanilla (chamomile), and pomegranate to work with. Deep boxes of spices, dried leaves and other ingredients are tucked away elsewhere in the house, to be tested and coddled at the stove as she has the chance.
The bulk of her day’s efforts in soft grey, ashy yellow, and electric purple are laid out to dry on a small table. Swann’s kitchen window sits propped open, the outside sill a tangle of lacy orange marigolds, an ingredient she will use to dye rolled paper in glass jars for her sun transfer works. A few are in process nearby over the sink. The quick February breeze rattles over the half dozen or so paintings on the table, each executed on thick, white paper, colors weaving and bleeding in a structure that Swann has managed to wrangle from water-based paints made only with herbs, flowers, or vegetables.
Swann stands alone at the stove. In the simplest terms, she simmers or boils a handful of one ingredient in a saucepan with water until it reaches the desired thickness or depth of color for which she patiently watches. She may strain out the solids before cooling off the resulting paint. There are grays, browns and yellows reminiscent of sunny, grated turmeric root, the dark soil brushed off of fresh mushrooms, the powdery green of sage leaves, a pile of damp potato peelings, the rosy rings left by sweet hibiscus tea in the bottom of a breakfast mug.
The artist develops recipes for living colors, paints whose hues almost instantly begin to change when applied, their undisturbed progress on paper continuing for weeks and months. It is wholly accurate to say that her paintings are ripening, fruits that haven’t yet let go of their branch. This is a realm where, enviably, the cook is more comfortable; even the most delicious dish is never meant to last. But while it might be construed that Swann someday hopes to land on colors that do not fade, for now the act of executing this process contents her.
While recipe development dictates that the cook seeks a perfect calculation, a precise balance of measurements and instruction, Swann settles assuredly into the unknown. So much of what she does would set anyone, artist or cook, on edge: the unknown, the tedious wait in the coming months, the transitional results. To further complicate things, the original color of each chosen ingredient is no fair prediction of the paint it will make. Once in the saucepan, and then on paper, the purple cabbage clumsily turns green, the red onions go lemony yellow, and elderberry is shockingly tame.
As Swann moves forward in the coming year, her recipes will likely become more precise, particularly if she chooses to recreate the same color again and again. Duplication will bring its own aggravations; natural ingredients are unpredictable. The arils of one pomegranate can yield a different shade of red than another from the same shrub. But at this beginning stage, her remarkable process is building. The necessary tools a cook uses to develop a recipe (measuring cups and spoons, thermometers, a scale for accurate weights, a red pencil for notes) are refreshingly absent, but the goal remains complementary. While a cook is fully ensconced in the search for the perfect recipe, for some time now, and in the most daunting way, Swann’s recipes will simply leave her searching.
Cornelia White Swann: Fugitive Color is a two-part exhibition featuring the artist's recent exploration in hand-made natural pigments. Set one year apart, Fugitive Color I was presented in spring 2015; Fugitive Color II opens on Saturday, March 12, 2016 and remains on view through Saturday, April 30, 2016. Catalogue pre-order available now.
Liz Pearson returned to her native Texas after a long stint in New York City, where she was the kitchen director for Saveur magazine. A contributor to the Los Angeles Times, “Every Day With Rachael Ray”, Fine Cooking and O, the Oprah Magazine, she also consults regularly with the global headquarters of Whole Foods Market as a writer, recipe developer and food stylist. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and Bard College, Liz has appeared on BBC’s “The World” to chat about candy bars in Indonesia, “Good Day Chicago” to pick the South Side’s best collard greens and sweet potato pie, and “Restaurant Guys Radio Show” to discuss the trials of taking an octopus on the subway.