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Nicola Bennett: Gastro Arts 

New Zealand-based artist Nicola Bennett unites paint and food to create unique art. Join Fibre Arts Take Two on this gastro-artistic journey.

Nicola’s Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

For Nicola Bennett, colour is like flavour, with art and food being intricately linked. 

Originally from the UK, Nicola is an abstract painter whose inspiration sprouts from the ingredients she works with from her home in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Sweet, sour, salty, tangy, velvety, crumple and smooth are all words that constantly remind Nicola of the language of food and ask what ‘flavour’ she wants the painting to be. 

Nicola brings together the full sensory experience of cooking in painting, from collaborating with chefs to create work and hosting intimate art dinners and lunches. She is continually surprised and delighted, whether she’s working with familiar ingredients such as the humble carrot or taking on the challenge of combining the next unexpected, such as the feijoa and brussel sprout. 

Nicola found time to take Fibre Arts Take Two on a gastro-artistic journey.

Finding food

Nicola found her connection with cooking in a somewhat unorthodox way, “I was crazy about snowboarding,” she says, “and this job came up where you would cook for 15 every night in the snowboarding chalet. I really wanted to do it but I wasn’t that good a cook. For the interview I had to cook for four people and chat to them. I practised and practised but then I was there and it was much harder than I thought it was gonna be. I actually hardly got any snowboarding in because there was so much cooking but I fell madly in love with cooking. It was a great experience, and then, of course, when you’ve done something hard like that, then everything after that feels easy.”

Cooking wasn’t completely alien to Nicola, who grew up with an appreciation for food in her home, “Food was huge,” she says, “because my mom is a fabulous cook. It was her love language; the longer that she spent preparing something, the more love there was in that food. So I grew up with beautiful food, knowing that something delicious takes time to make, and the house always smelled good with beautiful food.”

Late to paint

Just like her love of cooking, Nicola’s discovery of paint came a little later in life, “My thesis was on the sensory and sensual qualities of handmade objects,” says Nicola, “I made a lot of wax objects, so painting actually didn’t come till later on. I always dabbled a little bit in painting. At uni, I did a bit but not very much.”

Eventually, a group project surfaced with an interesting twist, “I was asked to be part of this group show, and you had to make some work as your alter ego. You could make up this person, and you had to make the work as that person. I knew exactly who I was going to be, I was this French abstract painter, and when I was painting, I wasn’t allowed to have any self-doubt because I was this confident painter. I made this work, and I loved it, and it also sold. and then I kind of put off as well; ‘Why don’t you just do that until you actually feel like that?’ And so I would be this person. And the name is quite funny. It was ‘Fifi Lauren’, more like a porn star than a painter.”

Feijoas

One of the more interesting ingredients that Nicola has enjoyed working with is the feijoa. 

“It’s originally from Brazil,” Nicola explains, “I’m not quite sure how it came here, but it’s been described a little bit like pineapple guava. It’s a beautiful floral, tangy, tart, sweet, beautiful, beautiful fruit. All Kiwis absolutely love it. And you know, it’s like anything that comes in season for a small time, ‘Oh, my God, quick, the feijoas are in season.’ So everyone’s trying to really make the most of them.”

As if feijoas aren’t unusual enough, the ingredient that Nicola found to mix them with is also out of left field, “The brussels sprout came about because I was in contact with a lovely chef in Wellington called Max Gordy,” says Nicola, “He has a beautiful restaurant in Wellington, and he’s known for bringing really unusual ingredients together. There’s so many ingredients that we know go well together that pair together because we see them in lots of different recipes. But he is the absolute king of bringing unusual ingredients together. I contacted Max and said, ‘Can you recommend some really weird foods together?’ And he recommended the brussels sprouts and feijoa and sent me a lovely recipe.”

Colour

One of Nicola’s long-term challenges as an artist has been colour. “I’ve learned so much over the years,” she says, “Colours did quite intimidate me, I didn’t think that I was any good at colour mixing, and I thought that I had to buy the tube in the exact colour that I wanted, because how on earth could I make it. I look back and go, ‘Oh my gosh, you really weren’t very confident with colour at all’. 

I completed a lovely course with the amazing Evan Woodruff on colour and I learned a little bit of the history of colour, and I find all that really fascinating. Colours are so attached to emotion; looking at how artists throughout history have used colour to spark emotions, I do know a little bit of that, but actually, it’s just an intuitive thing. Now I see colour everywhere, I’m always spotting colour, it’s just a big part of my life.”

Harmonising

Despite her early trepidations, Nicola has now synchronised with her use of colour, “I love to harmonise my colours” she says, “so I use oils with a medium, or I use water-based oils. I put them out on my palette, and then I will make a little paste with every colour, and then I put that mixture in with all those colours, so they’re all harmonised. I actually paint on the ingredient to make sure I have the exact colour. So that’s what my colour matching is, painting on it. I like to have them in the studio, and I might have a little nibble. It’s good to have them in there because then I can really feel the personality of the ingredients.”

Going its own way

“The food is the starting point and what keeps me inspired throughout, but often, the painting will just go its own way,” Nicola explains when we ask her about her process,  and I just go with it. I have no idea what the painting will look like at the end. I just know the colour palette that I start with, and then I just go from there. So it’s quite intuitive. It’s a real feeling. And often, the colour palette can change halfway through if it’s not singing, I just have to let the painting lead the way. I just let it lead the way. As soon as I start trying to get to thinking and say, ‘Well, you’ve used that colour, you should probably use this colour,’ The painting’s a disaster. I have to look at it, study it, and if I have the feeling it needs yellow, I have to act straight away without going ‘no, well, you maybe you shouldn’t use yellow’ I think we can interfere with the painting that sometimes paints itself.”

The Sydney carrot

Of the many projects Nicola has in the works, there is one that is topping her list, “I’m most looking forward to seeing the painting in Sydney,” she says, “this carrot painting, which is going to be sent off soon and be framed in Sydney and then the restaurant. I’m really looking forward to seeing that up, and hopefully, one day, I’ll get over there and get to eat their dessert and see the painting at the same time.”

About the artist

Nicola Bennet’s work is deeply connected to her love of food. 

Each painting starts with the inspiration from the colours and flavours of different ingredients. The goal is to evoke a visual and sensory response. To be eaten with the eyes.

About 15 years ago, it occurred to Nicola that the processes behind food and art — whether making a recipe or creating a painting — are strikingly similar. Both transform raw materials into something new that can be shared and enjoyed. So it was that idea and her love of food and cooking that captured Nicola’s attention. It inspired her to explore how flavours can be expressed in colour.

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