Visual Art 12-21-2005

Playing with Fire–Artists on Food: Claire Fix

This is the first of an occasional feature by Rachel Joyce, "Playing with Fire: Artists on Food." Here Joyce speaks with Claire Fix, a painter from Cambridge, Minnesota, on everything from antelope tacos to red-bean spaghetti.


I will be spending Chanukah Eve through Boxing Day in Las Vegas. Although I am anticipating the whir of 24-hour casino daiquiri machines and miles of buffets with glee, I will miss my annual visits to friend’s homes at Christmas for the exotic-to-me meals. As a Jewess at Christmas, I have been invited to a rainbow coalition of holiday meals: Lutheran “watch the yellow mustard in the beans” spreads, Kentucky ham and red eye feed, tables laden with mustard greens and Christmas Mac & Cheese, veggie chili and sambuca chilled in a snowbank.

Each of these dinners included me in on the bonding and celebration of family and friendly ties that are at the center of the all major holidays. And the tables gave me new insight into the culture, traditions, and aesthetics of my generous friends.

That is why I chose this season to start a column introducing readers to Minnesota artists through a subject we all have a relationship with: food. Painter Claire Fix of Cambridge, Minnesota, combines the inspiration of spherical fruits and vegetables with Christmas ornamentation in several of her vivid, realistic works. She took some time to share her thoughts about food and the holidays with me recently.

What were dinners like growing up?

Originally my parents moved me up to Brook Park, Minnesota, near Hinckley. It was a small town. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and we had a small farm. She did all the cooking, gardening and canning. We had our own chickens, eggs, and cows. We did have milk cows, I remember we shipped milk and a milk truck would come to our yard to pick up the creamery cans and once every week he would deliver a tub of Land ‘o Lakes butter and cheese as part of our payment for the milk.

My mother, she always made her own bread, cakes, and cookies. We did not have the junk food folks have today. And we lived so far from any fast food or restaurants, we never went to any. Sometimes we would travel to another town for Dairy Queen, but that treat was rare.

I went to a very small school where even though we carried our lunch they would supply you with something to go with the meal. I have fond memories of a big kettle of whipped potatoes with real butter, and chili, and red devil’s food cake with cocoa. That stuff was some of the best food I remember eating. My mom would pack my lunch too, but it was different than now, she would pack the sandwiches in wax paper!

Every night my mom would make some type of cookies, pie or cake. The only time we had candy is if my dad brought home a dollar’s worth of penny candy once in while on Sunday if he went to buy the Sunday paper. My dad was pretty much a meat and potatoes kind of guy, so mom made a lot of roasts and baked chicken-nothing like chicken stir-fry.

Do you have a favorite food-related memory?

I’ve always liked Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner because we’ve always done the traditional turkey dinner, that always seemed special and still is. One thing that is a bit unusual is that we always have biscuits and gravy–a bowl of gravy with biscuits floating in it is a family tradition. It is a Southern thing so not too many people here do that. I don’t know where it came from, maybe somebody in the family traveled. And of course we have mashed potatoes, scalloped creamed corn, and nowadays we do the green bean casserole.

If you could anyone living or passed to a dinner party, who would it be?

Jesus-it would be kind of neat to serve him a meal. Beyond that, maybe Elvis. I never got to see him perform; I thought he would live longer so I missed him when he came to Minnesota.

Do you cook?

I don’t cook every night; it’s just my husband and me now. I mostly cook chicken and hamburger, I don’t do what my mother did. She made bread, and I have a bread-maker. Generally I like to make Italian spaghetti or chili, pasta salads with vegetables in summer.

I do have some artist friends who are really good cooks. They are so creative. We had an art group that got together to do a potluck and some of the food was almost too creative. A lot of them are vegans and vegetarians. I don’t know if that’s because art attracts a lot of people who are earthy types, hippie types. Some are like that but most of us are normal looking–you could not tell us from anybody. I went to one of these artist dinners and the guy served me antelope tacos.

How did the inspiration for your depiction of food in your art come about?

I started painting fruit in art class when they set up still lifes. One of the things I read said if you want to improve your artwork, paint fruit because you won’t have a personal attachment like you would if you were painting a person or a pet. Fruit, it sits there. And people will recognize it even if you get wild with it.

I started painting apples when I set up some apples with lights like I had seen another painter do in a book and with that painting I tried to get the exact color and value of the apples. I had a 16×20 canvas and I made 6×8 squares and in each one I did a different painting of these apples with different lighting. On one side I threw some oranges in there, maybe a yellow apple or two. It was for practice but it was so exact it ended up in the State Fair. Then it ended up in an art show in Ohio where someone from Florida bought it. I have not tried to be that exacting again but it was a good experiment.

After that I did some others with fruit and objects. I had a plate that said “lemons” and I put lemons on it and thought “this is kind of interesting.” On another I put apples on a cloth that had apples on it. You could tell the apples on the cloth were not realistic and I thought the real apples would be an interesting contrast. I have a gray bowl with a stripe that says oranges and I think someday I will paint it but put something in there besides oranges.

When I started painting fruit it was because of classes and was not very interesting to me, but it stuck in my head. I have done a series of onions, they won a prize here in the Cambridge area-people really like those and it was basically practice. They looked so realistic I framed them. I collect props for still life and you need to combine props with something soft and organic to bring a painting to life-strawberries with flowers, corn with husks, etc. softens a painting.

Are there specialty food stores or restaurants in your area that you frequent?

We have a by-pass around our town so places to eat are popping up. We have an Olive Garden coming and we have Applebee’s, Wendy’s, and pizza. I like Applebee’s for the variety. Yesterday we went to a local place called Pine Brook and they had a very good breakfast buffet with mashed potatoes and meat loaf, strawberry shortcake. We enjoyed that–we like more of a down-home cooking kind of place. We don’t have a Baker’s Square and I wish we did.

What would you consider a decadent meal?

Chicken Alfredo-isn’t that heart attack on a plate? Maybe going to McDonalds for a big fry and big Mac, I hear that is pretty risky. Chicken Kiev stuffed with butter.

Will you be cooking for the holidays?

I am making scalloped corn to bring to my mother’s. She is cooking the meal. I did Thanksgiving, that’s what I usually do. A lot of work and leftovers!

Any New Years resolutions?

The only resolution I have ever kept is to quit making them. I’m always working on improving myself in some way. I’ve been cleaning my studio and I’ve done some painting. I won’t get back there until New Year’s and I am looking forward to it. Christmas takes a lot of work, I have not even got all my cards out and I have spent hours on them.

Art-related plans for 2006?

I entered a contest advertised in Southwest Art magazine –an international competition similar to one I took part in in Buffalo, Minnesota, where I painted a life-size fiberglass buffalo. This project will be to paint an Indian horse. The contest is to paint a Native American design on a horse.

My buffalo made the cover of the Star Tribune Variety section in 2004 for the 4th of July-it was red, white, and blue. If I get the horse it will be an even bigger project. They are only awarding ten models to be painted. Then people can vote for their favorite on the web site. I did one submission based on the Native American tale of the Northern lights, about how they relied on the lights to guide them during darkness and tough times. Another is about the story of how the Indians caught their first horses. The last one is a design of three blue-eyed, wild horses with war paint on a red background.

The winner will be on the Internet on January 2. It is a slim chance as I expect they could have 2000 entries but if I get in it will be instant fame because it’s going to be covered bySouthwest Art magazine, you get a full page ad for your art, and they fly you out to Scottsdale for a dinner party. It’s kind of like winning the lottery. Also for early 2006, the owner of a gallery I have work in asked me to submit a book of work for possible commissions or purchase by Mercy Hospital.

Who is your favorite cook?

My mother. Certainly not me. After I got married I got into was staying skinny and dieting and mostly what I was cooking was Hamburger Helper because you could use just one pot. When my mom makes a meal it is complete with salads, vegetables and dessert with real butter and cream. Everything I had been cutting out. I thought, “Gosh, I never thought of making a meal like this with salad, vegetables, bread and dessert.” I remembered food tastes good. If you went to her tonight she would have a three-course meal. She joined a church and right off the bat she joined the ladies cooking club who constantly supply the church with hot dish and pies.

Do you have a recipe to share?

The meal I make most often is Italian spaghetti:

Fry half a pound of lean hamburger with a medium onion
Add 2 cans of tomato sauce
Add 2 teaspoons sugar
Add 1 teaspoon. of McCormick’s Italian seasoning

Add garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste
Simmer until ready to serve

Cook Creamette brand vermicelli

Pour sauce over top

Sometimes for variation I add diced green bell peppers, mushrooms and dark
red kidney beans.
Serve with English muffin toast buttered and dusted with McCormick’s Garlic
Bread sprinkle seasoning