“Agriculture is where nature and culture meet,” says pioneering artist and chef Jim Denevan

In partnership with Huston-Tillotson University and Driscoll’s, Food Tank kicked off the “Nourishing America” tour at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas, with a screening of “Man in the Field,” a profile of pioneering artist and chef Jim Denevan. Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg sat down with Denevan and the film’s Director Patrick Trefz to discuss temporary land art, traveling farm dinners, and speaking openly about mental health in the food industry.

“It’s been an odd journey going from doing something very personal on isolated beaches to bringing the artwork to the world,” says Denevan. Starting with a sand drawing of a fish in 1994, his creations have evolved into elaborate geometric artwork on beaches across the globe—all crafted using a simple rake or tree branch. 

“The first 15 years I was drawing in the sand I didn’t pay attention to the documentation,” Denevan says. Back then, he would often run to a local Walgreens store to buy a digital camera in hopes of capturing the piece before the tide came in to clear it away.

Denevan met Trefz in 2003, and the story for Man in the Field developed over about 15 years. The two built a trusting relationship as Trefz photographed and later filmed Denevan at work. Over time, Denevan opened up about his more personal stories of trauma and mental health struggles.

“There are really sensitive issues that can’t be addressed with a camera in your face,” says Trefz. The film captures the decades-long mental health struggle and family trauma that Denevan experienced before speaking honestly and openly about it in public spaces.

Denevan brings his appreciation for land art to a culinary experience through Outstanding in the Field, an alternative to conventional dining that hosts grand dinners in beautiful natural settings across the world. His first dinner event in 1999 invited a handful of guests via snail mail, and now, Outstanding in the Field will host 147 events in 9 countries in 2022.

Denevan aims to bring the restaurant to the food—rather than the food to the restaurant—through these experiences, which host anywhere from 100 to 1,000 guests dining together in beaches, meadows, fishing docks, vineyards, and farms to enjoy fresh, locally-sourced meals.

“We’re part of nature, we affect the world through our eating,” says Denevan. The dinners allow eaters to hear directly from producers, “who potentially would have greater insight into the condition of our communities and the world. A lot of that involves giving space for people to tell their stories.”

Denevan devotes time to building experiences, rather than objects, for his guests. He embraces the discovery process and not knowing the outcome until going on the journey. This applies to both designing a table to accommodate hundreds of eaters at a beachside dinner event and crafting his large, intricate land art. 

Denevan’s creations are a practice in the ever-changing, temporal nature of life, as well as the interconnection of all eaters. Both his art and dinners emphasize​​ the need for collaboration between eaters and the environment.

“Agriculture is where nature and culture meet,” says Denevan.

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