Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Great People, Healthy Food: an art project at the Alternative Food Coop in Wakefield

Written by gallery member, John Kotula.

Just down Main Street from Hera Gallery is The Alternative Food Coop. Like Hera, the Coop is a South County institution that got started in the ‘70’s and has gone through many permutations. These days it is a small, busy market selling organic foods, locally grown produce, bulk items, vitamins, spices, and herbs. It is also one of the best places in town to grab lunch. You can choose from four or five crock-pots full of soups with fanciful names, a cooler of sandwiches and bottled drinks, and a great selection of baked goods. There are only two tables, so stopping in for lunch often involves sitting down with other people and having a conversation about politics, yoga, herbs that aid memory, midwifery, or the scarcity of naturopathic veterinary care. Although the Coop faces heavy competition from health food store chains and expanded natural food sections in the local super markets, it is one of those South County places that offer a sense of community that the other places can’t come close to. This is a big deal to me. At my most opinionated, I would ask, “If you don’t buy your oats at the Coop, or your latte at Sweet Cakes, or your New York Times at Healy’s, if you don’t have breakfast at the Bluebird Café or dinner at Crazy Burger, if you don’t purchase art at Hera, why are you living in South County?”

This past summer my wife Deb and I drove cross-country. We had been living in Honduras for two years. We flew to Portland, Oregon, bought a car, and took six weeks to wind our way back to Rhode Island. The trip was a great reintroduction to the USA. Over and over, the jaw dropping beauty of the beaches, rivers, lakes, forests, desserts, mountains, cornfields, little towns, and big cities awed me. At the same time, more than on other trips, I was aware of the waning of a sense of community. Deb and I would be driving through an absolutely unique landscape, a river on one side, snow caped mountains on the other, long vistas of two lane black top winding through forests ahead and behind, then we would approach a small city and everything that was unique would disappear. We would hit the strip outside of town and there was no way of knowing if we were in Montana or Georgia. It seemed like the same 20 or 30 giant chain stores, with the same facades, usually arranged in the same order, make up the commerce of every town of every state across the whole country. It was no easy matter to find Main Street and once found it was likely to be a pretty sad place, either abandoned altogether, struggling, or gentrified, seemingly in accordance with a theme chosen by a committee of the Chamber of Commerce. It is rare and exciting to find a Main Street like the one in Wakefield that is authentic to its locale, lively, a bit quirky, and a mix of old and new. I was glad to come home to it.

Deb started working at the Coop a couple of months ago. Since then, I’ve been stopping by once or twice a week to have lunch. It always feels good to be there. There is some remodeling going on. Eventually, the back area will be opened up so that the store flows into the kitchen. Maybe there will be a counter to eat at, maybe cooking classes, too. I started thinking about how I could make a contribution to this place that I enjoy so much. I have a lot of confidence in the contributive power of art. By this I mean that the presence of art makes a place better, but even more so that the process of making art enhances people and places. I negotiated for some wall space in the back room, a two foot strip where the wall meets the ceiling, and proposed a series of portraits of people involved with the Coop, staff, volunteers, board members, customers, depicted along with their favorite Coop product. So far, I’ve been doing the staff. I’m working from photographs in a graphic, brightly colored style. The next step will be to decide how to put these up on the wall. The goal is to run a frieze of these portraits around the kitchen. There is no hurry. It is a long-term ongoing project. It is my hope that this series of portraits will become a kind of composite portrait of the community of great people who give the Coop it uniqueness.

Then, of course, there is the question of how to pay for it. Here is the plan: anybody who would like to be part of this project can make a $25 dollar donation to the Coop to cover materials. Then they’ll pose for a photograph with their favorite Coop Product. I’ll turn the photograph into a drawing and put it up as part of the frieze. I can also make available digital images of the portrait if the person wants to have a personal copy.
Another way that this could develop would be for other artists to get involved, adding portraits to the frieze in their own styles.

Therefore, if you shop at the Coop and would like to become part of the décor or if you are an artist and would like to work on this project, get in touch with me.

John Kotula

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