Ants march, honeybees hover, flowers bloom and corn grows on the rotating concentric circles of "Brackman's Botanical Bonanza!," a giant mechanical mandala spinning at the heart of a second-floor gallery in the American Visionary Art Museum.
Artist Wendy Brackman spent more than a year crafting the mandala from picnic supplies, chiefly hand-painted paper plates and plastic straws.
"It had started off with the flower and the bees, and it was the story of pollination, and as synchronistic as I think my life is," said Brackman, whose piece conveys a process at the root of food systems.
Brackman is among more than 35 artists whose works are incorporated in the Federal Hill museum's newest exhibit, "Yummm! The History, Fantasy and Future of Food," which opens Oct. 8. The exhibition includes media that vary from colored pencils to carved ostrich eggs, and the themes it encompasses are just as vast: bee colony collapses, body image, prison dining, food packaging and more.
But at its core, each work of art centers on people and their relationships with the things they eat.
Since opening 21 years ago, the museum has created an annual exhibit on a theme that has "bedeviled or inspired humanity," founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger said at a preview. This time, it's both.
"This is an exhibition about well-being and health and the multilevel relationship we have as a society with food, but [also] what our personal experience is with food," she said.
The exhibit also outlines how that relationship might change. Hoffberger said food production and consumption have to shift drastically if the world is going to be able to sustainably feed a population projected to grow to at least 9.5 billion people by 2050.
"The way we package food, the way we share food, the way we transport food, the way we cultivate it, the sanctity of seeds — so many things about food in which every single person that comes through here today has a very personal relationship with food — has to radically, and I hope benevolently, not greedily, change," she said. "And that's the gauntlet that John Lewis, our co-curator, and I have thrown down with this exhibition that puts the facts in plain language for everybody."
Upon entering the museum's Zanvyl A. Krieger Main Building, guests are met with a display behind the front desk about the "first food" — mother's milk — and the benefits of breast-feeding. Past the desk and up a ramp, the familiar PostSecrets — part of an ongoing project by Frank Warren in which people mail in postcards with anonymous secrets — are now all about food:
"I steal breakfast from hotels on the weekends."
"I wish I had appreciated our family dinners."
"Everyone still thinks that I'm a vegetarian."
"I'm the kind of person who buys the dented can of beans in a supermarket as I feel sorry for it, and I know how it feels to be dented."
Up a spiral staircase to the main gallery on the second floor, guests are greeted by Bernard Stiegler's short animation showing a group of aliens having an intergalactic meal.
"They're all meeting inside of a food pyramid that's floating out in space, like a pyramid spaceship," said Stiegler, an AVAM security guard and self-taught animator. "I tried to represent all different foods from the foods they're eating."
Other pieces, like Christian Twamley's "Sweepish Chef," are made from food. Twamley's sculpture is crafted from more than 4,000 Peeps. The 6-foot-tall depiction of the Muppets' Swedish Chef and his chicken, Camilla, was a grand-prize winner in the Carroll County Arts Council's annual PEEPshow, a fundraiser showcasing more than 150 sculptures, dioramas and other artwork made from and inspired by the marshmallow candies.
Twamley's piece sits in the same room as a life-size self-portrait of Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne — molded entirely from green gummi candy.
The entire back wall of the room is a mural made of bread. Artist Jerry Beck worked with hundreds of children to create depictions of growing grain and manufacturing and consuming bread using toasted rolls, saltine crackers, challah, pretzels, baguettes and pumpernickel. Above the mural are the words of Miguel de Cervantes in "Don Quixote": "With bread all sorrows are less."
Still other works present a subtler tie to food. French painter Jean-Marc Brugeilles has four pieces on display in the gallery. He makes his own paints using edible ingredients including eggs, walnut oil and grapes. And his works speak to the subject of food, too: one shows a dinner celebration for his grandfather; another shows a baker making bread in a fiery coal oven.
"Artists have always forever used food as an inspiration," said John Lewis, the museum's assistant director and co-curator of "Yummm!"
Artist Bobby Adams' pieces are just as whimsical, but they explore more personal struggles like body image and sugar addiction. A compulsive overeater, Adams said he once weighed more than 400 pounds. One of his pieces, "Eye Candy," speaks to male body insecurities using photographs of Adams and his friends. The bottom half showcases photographs of their rippling abs when their bodies were in their prime. Above, the men appear again in more recent photos that show them out of shape. Each photo is encircled by a miniature tire, hinting at the "spare tire" term often assigned to flabby abdomens.
None of the photos but those of Adams show their faces.
"Trying to get the guys to take off their shirts and pose for these pictures was like pulling teeth," Adams said. "People always think that it's only women that think about their bodies and everything, and it all comes from the food we eat."
While Adams' works examine personal insecurities, other artists tackled broader social problems stemming from food. Cuban artist Joaquin J. Pomes shows the difficulty of feeding a family in a country under embargo. He depicts female figures with heads of boiling coffee, representing the stress his mother felt trying to provide for her family, he explained through a translator during a tour.
"Yummm!" is on display through Sept. 3, 2017. AVAM will host a series of food-related workshops throughout the exhibit's duration, including a session on local farming during next year's Light City festival.
"Food is something that informs so much of our lives," Lewis said. "And a lot of this exhibition is really about just maybe instilling more mindfulness in every bite we take and getting people to think about where food comes from."