About: Tara Lane (BFA 2004)
Feeding Social Justice
Tara Lane is cultivating spaces and contemporary conversations around food.
By Bridget Esangga
What fascinates Tara Lane (BFA 2004) these days is how community spaces can bring people together to share a meal and spark conversations that lead to creative solutions to social problems.
Lane was a rising star in the restaurant world, having won prestigious awards and a reputation for innovation. Several years ago, she left her position as Executive Pastry Chef at Chicago’s Blackbird and Avec restaurants to work on social justice projects that involved food, eventually landing at Jane Addams Hull-House with the title of Food Preservationist. “There were pivotal messages that I wanted to be a part of—those conversations just weren’t happening in the kitchen,” she says.
One of Lane’s first tasks was to launch a project called Re-Thinking Soup. Every Tuesday afternoon, Lane turned the museum’s historic Residents’ Dining Hall into the setting for a lively communal event where guests were offered a free meal of healthy, delicious soup made from the bounty of the Hull-House heirloom farm in exchange for their participation in a conversation on urgent social, cultural, economic, and environmental food issues.
“There are so many issues that are happening in the food world—fair labor rights, farm bill policy, local food hubs—how do we have creative solutions for the larger social justice issues? That’s where it can start, simply with people eating together. I think about cultivating spaces where these conversations can occur,” says Lane.
At one of these lunchtime lectures, John Edel, founder of The Plant on Chicago’s South Side gave a talk about how he turned a former meatpacking plant into a vertical farm where food is grown on top of and inside the building using a complex system designed to create zero waste. Afterward, the audience was invited to contribute to the conversation.
“It follows along the same philosophy that Jane Addams believed: if you can’t contribute money, then you contribute your ideas and thoughts,” says Lane.
The confluence of food, science, social issues, and creativity is what really excites Lane. After she finished culinary school, she worked at a French patisserie shop called Payard’s in New York. The technical work required little creativity. Her desire to work in a community of creative people who share her interests is what led Lane to Chicago to enter the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at SAIC.
“I was really liberated by how you could cross disciplines. You could integrate multiple media at the same time,” she says. “Something was happening while having creative conversations within the curriculum of art school. It started to form how I think about food.”
Lane was inspired by Sculpture Professor Frances Whitehead’s Mapping the Lake in the Great Garden at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. The piece used 50,000 plants to form pie charts, bar graphs, and lake-shaped maps that spoke to the health of the water and bacteria levels in Lake Michigan.
“I had never seen a combination of science and art in a communal space that was done in a really thought-provoking way before,” Lane explains.
During her final year at SAIC, she began working at Blackbird making pastries. She says her art education and work as a chef became parallel practices. At school, she was making sculptures out of dough and casting them in bronze. Simultaneously at Blackbird, under the direction of Executive Chef Paul Kahan, she was learning about local sourcing and visiting the farms that supplied the restaurant.
After graduating, Lane returned to SAIC as an instructor. She helped teach Contemporary Practices classes, showing students how food can be a medium for creating art and teaching them where to obtain inexpensive, fresh ingredients downtown and how to cook their own food. The goal was to create a holistic view of how to be an artist, a label that she doesn’t exactly apply to herself, yet.
“I don’t think I identify with ‘chef’ either, and I did for a long time because it was easier to understand. I think wearing a multitude of different hats has made all of my disciplines stronger,” says Lane.
Of her current Food Preservationist title, she says it was initially a play on the role of a museum in preserving objects. But then she literally became the person in charge of making preserves from the heirloom farm. Her role then morphed into researching the food eaten at Hull-House in the late 1800s and early 1900s and how the World’s Fair began changing food in Chicago. These contributions will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Radical Home Economics that opens in January.
As Lane’s role at Hull House continues to evolve, the space and the history Resident’s Dining Hall continues to inspire her work.
“In that dining hall Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Gertrude Stein, Ida B. Wells, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and Jane Addams ate dinner every night,” says Lane. “I think about how much work it was, and how many years they worked on so many issues. And I think about all the pleasurable meals that sustained that work.”
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