A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

Conceptual Chef

by Bridget Esangga

The ideas running through Eric May’s (BFA 2000) art practice were developed at Ox-Bow School of the Arts in Sagatuck, Michigan, a campus set on 115 acres of natural forests and dunes and an area of agricultural bounty, and the influence of Chicago’s imagists—whose artwork mined popular culture, street culture, and low-brow culture—some of who taught May during his time at SAIC.

“[At Ox-Bow] I learned a lot of important ideas about sustainable farming and seasonal and local small economies, and a lot of those ideas have followed through in my work,” May says. “It’s been a laboratory for me to explore some of those themes in my work, particularly concerning food sources and ideas of raising your own food and foraging for food, which are ideas that are still in my work, though I’ve shifted my focus more toward issues of urban food systems.”

This unique combination of influences might explain May’s recent menu at Iceberg projects. Looking at the idea of local sourcing in an urban environment, May prepared what he calls “high-brow catering hors d’oeuvres” using ingredients sourced from a local liquor store. The result: brandade made of Beach Cliff sardines and Lay’s potato chips; mac and cheese made of Tostitos salsa con queso and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos; paté made of Spam and Kool Aid pickle; and punch made of Mad Dog 20/20 among other items.

The work is a reference to the diets of students within the Chicago Public School system. “I’ve been looking at ideas of urban food deserts and neighborhoods that don’t have access to real grocery stores," May says. "And beyond that, even in this neighborhood, there’s a phenomena where I see high school students—and I used to work with high school students as well—but I’ll see high school students at the local liquor store buying chips and junk food to take home to eat for dinner.” 

The neighborhood May refers to is Chicago’s Wicker Park, where he is the Director of the nonprofit Roots and Culture Contemporary Art Center; owner of E-Dogz, a mobile community kitchen/food truck; and a practicing artist. May has also spent the past twelve summers living and working at Ox-Bow, rising through the ranks from dishwasher to his current position as head chef.

“I’ve learned that my true love and interest lies in the discourse around food,” May says, citing chefs such as Fergus Henderson (champion of nose-to-tail eating), Alice Waters, (pioneer of locally grown, seasonal cuisine), and Temple Grandin (whose work is transforming slaughterhouses by making them more compassionate) as current influences.

May's unique art practice frees him to explore social issues and work expressively with food. “I’m going to take responsibility and say that my work doesn’t happen unless people eat," he says. "But on the other hand, I don’t ever really aspire to work in a restaurant. The economy of the art world is a comfortable place for me."

"I’m not sure that I could create Flamin’ Hot Cheetos macaroni and cheese or chicken-fried pigeon in a professional cooking environment,” May added.

What’s next on his plate? In September, Roots and Culture will host Sunday Soup, a micro-granting event in which participants will pay an entrance fee which is then democratically awarded to one of the top three juried projects presented during the meal. May will prepare soup, salad, and dessert for the event.

He will also be participating in Afterimage, an exhibition at the DePaul Art museum, which opens on September 14. 

“The show is primarily an art object show of work that reflects the influence of the imagists in the ’60s and ’70s,” May says. “I was looking at some of their influences and where they overlap with mine and investigations into popular culture, low-brow culture, street culture, and a lot of that stuff informs my work. So I’ve put together a menu of absurd renditions of Chicago street food classics.”