Meat is more than food to Decatur-based artist Kerry Escobedo. Each cut is a map of an animal’s life, deserving of portraiture. And it’s almost exclusively what she’s been painting for the past few years.
“I guess it’s a little bit Native American, the idea of honoring this thing completely,” says Escobedo. “And there were a lot of things that went behind getting [the meat] to us. It’s the person who fed the animal. It’s the person who had to slaughter the animal.”
After graduating from the University of Utah, where she focused her art major on sculpture, Escobedo got married and had four children, now ages 17, 14, 11, and five. In the kitchen one night in 2012, she was inspired by a beautiful steak and started painting. In the past year, she’s painted almost one portrait, as she calls them, per month, and she’s been commissioned by some high-profile clients.
“One woman wanted to give her husband a gift,” says Escobedo. “They had lived here in the South for years and years, and then he got a job as the poetry editor for the New Yorker, so they moved to New York. She wanted me to paint something that would remind him of the South, so I did short ribs, which on the pig is the closest part to the heart.”
Read below to hear more about Escobedo’s work.
You grew up on a farm near Knoxville, Tennessee. Does that experience affect your work?
Yes. When you’re on a farm, you’re more directly connected to what you eat. You realize that what you feed your chickens or how you treat them makes the yolks darker or lighter.
You hadn’t painted for 15 years when you picked up the brush again.
Yes, I took time off to have children—four girls—but now that the youngest one is in kindergarten, I have more time. So I was standing in the kitchen one day and had this piece of raw steak on the counter, and it was really gorgeous, marbled and rich. Beautiful and brutal at the same time, I guess. The idea of life and sacrifice. And it’s so dramatic, the red and the blood. I started studying the fat, how it was marbled throughout the muscle of the animal because of its history and the way that it was kept, the food that it ate. And then I decided to record that life of this particular animal with the greatest detail that I could, so that it became more like a portrait. That’s also why I paint on the white background, to keep it more like a portrait of the meat.
In the steak, I think I can see a naked woman or two in the fat? Are my eyes tricking me?
No! The longer I looked, I started seeing images inside the fat and in the muscle—maybe a face or a body, sometimes animals appear—so I do a little bit of embellishing to make those figures more visible. There are a lot of fertility symbols, too, like pregnant bodies.
I was always really focused on issues that surrounded women. Then when I stopped doing art, I thought, “Well, am I being a bad example for my girls?” So it’s nice for them to see me coming back into it, and really owning what I wanted to do in the very beginning. I don’t feel negative about the sacrifice [to spend time having children] at all. It’s definitely part of my story, and I love that.
You work from photographs, right?
Yes, and it’s kind of grotesque! I pick the meat—I try to pick one that I really like, and I try to get the butcher to touch it as lightly as possible—and then I take it home and I photograph it outside. My neighbor’s sidewalk is flatter than mine, and she has a really sunny front yard, so I always text her and say, “Can I come over and photograph meat?” One time, I ended up taking this six-pound leg of lamb over there. I was holding it by the bone and dragging it across the yard. Cars passed by and I locked eyes with [one of the drivers]—it was just kind of hysterical.
Do you eat the meat after shooting it?
Yes. My kids get really excited when I am about to start a new painting because I photograph the meat outside and then I quickly bring it inside and cook it. I’ve been doing commissions mainly, so other people pick the meat cut, but I’m hoping somebody picks a goose or a duck because I’d love to cook one of those!
Do you work with other items than just red meat?
I painted an oyster, which was interesting because there was a lot of water and a lot of reflection in the iridescent colors. But it wasn’t as interesting to me as the red meat. It was very soft, passive painting. I’m definitely more into the aggressive, bold meats.
You can commission a painting from Escobedo on her website, kerryescobedo.com. Depending on the complexity of the meat, they cost anywhere from $800 to $2,000.