A solitary slice of white layer cake missing one taunting, crumbly bite. The juicy pink flesh of a watermelon rind bit to the quick. Éclairs glistening with chocolate ganache. Piles of brown-speckled ripe bananas. Foods conjuring aromas, memories, and hunger—but you can’t take a bite. These are paintings, these are ceramics: this is the irreverent-made-reverent art of Annie Koelle.
The simple subject matter of food treated with such considerate austerity is simultaneously awe-inspiring and frustrating: it’s not for you to eat. Is this intentional?
Well, yes. There’s rarely, if ever, a fork in Koelle’s paintings. “I don’t want people to think immediately of eating it—I want people to observe it,” she says. Cheekily, Annie pipes her ceramic éclairs with the word real in clay frosting, knowing the art will work its own sneaky magic. She wants the viewer to enjoy a painting of a banana or a ceramic éclair for the simple delight of what it is.
“I trust that as you sit with art, there’s more that it gives you that you didn’t anticipate. Your body knows things that your brain doesn’t . . . I want to engage people in that way, whether they know that or not.”
Passing a slice of cake at the grocery store triggered in Annie this sort of full-body memory. As a child in upstate New York, her Sunday School teacher would bring Annie a Pepperidge Farm cake on her birthday. In that moment, standing in the bakery department, all the sensory details from that time flooded into Annie’s consciousness: “That foamy white frosting, that yellow cake, and everyone is singing to you and your favorite teacher is there and you get to take the whole cake home with you and eat it after church . . . I felt so special and so loved.”
For Annie, a formally trained artist, exploring and capturing a particular emotion begins with medium over matter. “I liked being able to scratch into oil paint; there’s a particular texture and three-dimensional nature to it,” she says. But Koelle found she could only push the paint so far, and ceramics allowed her vision to stretch. “The first time I touched the slip [a slurry of clay suspended in water], I immediately thought frosting,” she laughs.
With handmade plaster molds, Annie casts watermelon slices, éclairs, and bananas into clay forms she later paints with an underglaze, using techniques she’s adapted to her own style—like following a recipe and then making it your own. Many of these forms become vases, which hold their own sacred meaning.
“I’m a very ritual-inspired person. Bites of things, the texture of the cake crumbs or watermelon rinds . . . to me, those things represent consumption. Even the bananas aren’t going to go bad. When I put a flower in one of those vase holes, I am voting to be hopeful about the consumable nature of what it means to be a woman or a mother or a nurturer and that all of that . . . will make flowers.”
Photography by Will Crooks. Visit Annie Koelle’s studio at Artifacts Greenville, 3209 Old Buncombe Rd. She is also a member of Hollowed Earth Pottery. For more, go to anniekoelle.com