Fried eggs and folk art: an interview with Sissy Cutchen

Inspired by Southern folk artists, Torpedo Factory associate artist Sissy Cutchen tells us that she likes to “take a funky mood and make it a fabulous object.” By focusing on her favorite subjects—“Flowers, Fish, Food, Fowl, Furniture”—she hopes to spread a little happiness in the world, and her positive approach naturally inspires children as well.

Cutchen is currently gearing up for “Everybody’s Cookies,” a May 2014 show at the Children’s Museum of Virginia based on her forthcoming book of the same name. Both the show and the book will demonstrate that any kind of food can be “American” food, while the museum exhibit will also emphasize edibles from the Chesapeake Bay. 

Cutchen recently took a breather and chatted with us about food, folk art, the Torpedo Factory, and the timeless symbolism of fried eggs.

Most people may not understand why it takes so long for a museum show to come together. What does the next year look like for you?

I’m finishing my artwork for the children’s exhibit and working on the Chesapeake Bay concept, and I’m preparing something for the museum’s learning center to describe folk art. Further, the whole show includes artists’ talks and children’s activities through the education department, as well as the installation (including choosing gallery colors), invitations, opening day…I am even producing retail items for the gift shop!

What drew you to food as a subject for art?

I paint food because I grew up in the restaurant business, and I realize your eyes eat first. Also, I’m a self-taught artist; food gives one a great deal of freedom of expression other subjects don’t. Each meal is a work of art that can look many ways and be the same thing.

There’s a huge connection between cooking and painting food, and all the joys in between. Often I garnish paintings just like I garnish food, using dried paint as parsley—and even real paprika at times.

Do you see a connection between Southern food and Southern folk art?

Signage painted to advertise food is often wonderful folk art, specifically signs that include paintings of the food. This transcends geography: northern lobsters, Southern BBQ, Southwestern burritos…

What draws children to your work?

Kids love my artwork because it breaks the rules for art. I paint on windows and tables and chairs. When you open a drawer on a chest, there are fried eggs in it.

They want to know why I paint eggs on everything; they want to know why I put dots on everything; they want to touch everything—and they may.

So why do you paint eggs on everything?

Eggs are a universal symbol; everyone knows what an egg is. Also, we all come from an egg—and eggs are pointillistic, just like dots, something I consider neurological images. We see them in Aboriginal art, fine art, folk art, East Indian art, all kinds of art. Light travels in dots called photons. At the end of the day, the brain likes dots.

Because you’re married to a Naval aviator, you’ve moved more than 12 times in the past 25 years. How does constant relocation affect the business side of making art?

We military spouses who are small business owners and entrepreneurs have to move so often, and it’s so easy for our businesses to die with each move—but somehow I managed to gather the strength and ideas to turn mine into a business that grew with each move and change.

Just like Michelle Obama is trying to help military dependents get their professional licensing to cross state lines so their careers can grow and not die with each move, I want the small business owners who are in my shoes to know that the same is possible for us. In many ways, our moves offer unique opportunities to grow our businesses in ways other companies can only dream of. Instead of being only a local artist, I am a national artist.

You studio-hopped throughout the Torpedo Factory during a two-year stint in the D.C. area from 2010 to 2012, but wasn’t that several years after you became a Torpedo Factory artist?

It took me four tries to get accepted at the Torpedo Factory. Then, the year I got juried in, my husband got orders to Georgia. So, I still submitted my work, and then we moved. I had to have a friend pick up my submissions for me when the jury concluded, but I finally made it! That was 2006.

And now this museum show! Just making a mark everywhere I go: that is my strategy.

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