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Dordt professor paints with popsicles, spray cheese and other processed foods

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SIOUX CENTER, Iowa | A space heater hums in a small art space. The welcome warmth slowly melts a couple Popsicles from an Avengers variety pack.

Purplish blotches and swirls form a curious pattern on one wooden canvas while the dull, rusty colors of an Iron Man Popsicle gradually dissipate on another.

Matt Drissell does little to guide the watery dyes. Instead, he stands back, watching, waiting, whetting his appetite.

The associate professor of art at Dordt College has been playing with food for a few years. Like a glutton in front of a feast, he can’t stop himself.

“I studied at a really traditional graduate program where we were looking at 15th century Dutch painting techniques, the figurative tradition,” he said. “And I love that, but there’s something really visceral about food.”

The way it looks, tastes, smells -- it’s all so alluring.

He’s been making his way through the frozen food aisle. Really though, few foods are off limits. His art supplies include peanut butter, cereals, sprinkles, bacon, spray cheese, coffee grounds, Sriracha sauce, Kool-Aid, cake mixes, macaroni and cheese, hot fudge and ramen noodles.

He’s even made works with Campbell’s soup, giving a nod to Andy Warhol.

His insatiable appetite to explore food as art earned him one of five fellowships from the Iowa Arts Council. As part of the yearlong program, Drissell received a $5,000 grant, allowing him to try out some new materials and take more chances with his art.

One of his first food paintings features chocolate chip ice cream on a canvas, topped with polyurethane. The idea to paint with food came about when he was eating hot fudge sundaes with his wife. Admiring the swirls of gooey chocolate running down the smooth scoops of vanilla, he wondered if there was a way to preserve its passing beauty.

Part of the irony is that his family actually avoids eating highly processed products in favor of more fresh, locally-grown foods. But growing up in the '80s, he fondly remembers running after the ice cream truck to get his fill of sweet treats.

One of his latest paintings, made with Bomb Pops, accidentally became the death zone for a giant mosquito. The insect is now trapped beneath a layer of glossy, clear resin like Jurassic Park.

The small abstract works burst with vibrant shades of Red 40 and Blue 1, mingled with water, sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Drissell looks at the food products and sees their connection to the land, to the plants sprouting out of Iowa’s rich, black soil.

In the summer, you may see ears of corn growing on the spindly stalks. He sees Popsicles.

Cultivating art

In recent years, Drissell has moved on from fretting over meticulous, fine details to a new come-what-may philosophy.

“I try not to be too precious with my art-making,” he said. “It’s kind of liberating to just let something splatter and sort of embrace whatever happens.”

In doing so, he’s opted to abandon much of what he learned at the New York Academy of Art.

When he came to Dordt in 2008, he was expecting to find crazy creative, out-of-control students, budding with youthful exuberance and far-out ideas. On the contrary, Drissell needed to be the nutty professor, pushing the bounds of possibilities.

“That’s encouraged me to play with new things and new processes and to say art doesn’t need to be something just hanging on the wall but instead can bring about those larger conversations,” he said. “One of my passions is finding ways the art can get out of the art gallery and connect with people.”

Throughout the remainder of his fellowship, which ends in July, Drissell plans to continue a project called Externalities, a series of large-scale barn quilts destined for outdoor display.

In his garage studio, half of a 6-foot-square barn quilt leans up against a wall.

He’s been tapping into the folk art scene and examining the legacy of rural life through food products.

He created the “Missouri Puzzle” with powdered lemonade, Jell-O, Bomb Pops and spar urethane on wood panels. It’s named after a classic quilt block pattern. It was formerly being displayed in a Missouri town that has an Oscar Meyer plant.

To infuse the piece with a sense of place, Drissell tried to attach bacon to the barn quilt, but it didn’t want to stick. The glue wasn’t strong enough.

Each new work is like a little science experiment. So far, nothing has grown mold, but he doesn’t know how long the colors will last or when they’ll start to fade.

The uncertainty only feeds his curiosity and he keeps creating.


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