As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. Rachel Alexandrou’s creative practice is centered around creating community feasts from foraged plants.
When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem? How has your understanding of the poem changed since then? What elements / images / phrases strike you most now?
This poem left me speechless for a while. It looks and feels like rock formed by thick layers of pain that have been built like stone striations. I considered the pressure that it took to create each apocalypse mentioned. How pressure condenses and makes a new substance. How the poem resolves itself is how I tend to do, with a hot cup of coffee.
My apocalypse is the apocalypse of no more learning, the loss of drive and inspiration. Plants have been the antidote to this for me. What I have learned from wild plants is more than just what tastes good, what grows where, or taxonomy. Wild plants provide the metaphors to find the answers to my own questions. Foraging creates the space to be able to digest these metaphors.
But getting back to that cup of coffee, or that next meal. These are the rituals that make living in an everyday apocalypse bearable.
What are you planning to create for this cycle? How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?
In response to social distancing, I have had to reconsider my entire practice for the A POSSIBLE PRACTICE iteration of Foraged Feast. So, I am considering a meal replacement. I have been gathering wild food plants and repotting them so perhaps the meal replacement will be a live potted plant. Where I normally would create an edible installation, I may have to create a plantable installation. Either way I hope the audience will be able to take away a portion of my installation to feed themselves in whatever way they feel they need to be fed.
The irony is that my Feasts are meant to engage a wide range of people by sharing a feast table. Currently it is illegal and unethical to do that. So I suppose I will be encouraging my audience to create a balanced bunker until we can come together again. I do think agency and sovereignty is just as important as maintaining strong community.
What are some of your favorite plants to work with and why?
Grape leaves (Vitis spp.) for their traditional use in Greek cuisine, and that they are everywhere and totally underutilized.
The American groundnut (Apios americana) for its being on this continent for a long time, how much fun it is to dig for the underground tubers that grow like a string of beads, and its tastiness.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) for its villainized reputation, it’s herbal application in lyme disease, abundance, and deliciousness as a cooked vegetable.
What does your foraging ritual look like? Your feast ritual?
My foraging ritual is constant. It’s automatic. It is a way of seeing. When I’m driving I’m scanning the side of the road for a certain shade of green or plant form. I’m often watching the ripening of plants as I drive by, noting that in a week I’ll be able to harvest it. When I forage I try to process my plants as soon as possible and put them in storage (freezing, pickling, canning) for a future feast. I actually don’t regularly eat foraged food as much as people might think. I am usually foraging in order to build up a store to share.
The feast takes 2-4 days to prepare depending on the number of people I’m feeding. I’m not trained as a chef. The amount of preparation for a feast is huge. However, I am very improvisational and usually plan what I will make based on what I have and not based on a single recipe. I usually end up cooking all day and painting the plant identification cards in the evening. The cards are a crucial part of the feast. They encourage the audience to slow down and take in the information before ingesting it. My favorite moment of the feast is when everyone surrounds the feast table to see what the food is. I love the sense of wonder that I see in the audience.
How long have you been creating Foraged Feasts? What led you to this communal food-based practice?
The feasts began in 2017 when I ran into the artist Susan Bickford, who asked me if I was interested in being part of her project called (stillness). She mentioned there would be foraged food and so I immediately said yes. I spent that spring foraging for the performance and taking her out with me to show her new food plants. The feast was presented outside on a tidal riverbank at the reversing falls in Newcastle. For the past three years gathering, cooking, and then witnessing the feast has been one of the most satisfying start-to-finish projects I have ever done. I don’t think I would have ever come up with such a communal project without this happening. Foraging is a solitary event for me normally and I never would have had the guts to try and offer a meal to people in this way without Susan’s urging. Now, it feels like something I have been doing forever. I am so grateful to have a mentor and collaborator that has pushed me to create beyond my own conception.
How does your practice engage with processing personal and/or collective grief through art?
Foraging began as a way for me to find romance in the small world of my teenagerhood. I grew up as a teen in a rural area and dealt with a lot of depression and anxiety that stemmed from childhood abuse. I don’t think I connected it at the time, but walking around outside and taking a focused interest in the plant world alleviated a lot of that for me. It is still my most effective therapy. I was able to use plants to create a new world for myself that was more exciting than the routine of going to high school and wishing so badly I could leave my small town and see what everyone else was doing in the world. Now I am very aware of the therapeutic action of paying attention to plants, I am astounded that it works every time. I would have thought I’d get bored of birch or nettles eventually, but every year my interest only deepens and I learn more about what it means to stay with my healthy relationships thanks to plants!
I invite collaborators and audiences to forage and feast in order to discover new worlds in the flavors, the surprise of eating strange plants, and the possibility that they could go find this food themselves if they want to.
What role does personal / collective history play in your work?
I don’t want the history of the plants to be lost and that plays into why I am so adamant about being informative in my work. I do view my work as propaganda for the plants. My ideal goal is to reconnect people to place through the seduction of food. Not that long ago, my grandparents were low-key foraging and gardening as a mundane activity. Now we are making such a loud fuss about farmed and foraged food. Is this because it was so close to becoming extinct as food became industrialized? I am glad to see so many people hustling real food now. I can’t believe I have been able to create these feasts, essentially for fun. Yeah, I think it’s my ideal form of fun.
Who is one of the most influential people in your biological or chosen family lineage? How does their influence appear in your work?
I have a strong connection to my Greek heritage, but a toxic, confusing relationship with that side of my family. What is not confusing is the potency of the memories I have of my Yiayia cooking, showing me how to pick Greek mountain tea on the island of Lesbos, or the smell of Mastixa in the air on the island of Xios. We also attended an ornate Greek Orthodox church where olive, beeswax candles, frankincense, bread, and wine were a weekly ritual. I only attended as a younger child, but I feel like I was strongly imprinted by my family’s traditional rituals.
My mother is a sign painter, and a science nerd. I have been studying lettering under her over the years. I’m still learning but try and work in lettering or sign composition into my visual work when I feel it would be useful.
Who / what is currently inspiring you locally?
For the past year I’ve been taking a ferry back and forth to an island where my Love lives. The entire process of getting there has inspired a new level of trust and forced me out of a long held pattern of being fast paced and impatient. The anticipation and choppy ocean, the arrival and complete disconnect from the mainland, the ability to relax because I am stuck on an island. The plant communities on the island are unparalleled. There are giant stands of native plants that would not look the same on the mainland because there are so many highly competitive plants that have been thrown into the mix.
What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?
I need old Greek Rebetiko music when I’m cooking, cleaning, drinking coffee.
I keep a stack of books around me always, currently they are: Bark: A Field Guide to the Trees of the Northeast, Forest Trees of Maine, Vegetable Gardening by Joel Morrow, the Maine Gazetteer. Oh, also tons of back issues of Selvedge Magazine and Gather Journal, I love a good periodical. Haven’t read fiction in a longggg time.
What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?
Bought a mulberry paper notebook just as social distancing began. The paper feels precious and takes ink and paint beautifully. I’ve always carried a blank notebook (usually a small Fabriano classic artists journal) around with me because I have a poor memory and a lotta thoughts. They become dear to me. I fill them with flashes of insight, to do lists, recipes, and paintings. They are important markers of time for me to remember all the things that happen in a short span of time. I go back to them repeatedly to find forgotten thoughts and plans.
What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?
What is the shape of a paradox?
What scares you will save you.
“Its hardship is its possibility”—Wendell Berry, “A Vision”
Rachel Alexandrou is a Maine artist and forager. She has been putting on art feasts that feature foraged food for three years and foraging for over ten years. Her work is about the plants and the environments they inhabit, but also about relinquishing fear (of the unknown) through the act of discovery. By identifying, processing and eating wild plants, she offers her audience a way to connect to the wild world with pleasure instead of fear.