(photo by Jim Barcus)

The Kansas City artist fuses painting and sculpture with culinary arts into a unique social practice

Known for his combination of fine art and fermentation, Sean Nash fuses painting and sculpture with culinary arts into a unique social practice. With a recent project at the Kansas City International Airport and as one of three recipients of Charlotte Street’s 2023 Visual Artist Awards, Nash is quickly growing a reputation as a major artist in Kansas City and beyond.

Born in 1980, Nash earned his MFA from Yale in 2005 and then spent time living in New York. In 2014, he moved to Short Mountain, a radical queer commune in Tennessee. Created in 1981, it is one of the longest running and oldest of such communes in the present day. It was here that Nash grew his interest in food fermentation, gardening and cooking and began fusing them into a unique art practice. Since moving to Kansas City, Nash spent six years teaching social practice art at the Kansas City Art Institute and exhibited in many of the city’s galleries.

In 2017, Nash won a Rocket Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation and embarked on a project called Garden Variety Soda Fountain. Using ingredients from local gardeners, Nash fermented and brewed several different beverages including Sour Cherry Kombucha, Blackberry Jun, Pickle Kefir, Basil Kefir and Pineapple Jalapeno Kombucha. Nash served these drinks from a cart painted hot fuchsia, hosting pop-up events at First Fridays. The goal: to recreate the soda counter atmosphere of previous generations, serving tasty beverages and starting conversations about local gardening, fermentation and whatever else might come up.

Sean Nash, “Flowering Wand” (2022), composite resin, fiberglass, muslin, and acrylic paint on plywood, 35 x 33 x 3” (from the artist)

Also in 2017, Nash exhibited his project “Lactobacillus Amongus” at Plug Projects with a grant from ArtsKC. The exhibition featured numerous sculptures and installations on the theme of sourdough starters. Sculptures made of burlap mesh, sculptamold and acrylic paint mimic the structures of the lactobacillus bacterium and the decorative patterns that are scored into artisanal bread. Actual sourdough starters were present in the gallery, collected from different bakers. As each mix is unique, Nash considers the sourdough starters to be a form of automatic portraiture. In addition to the sculptures, microscopes were present in the gallery to let viewers examine the bacterium up close.

In addition to these public-facing projects, Nash has also been engaged in a long-term project he calls “Trans Fermentation.” Nash, a transgender man, invites other transgender people to ferment food with him. He records the sessions, and while they work, they talk about being transgender. Sometimes this means talking about big issues facing the community, but not always.

Nash conceives of “Trans Fermentation,” “Garden Variety Soda Fountain” and similar projects as art projects, but to many these clearly blur the lines between disciplines. There is no denying that social practice, as an art discipline, still feels very experimental, despite the concept existing for decades. But asking “Is this art?” misses the point, as one might just as easily ask the equally unhelpful question, “Is this food?” In the end, the unique combination offers things that neither discipline could deliver on its own. Bridging disciplines, Nash moves between public and private and between gallery space and community space.

One project that bridges these contradictions is “Kansas City Reciprocity.” Located in Concourse B at the Kansas City International Airport, the 16-foot-long painting depicts a brilliant blue sky and sun, covered in cast models of locally grown food taken from six regional farms.

Sean Nash, “Vegetal Hyposubjects” (2022, composite resin, fiberglass, muslin, and acrylic paint on plywood, 33 1/2 x 28 x 3” (from the artist)

There are cast sculptures of Cherokee White corn and Kiwano melon from the Buffalo Seed Project, a farm that seeks to cultivate crops from elsewhere that are well suited to the local climate. There are casts of tomatoes from Longfellow Farms, a community garden project located in the urban center of downtown KC. There are casts of jicama and patty pan squash from Maseualkualli Farms, a farm that uses zero fossil fuel.

The irony, and perhaps the beauty, of this project is that these unique farms are being showcased at the Kansas City International Airport, a place where hundreds of airplanes land and take off, guzzling uncountable gallons of jet fuel. Perhaps the airport achieves a bit of “greenwashing” with this project, but the chance to show to millions of travelers such a unique bounty of food and farm projects is worth it.

Nash’s next big project is an upcoming exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art as part of receiving the Charlotte Street 2023 Visual Art Award. The annual exhibition will also feature this year’s other two winners, Ruben Castillo and Sun Young Park. For Nash’s part of the exhibition, he has begun a new series of paintings on organically shaped canvases. The abstract paintings feature natural patterns like spirals and are covered in castings of fruits and vegetables, and also castings of plastic food containers. Perhaps even more so than his recent mural at the airport, these paintings are firmly in the realm of abstract painting.

Although the doom and gloom of the climate catastrophe forms an unignorable backdrop for Nash’s art, his work also contains a surprising amount of hopefulness, tempting one to imagine a better world, a culture with a positive relationship to food, farming, art and community. It’s a testament to social practice art as a genre, which has begun to stand on its own without need for justification or explanation. Through his many different practices and through far-reaching collaborations, Nash provides a unique artistic vision and perhaps a way forward.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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