The cheesy calling for painter Mike Geno
HOW does a guy get to the point where he can’t stop c r a n k i n g out paintings of cheese? In the case of Mike Geno, a 41-year-old artist and food fanatic, it’s instructive to rewind to a phase in his life when he couldn’t stop cranking out paintings of steak.
That was more than a decade ago, when he was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the phrase “starving artist” served as a distressingly apt description of his life. One day, MGeno said, he was sitting in his studio, “very poor and hungry,” when a friend dropped by.
“I said, ‘I should just do a big juicy steak painting – something you want to bite your teeth into,”’ he recalled the other day at his apartment, where the walls are covered with oil paintings of jelly doughnuts, hot dogs, croissants, slices of pancetta, pieces of sushi, curiously erotic whorls of bacon and many, many wedges of cheese.
“So the next day I went out and bought one,” he said. “I chose porterhouse because I thought that was the most quintessential steak.” He kept the porterhouse cool by placing it in the path of an air-conditioner, and he painted its portrait quickly – in less than four hours.
“I couldn’t afford not to eat it,” he said. “That’s why I rushed. I had it for dinner that night and it was wonderful.” Later, among his teachers and fellow students, he realised that his larkish culinary impulse had paid off: everyone was swooning over that steak painting.
“It just seemed to click,” he said.
After that breakthrough, Geno, who sells most of his paintings online (for $300 to $900) and could pass for Pee-wee Herman’s boho brother, developed something of a mission statement.
“I only paint things that I find attractive and appetising,” he said. “I like to translate what I find the most seductive about my subject. And cheese, it turns out, is the absolute perfect match for the way I paint. I get hungry looking at cheese.” Visitors to his studio can’t help having a similar response, seeing as how one wall is practically fragrant with beckoning portraits of Gouda, Manchego, Morbier, Shropshire Blue, Cheddar and mimolette.
“His paintings are seductions,” said Tenaya Darlington, 40, who blogs about cheese under the moniker Madame Fromage.
“They make me want to reach out with a hunk of baguette and swipe the paint right off the canvas.” Geno’s cheese quest began with his 40th birthday. A friend gave him a gift certificate for Di Bruno Bros., an award-winning cheesemonger in Philadelphia.
“I said, ‘I’m going to buy something I would never spend money on,”’ he recalled. He scored a slab of Gorwydd Caerphilly. He became mesmerised. “It was too beautiful just to eat,” he said.
After painting it, he sent a message and a snapshot to Darlington asking for her perspective on it.
She wound up becoming his cheese mentor (“the painting was stunning,” she said), and together they set out to explore cheeses from around the world. Now on Friday mornings they often meet for curd-driven tours of Philadelphia shops, she said, “to gaze in the windows and sample anything that’s new.” “I feel Mike approaches cheese almost like a cheesemaker himself, which is to say, he wants to bring out the beauty of the milk,” Darlington said. “His paintings capture every eye, every pudgy bulge, every nub on the rind.” That attention to detail means that he has to work fast when he’s painting an especially gooey selection, otherwise it will shapeshift as it lingers on a plate in his studio.
“It’s a race,” he said.
Then again, waiting often helps usher the cheese to the perfect temperature for consumption.
Geno, an adjunct faculty member at the Moore College of Art and Design, will find himself drooling with desire as the hours go by – and then plunging in with a knife when a painting is done.
“I don’t know another way of having such restraint,” he said.
Other food products do entice him. He recently converted a sexy bacon still life into a shower curtain that he uses. But like Picasso with the colour blue, Monet with haystacks or Wayne Thiebaud – an obvious food-art forerunner – with his vast array of cakes, Geno just keeps going back to the aromatic source of his obsession.
“I’ve learned one thing,” he said. “I’m never going to run out of cheese.”