Salad, Mr President?

Words by
Georgina Reid
| December 15, 2015

Julia Sherman is a native New Yorker with twin obsessions for art and salad. Her blog, Salad For President, is a smorgasbord of salad recipe inspiration, but also so much more: it’s a platform for active discussions with artists, musicians, writers and creative professionals, who are living their lives artfully. It just so happens that when Julia interviews you, you’ve gotta bring salad! And as it turns out, it’s the ultimate conversation starter. We talk to Julia about mixed green leaves, gardening, art and her epic salad garden installation at Los Angeles’ Getty Museum…

Julia Sherman. Image by Dylan + Jeni
Julia Sherman. Image by Dylan + Jeni

Please tell us about yourself, and your life with plants.
I am an artist, a writer, a maker and a connector. I grew up in New York City and I feel as if I never really noticed plants until my husband opened my eyes to them when we first met in Providence, Rhode Island. He had a small plot in a ramshackle community garden, and I am sure my total rapture with him played some part in this, but all of the sudden, the world of plants exploded in front of my eyes. I don’t feel any less amazed every time I go to my vegetable garden than I did 8 years ago when I first encountered his out of control tomatillo plant that had subsumed his modest little plot. I grow edible plants, and I have a nice collection of houseplants, but it seems my green thumb mainly just applies to the things I can eat…

Please tell us about Salad For President. How did you conceive of it, how long has it been around, why, etc.
After spending my entire life as a visual artist, in 2013 I started a blog called Salad For President where I make salad with creative people, whose practices I admire. The purpose of my work is to someday find the answer to the question, “how does one live a fulfilling, creative life?” not just in the short term, but for the duration of one’s entire existence.

Cooking and gardening have long been a vital counterpoint to my studio work; these were the creative activities I turned to when I was frustrated with my “work”, or when I just wanted the immediate satisfaction of making something beautiful that could easily be shared. One day, it dawned on me that I could use “salad”, cooking and gardening as a foil; these shared past times get me in the room with incredible artists and thinkers who have only dreamt of talking to. It occurred to me that I am more interested in asking questions than I am in authorship.

What have you learnt since starting Salad for President?
An artist is not defined by their medium or the objects they make. They are defined by the sprawling and complicated way that they think, navigate the world and most importantly, by the questions they ask of themselves and of others. I have also learned that excitement is contagious. I think people can feel that energy I put into my work, that I am truly happy to be doing exactly what I am doing, and because of that they want to be a part of it.

I love the way you use salad as a tool for connecting and sharing with artists. What is it about salad that makes it so universal?
Anyone can make a salad. Even if you are not an accomplished cook, you probably have a single salad recipe that you think is worth sharing. I also think the prompt is particularly appealing to artists, as salad is about composition, colour, and ultimately, walking the line between restraint and indulgence.

The Getty Salad Garden from above
The Getty Salad Garden from above

Do you have an all time favourite salad recipe?
Well, I grew up going to classic Greek diners, which used to be on every block in New York. The way they made a Greek salad was magic to me, a perfect high-low experience. I miss these diners badly. They always had these oversized laminated menus with 1,000 items to choose from (I always wondered, who orders roasted lamb at a place like this?). But the salad, that was a sacred combo that you dare not fuck with — romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, kalamata olives, red onion, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, topped with anchovies and some dried oregano. The best part is, you must serve it with mediocre olive oil and red wine vinegar on the side. Anything fancier than this, and the magic of this salad is lost. I won’t step foot in an establishment that serves a Greek salad with balsamic or mesclun greens.

So, when the cameras are turned off and Instagram is closed, I make myself Greek salads, the good old fashioned way.

If you could pick one of the salads from the list on your blog, what would you select for a celebratory Southern Hemisphere (summer) Christmas salad?
Lydia Glen Murray’s Candied Citrus Salad. This salad makes use of seasonal citrus and it is super festive and easy to prepare.

And now, the Getty Salad Garden! What is it all about? Who is involved? Why? How long is it running?
The Getty Salad Garden is a the second salad garden I have created in a museum context, the first having been at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City Queens. The garden is basically a big fat excuse for me to meet and eat with L.A. artists, young and old, and to push the boundaries of the museum. The idea of a salad garden might seem entirely innocuous, but in the context of the museum, it is actually an incredibly difficult project to pull off. It brings up all kinds of questions about how the institution wants to engage with living artists and how the public relates to the museum.

The Getty is unique because it is so well known for its Central Garden, designed by California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin, who I actually got to meet with last month. One thing we both share is the attitude that as artists, we don’t have to be “experts” to foray into new territory. The massive central garden was the first and only garden Irwin ever made, making him the bane of many landscape architects’ existence (he flagrantly ignored all the rules of what can be planted where), but a hero to those of us who consider ourselves enthusiastic amateurs who get shit done.

People always want to peg me as a gardener, or a chef for that matter, but I insist, I am an artist, which should justify all my creative activities.

Unlike Irwin, I was excited to work with a landscape architect, and looked no further than my friend David Godshall of Terremoto Landscape. He designed a Tetris-like configuration that would serve as a halfway point between the severe Richard Meier architecture, and the somewhat chaotic Central Garden (our garden is located between the two). We brought on a crew called Farmscape to plant and maintain the garden, so they are really the ones getting in there on a day to day basis, since I am based in New York. Most important is the curator of the project, Sarah Cooper. She helps me navigate the museum system, she has had great ideas for artists to include in the project, and she coordinates the surrounding events. I am also forever indebted to Cathy Carpenter, who works on Special Projects at The Getty. You wouldn’t believe how hard these ladies have fought on my behalf.

Julia Sherman, at work at the Getty Salad Garden. Image by Abby Han
Julia Sherman, at work at the Getty Salad Garden. Image by Abby Han

Can you please outline the process for events at the Getty Salad Garden? How are the conversations/cooking sessions with artists documented? Are they public events?
Artists are invited to come to garden to make a salad with me, and they are encouraged to bring along anyone they like. I send them a list of available ingredients growing and ready for harvest, and together we brainstorm a recipe. Sometimes these are conceptual gestures, and sometimes they are just delicious salads to be enjoyed. They are generally private, but they take place in a public space, where visitors can ask questions and see what’s going on. I take photos along the way, of the food, of the artists, and then I record our conversation. All this content is then organized into something legible, and posted to my website.

Has there been one artist in particular at the salad garden who’s story really resonated with you? Can you please briefly tell us about them?
The last salad I posted was with a hiking group called Seeing Trails. This is a loose group of around 400 artists who consider themselves practitioners of the “Wilderness Arts”. Two of the members, Agnes Bolt and June Okada, came to the garden and we made a big salad. Then, we met 15 other hikers at The Getty Villa, and we went on a beautiful hike to a vista with incredible views of the ocean.

We picnicked, ate the salad, and spent the afternoon together. The project itself felt so much in line with my own, I loved seeing how what some people might consider a “hobby,” was being taken seriously and tied back into the art world.

What has surprised you about the project?
How far the whole salad thing could go! What seems like a very limiting theme, has actually opened up a world of opportunity for me.

What are you passionate about?
Meeting new people, travel, cooking and feeding my friends. I could never tire of these things.

What/who inspires you?
Older people inspire me. I spend a lot of time seeking out those artists who have been doing their own thing for decades, who forged their own way, who genuinely don’t care what people think of them. I just like to rub up against those characters.  Robert Irwin, Harry Gesner, Sheila Hicks…

What is your dream project?
Right now, I am writing a cookbook with Abrams Books, to be published Spring 2017. It will be primarily a collection of my salad-y recipes, but will also feature artist’s recipes and my events, The Getty Salad Garden included. I have to say, this is my dream project. Well, I take that back. My dream project would be the second cookbook, because that would mean the first one was a success.

What does a typical day involve for you?
My days are always changing. In addition to Salad For President, I am the Creative Director of a salad restaurant called Chopt. For them, I travel, garner inspiration for their destination based menu, maintain a blog. While on those trips, I also get to make salads with artists for my blog, so it all works out! So, when I am traveling, I try and meet with as many people as possible, be they farmers, chefs, small food producers.

I am usually trying to keep up with my website, editing interviews, photos and researching. I am always shooting with new people as the opportunity arises, so I have a back-log of material to use at any given time.

In between all of that, I work on my forthcoming cookbook! I use every meal as an opportunity to test recipes and invite friends over to eat all the excess food (sometimes I have to make the same dish 3-5 times).

Please describe your relationship to plants in three words?
Endless enthusiasm and wonder.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
I think I would be a husk cherry. They are somewhere between a fruit and veg, a little finicky to establish, but once they get going, they are persistent!

Salad For President

All images courtesy of Julia Sherman.

Julia and Harry Gesner sharing a salad at the Getty Salad Garden. Image by Abby Han
Julia and Harry Gesner sharing a salad at the Getty Salad Garden. Image by Abby Han

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