As a child, Portland artist Louisa Donelson spent “years” making miniatures for her dollhouse – pie plates from bottle caps, dinner plates from buttons, a bassinet from half an eggshell covered in lace.

“I spent a lot of time creating worlds as a kid,” she said, “like many kids do.”

Six years ago, after giving birth to her first child, Colette, she found herself returning to her childhood preoccupation, attempting one very small, very realistic food sculpture each day that she was home on maternity leave from her then-job as an educator at the Portland Museum of Art.

Some days her creations were simple, maybe a pea-sized hunk of cheese. “The nap wasn’t happening,” she recalled. “Other days, I could become more elaborate,” she said, trying her hand at a sushi roll about the size of the business end of a chopstick.

The creations, made from polymer clay, became the genesis of Micro Picnic, a line of tiny, hyper-realistic food sculptures Donelson forms into jewelry that is, at once, playful, joyful, funny, wondrous and, she hopes, thought-provoking. She sells the jewelry – cufflinks, earrings, necklaces – through her website and, recently, at Handiwork Studio + Market, just down the street from her own studio and home in the Deering neighborhood. Prices mostly range from about $30 to $60, though more experimental, higher-end pieces can cost as much as $300. “Tiny, wearable art for big foodies,” the tagline on her website reads.

“It’s amazing how much detail she can put into such a small-scale representation,” said Jessica Thomas, who owns Handiwork. “Did she show you the fried egg? Some are a little burned around the edges, and some of them are a little softer. It’s just amazing! The objects are unmistakable. From the moment you spot them, you know what they are. I love having them here. People respond to them so joyfully.”

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TAKING SHAPE

Joy wasn’t what Donelson, a painting graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, had in mind when she began Micro Picnic. For the new mother, at home with an infant, the work was an exercise of sorts.

“Close observation and sometimes of the mundane is what interests me,” she said. “The idea of slowing down and looking closer and paying homage to the everyday.”

She enjoyed the challenge of tricking the eye. “How do I replicate the scale, the textures, the luminosity of any given food?” she would ask herself. Working out the answers required much time, experimentation and failure, and eventually included forays into salt flakes (to make onions on hot dogs), glass beads (for roe for sushi), crushed stone (for toppings on everything bagels) and mulch (for coconut shells).

Take that fried egg. A cook might describe it simply as yellow and white with crispy edges. “But if you actually look at it, how the yolk is embedded in the white,” Donelson said, “there’s all this luminosity. I spend just as much time looking at food and the world as I do creating my sculptures or my paintings. That’s at least half of it, maybe 75 percent.”

A Micro Picnic hotdog cufflink. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

When Donelson looks at an everything bagel, however, or a tray of Christmas cookies, an avocado, or a pig in a blanket – all items she’s explored for Micro Picnic – it isn’t food she sees. It’s shape, form, texture, color, light and shadow, perhaps why, even though she has been a vegetarian since she was a teenager, she turns out necklaces in the form of hot dogs and pepperoni pizzas (by the slice and whole pies). If eating them doesn’t appeal to her, their graphic qualities do.

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Food trends also factor into Donelson’s choice of subject matter. “Tacos and avocados have been best sellers because those (foods) were really popular,” she said. “The year before that, it was bacon.”

That was a tricky one, she said, because bacon “is thin and crispy, delicate and in areas uneven, which is hard to craft, as my jewelry needs to be durable.” Of late, she’s considered sourdough, and when a conversation about 2022 food trends drifted toward seaweed, you could almost see the wheels turning.

“Woooow!” she said slowly, drawing out the word. “Seaweed. Oh my gosh, the long kelp – you can almost picture them as ribbons coming off of your ears. The greens, the reds! Really fun! This is great!”

Donelson in her studio in Portland. Another wall of the studio is set up as an art area for her daughters, ages 3 and 6, with lots of materials and projects for them to work on and their own artwork hanging up. She also made them a play kitchen that is an exact replica of the family’s real kitchen. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

For Donelson, the hyper-focus of working small, sometimes 6 centimeters by 6 centimeters, helps her think big.

“Looking at things in small scale helps me understand the large scale of the world.” She hopes the jewelry – and her recent plein air paintings –  do something similar for customers, that they can be “a catalyst for conversation.”

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Though she likes to cook, it isn’t what drives the work. For now at least, it’s taking a bit of back seat for the busy working mom. “I’m cooking right now not for joy but for sustenance, and that allows me more time in my studio, honestly.”

Her paintings, some of which hang against flowered Chinoiserie wallpaper in her cheerful, well-organized basement studio, are tranquil, painterly scenes of Maine shorelines, mountains and lobster boats. Donelson, who grew up in Massachusetts, moved to Maine in 2006 for a summer job at an art camp in Damariscotta. She never left. You could look at these recent paintings and think, “What lovely colors!” “What pretty landscapes!” “How loose and relaxed they look.” Or, Donelson said, you can think about nature and conservation, subjects that are close to her heart. “The pieces don’t scream that,” she said. “You can choose to talk about it or not.”

Likewise for the Micro Picnic jewelry. A customer may think, “‘Oh, that’s a neat mango earring,'” she said. “Or can it be ‘What’s the carbon footprint of that?’ Art is a way to talk about some of the more troubling issues that need to be brought to light.” Art lets the activist artist “create a dialog that is just a little more digestible, which is the art itself.” It allows her to take something troubling and put “a lens of beauty on top of it.”

Fun as the Micro Picnic jewelry is, on her website, she lists some of the difficult issues that underlie it: “our troubled, global, industrialized and unbalanced food system: the collective splintered perspective on farms and trade; GMOs; carbon footprint, food insecurity and hunger; waste and depletion of natural resources.

“THESE SCULPTURES HELP US TALK ABOUT FOOD,” the website reflections continue in boldface, capital letters. “WHEN WE TALK ABOUT FOOD, WE CONNECT. AND WHEN PEOPLE CONNECT, WE MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE.”

Louisa Donelson holds a micro sculpture of a split coconut. She takes elaborate care with her pieces for Micro Picnic. For instance, she makes whole sushi rolls from polymer clay and then slices them into individual pieces, just as one would for real-life sushi of the edible sort. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

ALL TOGETHER NOW

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Donelson, whose day job is as organizational director at Side X Side (a Portland-based nonprofit that works with public elementary schools teachers to incorporate more art process), doesn’t wear her own jewelry, but she made an exception several years ago when she was attending a community dinner in Portland, set amid Daniel Minter sculptures, an event that, like her own work, intermingled food and art.

She wore it as a conversation piece, she said, to break the ice at a dinner where she didn’t expect to know anyone, “knowing that it would be an entry point.” Instead of “What’s your name?” she hoped for something more along the lines of, “Are you wearing a pizza?” She laughed and said the jewelry did its job.

That dinner involved a community painting day, and other collaborations – among Minter, children and chefs who were recent immigrants to Maine with chefs who were established Mainers. Donelson also has her eye on collaborations these days – she loves the sense of connection they afford – to begin with, with customers who’d like to commission her to make Micro Picnic work about foods with personal significance. She made charm bracelets for a bridal party, for instance, that included miniature pastrami sandwiches from New York City’s famous Katz’s Deli and a replica of a slice of the couple’s wedding cake.

She’d also like to collaborate with “some of the vibrant, super-creative restaurateurs and chefs,” she said, “creating custom pieces based on dishes. It’s limitless how many opportunities in Portland there are.”


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