heart full of palms
Some coffee shops have art. Some coffee shops are art. Being the latter, El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on New York’s Lower East Side, put up its first piece of art which reigns minimal and supreme. Created by Lexie Smith, a recent chef there and at current, a woman swimming between the art of food and the art of art itself. She speaks with this culture about her journey and the space that is an endless summer.
c.: How did you come to be at El Rey?
l.s.: It started as a part time thing. Gerardo Gonzalez [Head Chef of El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette ] and I are kindred spirits. El Rey became home – that’s the part I miss about working, that coffee shop environment and that feeling of family. I left in late February to do an artist residency in Nicaragua. I got there and starting cooking, I can’t escape it.
c.: It’s amazing how we can’t escape the things we think we can.
Smith grew up in New York. She moved to Austin Texas and later Maui before returning to New York. When she did she thought she was done with the restaurant business.
c.: Why did you say you were done? I didn’t want that lifestyle; I was burnt out, the hours were tough. I wasn’t intellectually stimulated. It becomes about the bureaucracy of the restaurant and I wanted to focus on art.
l.s.: Yet you came and found El Rey where art came out in the food and eventually to a piece of yours being on its wall.
l.s.: Yes. Right now, I’m trying to live with both of those things happily cohabitating. It’s not necessarily the biggest stretch, but it’s interesting to see how I can make food and art be a cohesive and active part of my life. I’m literally making art out of food right now.
c.: I think that’s beautiful.
l.s.: Knowing you made the right choice isn’t something that you can predict. We live in a time that’s accessible, the belief of being able to make our own way.
c.: Truth. So, how are you making your own way with art, to the point that one lives at El Rey now?
l.s.: The illustration up on the all is one of my favorites. I do illustrations, but it was never something I was able to sustain myself with entirely. Cross hatch stitching I figured a couple of year ago. It works really well with the imagery I’ve brought it towards.
The image is a palm tree coming out of a palm – a hand. I drew it for a friend of mine, a very positive human being. My work is generally cryptic and morose and this was a beam of life in the portfolio.
I think it’s amazing how everyone was drawn to this one; I started selling prints of that piece. When I was leaving for Nicaragua I gave one to Gerardo, the image reminded me so much of El Rey.
El Rey is this place, it’s about people, it’s a respite, and it has this Baja-endless-summer-vibe. I wanted to give him something that embodied the feel of the whole space.
c.: A gift of art, that’s art.
l.s.: I call it Palm Palm. It’s his way of me there. It really fits with the space.
c.: What a beautiful story to discover from seeing one print on Instagram. Tell me; wow do you think art and coffee culture play together?
l.s.: Living in New York, you see all these coffee shops doubling as galleries in a way. I think that, well it bums me out that it’s a lower standard for coffee shop art and people won’t look at the wall, there’s this stigma of poor art in coffee shops.
I paint with coffee as a substance sometimes. I need coffee in order to allow my brain to work in any sort of capacity. I wake up thinking about two things – when am I going to make my coffee and what I’m going to make out of it.
When it comes to the actual space I think that it’s important to recognize – a place that makes really great coffee is doing the same things an artist is doing, thinking of your craft as an art. Baristas make things with a lot of pride. There’s not a huge difference from making visual art and food. A space like El Rey where you come for quality coffee and food, visual art should be included in that also.
c.: The visuals! What one sees is becoming so much more important in coffee shop culture these days.
I.s.: It’s nice because [art in a coffee shop] is so clearly a personal choice compared to an actual gallery setting, as to why they have the pieces they have up. It enhances community feel.
c.: What is necessary for you to sit down and create?
l.s.: I thought a lot about this. Being in Nicaragua was not conducive to me making work. It was beautiful but I didn’t have my things. And there wasn’t a lot of privacy. Now, I work out of my home, and I’m able to have a space that I have complete ownership over without someone being there.
If I’m making visual art, it’s hard to do with audience, I like to share it but with a space I like to be able to close a door. I need access to ingredients, mediums I can play with and explore. When I’m doing my drawings I need a space that’s clean and organized – microns and paper and a computer. With mixed media stuff I want to have a lot of things that I can see and grab and may not have foreseen before. It gets real messy.
c.: How did you find order out of your creations to name this piece of art?
l.s.: I name everything in my life. I name my drawings more than I will my mixed medias. They’ll have pet names because they’re so close to me. I feel that way about the ‘palm palms’. I refer to them by names that come about in an affectionate way.
My approach is pretty intentional. I like to create things that are born from a place with a good amount of emotion. The naming is done with a lot of intention and a good deal behind why I’m creating something. Palm Palm was from a semantic place. Generally, a lot of the times, I will hear a word or a phrase, or a linguistic context and base a drawing on that.
c.: Your other work is not as representational. Can you speak about it?
l.s.: My more recent work that’s food base is an exploration of my relationship with food versus art. I have a hard time digesting a lot of things – food and eating has always been matched with discomfort and anxiety. I’m trying to make indigestion visually appealing – eggs, flour, baking soda, vinegars – melting them and burning them and combining them in a way that creates some kind of chemical reaction.
It’s more abstract; it’s not pretty. In person I find it so pleasing, there’s so much texture. It’s an intentionality – chaos, contained chaos. It fits with the struggle I’m having now, trying to make food and art co-habit..
c.: Where do you think you can take people with the chaos – of food and art?
l.s.: I’m at a point where I’m building that, whatever that is. All this is taking me to a place that is helping me recognize the importance of food in my life. I don’t want to be part of a pervasive staged food blog world. My relationship with food is my own relationship with food, I want to share my recipes and more food writings, my intellectual and artistic take on food. I want to do it with offbeat visual component.
I don’t want to give either side up – there are so many things that can come from caring about art and caring about food.