Name: Leah Rosenberg
City: San Francisco
Position: Fine artist, food artist
J.: You grew up in Canada, in Saskatoon. What was your Jewish upbringing and what was the community like there?
Leah Rosenberg: It was a small community and we were quite involved. When I was in sixth grade, my family took a sabbatical to San Diego, and my brother and I were in a Jewish day school. I learned a lot of Hebrew, and when we came back, I taught Hebrew school for a while and led services. My upbringing was so much about meals together and tradition. I’m still trying to find something like that here.
J.: What brought you to the Bay Area?
LR: I came from Vancouver to get my master’s in fine arts at the California College of the Arts.
J.: Were you always artistic and did your parents encourage your talent?
LR: I remember my parents coming home once with a painting they loved. I was maybe 10. It was an oil painting of mountains, and it was the first time I ever had the thought about who made it and what was he thinking. It sparked a curiosity about what art was.
J.: Recently you were the pastry chef for Blue Bottle Coffee’s “Modern Art Desserts” project at SFMOMA. Which came first, art-making or baking, and how did you decide to combine the two?
LR: The cake thing started in grad school. I was trying to find my own artistic style, and I was working on these paintings, in which I was layering paint and then sanding it down. I realized that the studio where I was drying my paintings looked like a kitchen, which made me think about hospitality, and I started taking cake-decorating classes. I started bringing cakes to my painting critiques … and people were just delighted. They ate them and praised them, and I was intrigued by the response.
It became about much more than just the cake, but about how techniques overlap and what it is to make something for someone. A painting is up for constant judgment but cake gets eaten or it rots.
These two ideas of consumption were prev-alent in my work at the museum, in the experience of people consuming art on the walls and then coming to the café and eating it. There are people who come just to see the Rothko, but I thought it was so interesting to have them see it and then digest it. It’s a whole different way to educate someone about art. I also wrote my master’s thesis on the artistic possibilities of cake, and whether painting can do what cake can.
J.: How common is it for museums to hire pastry chefs who can recreate themed cakes that match their exhibits?
LR: When Caitlin Freeman [a pastry chef and author of “Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art”] and I started in 2009, we didn’t know of anyone else doing this. Now food in art is more of a theme. It’s used as a marketing tactic and I think institutions and museums want a wider audience and food is something people can relate to, so I’m happy to see more of it.
J.: What other materials besides cake do you use to make your art, and where can people see it?
LR: I’m interested in color and stripes, and the arrangements of things. My work is now on view at Yerba Buena [Center for the Arts] as part of Bay Area Now, and I did a wall installation at State Bird Provisions [a San Francisco restaurant]. Having a restaurant ask me to do something was really exciting because I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and it’s an opportunity to relate the work to the food people are eating, and it’s a whole different audience. It’s also a permanent installation. I’m doing another one at Pinhole Coffee [in Bernal Heights]near where I live that will be open Aug. 25. Also on my websites: www.leahrosenberg.com and www.modernartdesserts.com.
J.: Does your Jewish identity ever figure into your work?
LR: Several years ago I did a project, a potluck, with a Chinese artist named Imin Yeh called “Jews for Dim Sum.” She has this downloadable paper mah-jongg set, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum called her in conjunction with its current exhibit on mah-jongg. Now we’re doing a monthly event for the show, still calling ourselves “Jews for Dim Sum,” and we made these party boxes that can be bought at the events. Each one has something Chinese and something Jewish, and a snack that we thought should be eaten when you play mah-jongg.
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