- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Artist Amy Evans signs her work with a slice of pie, illustrating her allegiance to two big loves.

With a few local bakers, she’ll explore how those loves come together in a June 5 workshop at Buxton Hall: Art + Pie.

“Art and pie has always been a combination that has been part of my person,” said Evans, who favors a slice of sweet potato pie made by a soul food cook in Drew, Mississippi.

Evans’ fine art history begins in a Houston high school dedicated to the performing and visual arts. From there, her life took a turn through the world of storytelling. A graduate program in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi led her to a plum gig documenting southern food culture for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Life took another turn as it does, and Evans resigned from the SFA, moved home to Texas, and began devoting more time to her painting. Her identity as a collector of tales of southern life still infuses her art, with pie standing in as a metaphor for storytelling. “When we share pie, we share stories,” Evans said.

That’s the notion behind the Buxton Hall workshop that has Evans traveling to Asheville from Texas. Along with Buxton bakers Ashley Capps and Jessica Rosenkoetter and Smoke Signals baker Tara Jensen, she’ll explore the intersection of art, storytelling and food. The workshop is “art and pie come to life,” Evans said.

Noting the all female-led workshop, Evans said women are frequent subjects of her art.

Everyday women spring to life in Evans’ latest series of paintings, inspired by recipes dug out of “The Saltville Centennial Cookbook, A Century of Good Cooking, 1896-1996.” Local food writer Ronni Lundy stumbled across the spiral-bound book while researching salt mines in the Saltville area, and passed it along to Evans.

“Each page has a recipe, but also a touching biographical sketch of the woman whose recipe is featured, usually written by a family member,” Evans said. “They’re so endearing, these little vignettes.”

Armed with those vignettes, Evans says her paintings flowed as easy as kitchen-table conversation. The resulting pieces, many of which currently hang at Buxton Hall, are colorful stories told over pie in a sunlit southern kitchen, rendered in paint.

That’s the case with “Thelma made her River Road Special Sandwiches for the children and then sat at the kitchen counter to finish her word search puzzle,” which hangs at Buxton Hall.

In that painting, a loaf of Sunbeam bread is suspended over a slice of pickle and a crossword puzzle in which the word “tomato” is circled. It’s a still life of a pre-cliche southern kitchen, one where neither pickle nor bread is artisanal.

Much like the cookbook that inspired the paintings, there’s a charming, unedited looseness about the work. “This series of paintings is not as meticulous as the other ones,” Evans said. “They felt a lot freer, because I already knew what they were going to be.”

It’s that spirit of looseness that Smoke Signals baker Jensen brings to the workshops she hosts at her out-of-the-way Marshall bakery. Jensen said artists and bakers both share a willingness to experiment, even if bakers have a reputation for precision.

Jensen, who used to have a proper art studio where she made paper cut-out art, now uses pie crust as a medium. She cuts out patterns using pastry wheels and knives to layer over the crust before it bakes. She says it’s her time to relax and lavish a little extra attention on each pie.

The end result is a pie that looks precise, but is an edible manifestation of creative license. “There is no pattern, and I don’t have a plan,” she said. “I don’t know when I start the top of a pie what it’s going to look like when I’m done.”

Jensen’s students often arrive to the bakery nervous about precision and science. “Most people have this notion built up in their head that pie crust is this mythical mountain,” she said.

But Jensen is mainly guided by feel. As such, creates a teaching environment where pie becomes something made not with a recipe, but with the senses. “Their body is giving them all the information they need to make the pie crust,” she said.

But science and art, she said, don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“I often say that art and science shouldn’t be pitted against each other, but oftentimes, when we have a hunch about what we’re baking, it can be confirmed by science and formula,” she said. “They’re often intrinsically linked.”

Jensen worked with Buxton Hall baker Capps at Farm and Sparrow, where their conversations often focused on striking a balance between precision and art.

Capps, who pursued an art career at UNC Asheville before getting her pastry degree at A-B Tech, also weaves a degree of improvisational art into her baking. “I feel artistic every single day, whether I’m making pie, cake or plating desserts, everything has an artistic element to it,” she said.

Capps, who favors a classic blueberry pie, makes southern-focused pies at Buxton Hall, including coconut cream, banana pudding, lemon custard and bourbon pecan.

During the Art and Pie workshop, Capps will focus on fats in pie dough, while her colleague Rosenkoetter will talk about fillings. Jensen will cover decorative finishing techniques and flour. Evans will talk about art and her love of pie.

Even Buxton’s bar manager is getting into the game, creating a special cocktail menu that’s reflective of Evan’s art.

Pausing from pie making in the Buxton Hall kitchen early on a recent Friday morning, Capps praised the way Evans paints a glimpse into southern cooks’ lives.

“It touches me,” she said. “The little artist inside of me sees that she has perfectly combined all of my favorite things: food, history, stories, family, and a passion for all of those put together.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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