Leah Rosenberg and the Colors of Charlotte

By Amy Rogers for McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Before arriving in Charlotte, Leah Rosenberg had never heard of muscadine grapes or pimento cheese.

But those two iconic foodstuffs would unexpectedly provide the fall 2017 artist-in-residence with an entrée into the city’s culture–and become integral components of Rosenberg’s installation, titled Color for the People, here at McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

The San Francisco-based artist has spent the last several months learning about Charlotte through what she terms her “color safaris.” During each of her weekly explorations, she identified individual hues that represented aspects of the city she wanted to investigate through color, form, and food.

Each week, Rosenberg painted the walls and furniture in our first-floor gallery space in a color she encountered just days before, each new one overlapping the prior color to create a striped effect with “windows” repeating the colors along an adjacent wall. 

Leah Rosenberg, Color for the People window (installation view), 2017.

As each color was unveiled, gallery visitors gathered to view the work evolving in the space, but more intimately to partake of a weekly Color Bar on Thursday evenings, where Rosenberg’s culinary artistry was expressed through menus of artfully plated foods paired with cocktails, all designed in hues and shades to coordinate with the that week’s color scheme. 

A team of students from Central Piedmont Community College’s Culinary Arts program was there each week to help Rosenberg with prep, presentation, and service.

Leah Rosenberg, Color for the People colors list (installation view), 2017.

Together the colors presented a vivid snapshot of Charlotte: the golden “Mums in Bloom” of the natural world, the safety orange of “Road Work Ahead,” the architectural oddity of the “Big Pink on South” building, and more. Rosenberg explains how the muscadine grapes and pimento cheese found their way into her work, and onto the walls.

“I took a walk to acclimate myself up North Tryon Street. At the little market on the corner there was a basket of what I thought were tomatoes. In mid-September, I went to the regional farmers market and, to my delight, it was Muscadine Day. I got my real introduction to the flavor with a taste testing and realized, ‘This is a real thing here.’” And: “On every menu there’s something to do with pimento cheese.”

For “The Blue Hour,” McColl Center’s guests sipped azure-tinted champagne garnished with blueberries frozen into delicate ice cubes. Lavender-flavored wafers and violet mini-cakes were placed atop tiny clouds of aqua-blue sugar, and arranged geometrically and served from a giant glass table. Rosenberg likens the crunch of those meringues or melting of marshmallows to “sculptures for your mouth.” 

“It provokes a conversation between people who are sitting with each other,” she says. “The point is to be immersed in this color.”

Images from the weekly “Color Bar” performances, 2017.

So, which came first, the artistry of baking or painting? Drawn to explore both, Rosenberg recalls, “I’ve always been interested in food. I liked napkin folding, garnishes and my grandmother’s ornate mousse molds. All of that was an interest to me from a young age but I definitely remember as a kid being quite moved and inspired by visiting artists in their studios.”

In graduate school, she was creating painted works on panels and laboriously sanding them between coats when a colleague remarked she might never finish anything. That’s when she noticed a “kitchen-like ambiance” in the studio. 

“I thought rather than waiting for the paintings to tell me something, I would get out the studio (and my head) and stop thinking about what the paintings were about, and take cake decorating classes to see if some of the techniques could overlap.” 

Leah Rosenberg at McColl Center, 2017. Photo by Chris Edwards for McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

Before long, Rosenberg was working in the café at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where she (alongside pastry chefs Caitlin Freeman and Tess Wilson) baked pastries inspired by artworks on view. She notes, “When you present cake, and it’s meant to be eaten, there’s an end to it. Whereas a painting just hangs on the wall for constant judgment.”

Her work continues to explore our connections to color, food, our expectations, the ways in which we provide and accept hospitality, and all the layers of meaning that give flavor to these experiences.

As the artist residency at McColl Center concluded, Rosenberg admitted, “The end is always a little bit tumultuous for me because I feel, ‘Will I have gotten to tell the whole story? All of the moments and all of the colors?’”

For those who have seen or sampled Leah Rosenberg’s work in Charlotte, there’s no doubt it’s been an experience truly worth savoring.