Artists Who Cook: The Painter
She’s a painter, gardener, and home cook. But above all, Annie is a storyteller.
Talking with Greenville artist Annie Koelle about cooking is a lot like taking in her art: it’s immediately beautiful and compelling and then suddenly you aren’t just looking at a landscape or sharing a recipe anymore. You’re dropped into a richer story-in-process. Of herself, of all of us.
“I’ve cooked all of my life,” Annie says. “My family grew up in a rural area (upstate New York) and we cooked all of our own meals. My mom was constantly making cake and cookies, and this giant braided zupfe enriched bread from her Swiss side. She imparted all of those techniques and gave me the basics and mechanics of cooking.”
Her future artistic calling was making itself evident in her childhood kitchen. As she stirred and measured alongside her mother and sisters, there was a tug inside to go her own way. Something within revolted at the idea of step-by-step to a perfect, single-sided result.
“I saw the instruction more as ‘here are the tools that will lead to an untold world of exploration and discovery.’” She laughs, and then gets quiet, considering. “With cooking, I really like focusing on textures and flavors of things and how they play off each other—I mean, if people ask me for recipes and things I’m like, ‘Um…I can kind of tell you.’”
This willing exploration informs her vast and varied art: portraits, watercolor, acrylic landscapes: all of it experimental and layered. She’s open about the struggles of balancing a creative life with a domestic one, though cooking is one place where her artistic calling and the demanding here-and-now of family life intersect: “I feel like I’m not very good at other mothery-wife things. Food is caregiving, and it’s also creative. I know I’m good at that. I feel like I can settle some comfort in that and let my guilt go about the other things.”
But without that mother-guilt, she’d still be in the kitchen. “I mean, I really like food. My personality is geared to immediacy and tangibility no matter what I do. Like in artwork, I don’t want to be removed from the process, I want paint, charcoal, just me and the canvas. I mean, I don’t even like to garden with gloves on. I have to be able to feel it. I mean, why am I doing this if I can’t feel it?”
So is it about an artistic presentation? Will we find intricately decorated cookies cooling on the countertop?
“I’m definitely a better cook than baker—I think it’s one or the other. I’m someone who likes stews: watching and tending something for a long time, adjusting the flavors intuitively. Baking is too science-y and fiddly. But, I have a few favorites that I like to bake because I know they aren’t too fussy.”
She laughs and nods at her husband, “Most of my baking is making Chris happy. Like my brownie recipe—it came about from several desires: it had to be as easy as making a boxed mix, it had to be more chocolatey and less sweet than a mix, it had to get those really dense, chewy edges and get that delicately flaked surface on top while remaining fudgey all the way through.” Annie eventually combined two recipes, “I kept working until it was good for him.” She shakes her head and smiles wryly: “It’s just like a love language.” It’s just like art, too: working and mixing until the result is right. A freedom within a frame… or an 8x8 pan.
Annie agrees. “I read somewhere that style is a product of your limitations. I work better with a parameter, and then just let me do it and leave me alone. I love just opening the refrigerator and seeing what I can put together. If a sudden disaster strikes, I’m totally happy to be there and make it happen. But don’t make me plan something, no way.”