ANYBODY who thinks porcelain sculpture and green pear chutney aren't on the same wavelength obviously doesn't know Frank Fleming. The genial artist, a couple of whoseenigmatic white porcelain creatures are currently puzzling and delighting visitors of the Museum of American Art, is as creative in the kitchen as he is in the studio.
Comparably successful, too. The porcelains turn up in the best galleries in New York and around the country. The home-canned conserves and relishes win prizes at state fairs. When the "More Than Land or Sky" exhibit opened here last week, Fleming's porcelain composition, "A Dog's Painful Search for Knowledge," was a standout among the paintings, wood carvings and mixed media assemblages brought together to represent the art of Appalachia. Meanwhile, over at the buffet table, Fleming's pickled okra also starred.
The porcelains are whimsical, mysterious, joltingly unique. How many times do you run into a parrot-carrying penguin brandishing a pistol at another penguin whose unbirdlike hands hold a tall cross with two apples on the horizontal bar -- in porcelain or anything else?
Fleming's jams and pickles have their subtleties but they're basically a good deal more straightforward. Apple butter is apple butter, however sensitively seasoned. The same goes for fig jam.
At that, both the down-to-earth food and the unearthly animal figures are measures of the man. Franklin Delnoa Fleming is a disarmingly friendly and open person. He is also a person apart, living alone in the Alabama woods and reaching into the depths of an extraordinarily individual imagination for the images he translates into porcelain.
Although he grew up in a big family, it was a family of loners. He is, he says, much closer to nature than to his fellow humans.
When he was a child, he was further separated from other people by a stammer. A high-school teacher suggested to his parents that he get subsidized speech therapy at nearby Florence State College.
Besides freeing him from his stammer, the college showed him that he could draw -- a skill that had little chance to develop in the Bear Creek farmhouse where the only books were the Sears catalog and the Bible; where even pencils and paper were not abundant. He got a job as a technical illustrator at the Boeing plant in Huntsville.
Later, he followed a friend to graduate school and discovered his true vocation in ceramics. He has been supporting himself as an artist for seven years.
It is a self-contained life. He fires the porcelains in a kiln of his own. He raises his own vegetables. Since 1980, he has enhanced his larder by canning and pickling.
The preoccupation with food made him fat. It also made him thin. Having lost more than 100 pounds, largely by eating steamed cabbage and not much else, he maintains his weight by restricting himself to a once-a-week ration of meat, supplemented by vitamin pills, coffee and lots of home-grown vegetables. The only problem is an occasional midnight impulse to dip into the special Frank Fleming fig jam.
Who could blame him?
DRIED FIG CONSERVE (Makes 3 quarts) 1 pound dried black mission figs 1 pound calimyrna figs 2 cups water 1 cup grated coconut 1/4 pound maraschino cherries 1 orange, chopped, with peel 2 cups sugar 1 cup chopped pecans
Simmer figs in water until soft. Add coconut, cherries, orange and sugar and cook until thick. Add chopped pecans, pour into sterile jars, screw on lids and process 10 minutes in a water bath.
PICKLED OKRA (Makes 1 quart) 1 pound fresh okra 1 clove garlic 2 hot peppers 1 tablespoon dill seed 1 tablespoon celery seed 3 tablespoons salt 1 cup water 1/2 cup vinegar Pinch alum
Arrange okra, garlic, peppers, seeds and salt in sterile quart jar. Bring water and vinegar to a boil. Add alum. Pour over okra. Tightly screw the lid on jar and process 10 minutes in a water bath. PINEAPPLE MARMALADE (Makes 2 pints) 2 oranges, chopped, with peel 1 lemon, chopped with peel 1 1/2 cups sugar About 6-ounce can crushed pineapple
Simmer oranges and lemon peel and sugar in enough water to cover for 20 minutes. Add pineapple and simmer until thick. Pour into 2 sterile pint jars and seal.