The calmest you’ll ever see a professional chef at work is, well, never.
Which is what makes “Women Chefs: Artists in the Kitchen” so bewitching. The new exhibit, at the Mansion at Strathmore through Nov. 8, freeze-frames local female restaurateurs in a series of thoughtful portraits.
Each work was composed by an area artist who was paired with a chef by museum curators. Some duos had met before, while others had eight months to form a relationship from scratch.
“The works are a reflection of the conversation between the artist and the chef,” curator Harriet Lesser says. “Some became very close friends and discovered things about the other.”
One of the chefs — Pizzeria Paradiso founder Ruth Gresser — invited her portraitist, Micheline Klagsbrun, to her home to get acquainted. “The two discussed their roots and how to get where you are from where you started,” Lesser says. We have a feeling wine may have been involved: The resulting painting features a hand gripping crape myrtle roots, which blossom into what looks like a wineglass.
Other highlights in the exhibit include an interactive painting of Carla Hall, a “Top Chef” finalist and co-host of ABC’s “The Chew.” Artist Danni Dawson portrays Hall cooking in a kitchen wearing an apron. Hanging off to the side of the painting are two metal boards full of magnetic Mylar cutouts of flowers, eggs and other items painted by Dawson. There is also an alternative apron and a different haircut. Guests can alter the painting by attaching these items to the magnetic canvas, like with a paper doll.
Among the more interpretive works is a sculpture made of chicken wire and rusted cans meant to mimic the Chesapeake Bay. The piece, by installation artist Veronica Szalus, is meant to reflect Society Fair chef Shannon Overmiller’s commitment to preserving local waterways.
“All of the artists were willing to take risks for this show,” Lesser says. “Some people took a jump. It’s like a new recipe or a new menu.”
Lesser asserts that the show features female chefs exclusively in order to bring attention to an underrepresented demographic. “If you put the word ‘chef’ into a Google search, it will be a long time before a woman comes up,” Lesser says. “Women chefs have had an important part in restaurants and cooking but are not acknowledged.”
In addition to portraits, the “Women Chefs” exhibit includes a room full of antique and obsolete cooking tools. Visitors are encouraged to guess the original purpose of the items, which include a marbling tool that was used to inject lard into tough meat and a toaster that’s over 60 years old.
Though none of the art is edible (free recipe cards from each chef are available), viewers leave feeling full. Perhaps it’s because the act of creating art is very similar to that of cooking.
“Both start with a blank canvas of sorts,” Lesser says. “The chef is aware of some of the same necessities of color and balance and shape.”
The Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda, Md.; through Nov. 8, free.
You may also like: