How the connection of sense can bring Joy with Nicola Bennet
Good Change: Nicola Bennett is an abstract artist raised in England, but living in Okere Falls in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. She has truly identified the interconnection between food, cooking, and painting. Relishing the sensory experiences of both, she finds incredible joy in the process of putting a meal together and the process of putting paint onto a canvas. She's found her true passion in bringing the two together, painting and creating meals on a canvas with her paints.
Good Change: Have you always been a foodie?
Nicola Bennett: My mom is an amazing cook; it was always her love language. I grew up with food being really important, but I didn't necessarily do much cooking growing up. I had a few experiences that really cemented my love of food, like when I went to Italy – spending time eating under grapevines, eating for like four hours a day with a gorgeous family, and understanding their love of food. I think I came away from that just going, that is the center of their life. I saw the pleasure that it gave that whole family, and yes, that was an experience that just really sold me on how important food is. I went to France, and I was one of those cooks in a chalet, cooking for 15 people every night for snowboarders. I had to learn pretty quick how to cook a three-course meal. It was tough and challenging, but I got there, and I loved it. So, after those two experiences, I started cooking a lot, and it became a major part of my process.
Good Change: Was there a particular time or an “aha!” moment when you became inspired by the interconnection between food and painting? When did you actually think and say, “oh my gosh, there's actually a relationship here between the two”?
Nicola Bennett: It was the subject of my investigation when I did my masters. It was about the sensory pleasure of an object. I was really connecting the senses then, and the word that I used a lot was haptic. When senses are heightened, so I kind of knew that I was getting a lot of pleasure from sensory experiences and made that connection. Because I think that painting is a lot like cooking in this full sensory experience and realized that they were the things that were making me really happy. I started to connect these two by cooking a lot and painting a lot; this is when I said to myself: “Wow! These are so similar”. In all these kinds of connections, I realized that “actually I wanted it to be the subject of my work” and this just brought me so much pleasure. Even the smell of the paint brings me pleasure, the smell of something or flavor – which is just a big part of my life and gets me excited. When I have been away for a few weeks, when I come back into my studio, just smelling the smell, and I was like “oh! I'm home” - I respond a lot to sensory pleasure.
Good Change: How about food? Can you see it like you can plate up a meal and create all this color and texture? Can you taste it or hear the sizzling sound when cooking?
Nicola Bennett: Exactly right. The kind of cooking I do for my family is different from the kind of cooking I do for my studio work; I take a lot more time in that. I'm trying to build a relationship with a particular flavor or ingredient when I'm painting, and I've been through quite a few different ingredients that have been the focus of my attention. It feels like I've made friends with them in a way or have a more intimate relationship with them. They're just such a focus for a few weeks while I'm painting about them. I'm cooking with all different kinds of ingredients to make that one ingredient the hero.
Good Change: Is there a particular type of food that really gets you excited?
Nicola Bennett: I'm pretty plant-based. The particular flavors, for example; the ingredients that I've recently been looking at are things like aubergine or black garlic, saffron, oyster mushrooms, and so on. There's a whole range, but they're normally plant-based foods with very particular flavors that I really want to impress me.
Another example would be South Island apricots. We get apricots from the supermarket that maybe haven't been ripened on the tree, bursting with flavor. But I get a box of apricots sent up from the South Island that have been ripened on the tree, and they are like little bursts of sunshine flavor and are amazing. Different from the supermarket apricots, and then I make all these things with apricots, and I just fall in love with them again. I want to take all that pleasure and inspiration from that experience into the studio. So, I'm painting with those colors; it's pretty hard to describe it. The personality of that ingredient, I'm trying to get across in a painting.
Good Change: Do you think it's learned behavior or it’s just the way you are? Have you sort of trained your mind and your senses around that kind of appreciation?
Nicola Bennett: The more you love something, the more you will get into it, and you’ll appreciate it more. I think, my love of food is just getting stronger and stronger all the time.
Good Change: Are you inspired by international foods as well?
Nicola Bennett: I just recently made a beautiful Turkish egg dish and Turkish bread, and I've got a commission around these Turkish eggs. I started exploring how they are made there and tried some different varieties. I received some feedback from people saying, “Oh! It took me straight back to Turkey eating those eggs and eating that bread.” It's called chilba and simit, so the breads are made from molasses, sesame seeds, and eggs. Either on a bed with some kind of sour yogurt, garlic, and dill or the ultimate way was avocado with coriander and then with this amazing sauce with paprika and chili, roasted garlic goes over the eggs. Then you break off this beautiful bread and dip it in, scoop it. They were quite different flavors for me. I don't feel like I have taken to that country in a way because I think, “Oh! That's lovely,” meeting something that people from Turkey would eat every morning.
Good Change: It's lovely the nostalgia that you feel. It just shoots you back to a time and place that you've been in.
Nicola Bennett: It just gives so much pleasure, not just for me. I know that I can make people happy by showing someone that I've spent time doing this for them, and I just love seeing the pleasure it gives them. The sensory pleasure from food is incredible, so when you can share that with people you love, it makes the experience even more special. Recently, someone asked me about my most favorite meal I've ever had. That's a big question, but it's situational. I thought about the first meal I had with my husband when I fell madly in love – the food was good, and the experience was amazing, a full sensory experience.
Good Change: In your opinion, in terms of creativity, do you feel like creativity makes you feel more present or in the moment? We tend to worry about our future and past. While creating an incredible meal and then getting behind your paints, does it make you feel really present?
Nicola Bennett: Yes, very much. It makes me feel super happy and relaxed. It's probably the one thing I do in my life where I'm actually in the moment, where I lose my sense of time, and it's amazing. I feel like you don't have to worry about yesterday or tomorrow. Anyone who does something with passion – whether it's gardening, sewing, or even exercising – when you're in that moment, that's when I think we find a lot of happiness.
Good Change: When it comes to special occasions, like Christmas, what might be on your table? Do you have certain meals that you would put out?
Nicola Bennett: I try to mix it up every Christmas. I'm a bit of an obsessive collector of cookbooks; I normally just go through all the cookbooks and make a plan. It doesn't necessarily have to go together; I do something a bit different. I might get some oyster mushrooms in, grow some beforehand, and do something amazing with them.
Good Change: Do you have the food in front of you when you're painting? Or how do you put it together?
Nicola Bennett: I normally cook it and get really excited about that ingredient, and often take the ingredient into the studio so I have that exact color match. There are times when I cook it several times so I can really experience not just the flavors but even the actions of all the processes involved in that – the chopping and how the action would reflect in a mark. So there's a bit of a back and forth between the kitchen and the studio when I'm painting, and I think I know when a painting is done just by looking at it and feeling that sense of craving.
Good Change: If you were going to give a couple of takeaways to the people today in terms of how they can use their everyday experiences to inspire them through art and sensory experiences – we're not all artists, and not all of us have the ability to pick up a paintbrush and paint – what would they be?
Nicola Bennett: I think just slowing down and paying attention to things that make you happy is key. So, if it's cooking, really appreciate all that sensory overload while you're cooking – even the sounds of sizzling, boiling, or chopping – because we're all in such a fast-paced world. We're often rushing to finish something when, in reality, the process and the actual act of making and creating is where I think a lot of happiness lies. If you're doing something like gardening, walking, or whatever it is, just be in that moment, be here now, listen to the bird song, and be immersed in whatever you're doing.
Good Change: I think that's great advice. It's something we all need to remind ourselves of time and again. So, tell us something about you that people might not know. Is there something that we might be surprised by about you or your work?
Nicola Bennett: When I look at a painting that I really love, not necessarily my own, if I get close to a painting that's really well done, I can almost feel my mouth water – which is weird because, of course, I'm not going to eat the painting. But it's just a confirmation that the senses are connected. Sometimes when I tell people that my mouth waters when I see a great painting, they're like, "That's a little bit weird," but it wouldn't be if you knew how I worked. So maybe that's one thing. Another is smell; I love the smell of my family members, which is something that I think we all have. Smell is such an essential part of pleasure, and I've heard that there's more depression linked to someone losing their sense of smell than their sight because it's so incredibly connected to the other senses, and it brings us more happiness than we think.
Good Change: Do you find that your children have the same sort of sensory connection in their lives? Are they as connected as you?
Nicola Bennett: Since I talk about it a lot, like when I went tramping with my son the other day, and he saw this mud that had the exact consistency of chocolate mousse, he said, "Oh my gosh! Mom, have you seen that? Chocolate mousse mud." It's so funny because I talk about food and color and flavor and all that stuff all the time, so they start to notice those things too.
Good Change: It's great for their creative writing at school too. Just that whole personification and talking about the senses that you do in creative writing – I think it's a beautiful crossover. What's your favorite book these days? Have you got one that stands out?
Nicola Bennett: I love David Hockney's books and listen to the podcast "How to Own the Room" by Viv Groskop. It's not just about owning the room and public speaking; it's about women who are absolutely nailing it. They've failed, they struggle with all kinds of stuff, but they still just pull it off. They keep showing up and keep doing those things that are really uncomfortable but still end up doing them really well. So, I find that really inspiring. I love listening to women who are really nailing it.
Good Change: If people want to see examples of what your art looks like, where can we see or visit your works?
Nicola Bennett: They can go to my website, nicolabennett.co.nz, and Instagram is the place where I'm most active and up-to-date; that's Nicola Bennett Art.