The Artist in the Grocer

Some people are artists. Some aren’t. But this is not a black and white distinction. Somewhere along the spectrum between Artist Extraordinaire and Person with No Sense Whatsoever for Color, Form and Design is the place where I suspect most of us reside. We may marvel at the artist’s skill – how can human hands can produce something that amazing – yet have a modicum of understanding (a little, anyway? a teeny bit?) as to why the rest of the world marvels with us.

Part of the reason we marvel is that we ourselves (all right, let me speak for myself), I myself, would have all to do to draw a shape vaguely resembling an apple (through it might look more like a pumpkin or a tomato) and color it red (to hopefully distinguish it from the pumpkin at least) and put little green leaves at the top of a brown stem (to hopefully distinguish it from the tomato). In my wildest dreams I couldn’t come up with something like this. I’m not sure I could even imagine this composition, let alone put color to canvas and create it.


But William Rickerby Miller did. This oil on canvas “Study of Apples” that he painted in 1862, hanging in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, falls into the category of art known as trompe l’oeil. Do you see how the leaf at the edge of the table seems to be coming off of the canvas, almost three-dimensional? Do you see how the apples shine, as if someone just polished them because they wanted a bite? How does he do that??

Trompe l’oeil is a genre of art that is a trick, a trick of the eye, a very deliberate attempt to make you think the objects on the two-dimensional canvas are real, when you know (because you are looking at a painted drawing in a frame) and the artist knows (because of having painted that drawing) that they are not. In theory, this trick reminds you that all art is an illusion, so do not be mistaken: What you are looking at is an image of the thing, and not the thing itself. In turn we can take the broader lesson to be careful in this world: All is not what it seems to be!

These oranges have the same effect on me. Also a still life, also oil on canvas, it is called “Oranges in Tissue Paper,” painted in 1980 by William Joseph McCloskey. The oranges look so real, even more real than a photograph could render them. The orange color is bright, almost plastic, with a dark background setting them off even more. The tissue paper practically sounds crinkley, the sections of fruit look juicy. I want to eat them! No wonder this painting is part of a group the museum calls “10 Works of Art to Avoid if You’re Hungry.”

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I grant mega-credit to these artists and all great artists. I stand in awe at what they do with tools and color, with hands and minds, with time and effort. But I return to the spectrum – those who cannot be considered in the master class, but nonetheless have an admirable eye for Color, Form and Design and some skill with the same. I present the unnamed person behind the fruit display at a grocer called Farm Fresh to You, one of the extraordinary little businesses at the Embarcadero’s Ferry Building Marketplace.

It takes no small skill to arrange the display I observed there. At first glance, and to most passersby, it’s fruit for sale. Indeed it is, but if that’s all it is, why the spattering and alternating of color? Why the angled baskets leading up to the top-most level? Why the bananas all together as almost a backdrop of the familiar but the black mission figs (that look purple to me) alternated among its fellows in sixteen different spots, setting off the yellow-greens, green-greens and oranges of the fruits and veggies around them?

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Why green apples on one side of the raised, middle carton and large orange/pinkish/reddish tomatoes on the other? Why some small, orangy, cherry tomatoes below some others just like it but in line with the ones above? Why the peppers below the purple figs and multi-colored small tomatoes below some other orangy ones? Why not purple figs here in this one spot, orangy cherry tomatoes there in another spot, big fat tomatoes all together in one basket?

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Because whoever put this display together has an eye for Color, Form and Design. Whoever did this made multiple decisions to put this here and that there, to vary the colors and shapes, to let some look random and some intentional – for good reason! Just like the trompe l’oeil above or any other type of art, it catches your eye, draws you in, gives you pause, and in this case, hopefully causes you to buy something!

Why don’t we see such elaborate displays more often? Because they take time and effort and no small amount of skill. Because the owner of the shop has to pay the person who does it, and that adds to the cost, which some markets cannot bear (but evidently this one can). Because people who can do this don’t come along every day. Because the artist had fun!

Granted, the colors of the natural fruits and vegetables negate the artist having to duplicate them with oil or acrylic on canvas, their natural shapes are 3-D to begin with, and the continually changing nature of the display – the gaps here and there reveal that someone recently bought multi-colored tomatoes, purple figs and green peppers – makes it a continual work in progress for this artist. I do not place this art on par with the paintings above. But whoever does this work (probably all the time) gets new material every day and every season, can rearrange at will and elicits admiration, I venture to say, on a daily basis. I was not the only one taking a picture of it.

I also venture that there is great pleasure in work well done, in creating something both functional and pleasing to the eye, in knowing that some people – just a few maybe, but still some – see the artist in the grocer, the art in the display,  and smile. I did.

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