This episode features Erika NJ Allen, a multimedia artist based in Cincinnati. Erika shares her experience with a recent challenging health issue that ultimately redirected her art practice. Erika also recalls growing up in Guatemala and the joy and meaning that she’s found in fruit throughout her life.
I was born in in Guatemala City, many months ago, and my relationship with food, some of the few memories that I have are one, it was during Christmas. Back home in Guatemala, I guess, grapes and apples are considered exocitic in a way. I don’t know if it’s the same now, but when I was growing up, that is how it was, meaning they were expensive. My family during Christmas, that would be kind of like a luxury to buy apples, red apples and grapes. So, everytime Christmas came I knew that I was going to be able to have an apple or grape. Every time that I would go to the market with my aunt, she’s the one that raised me, she would put the fruit on the table. From what I can remember, we always had to ask if we were allowed to have an apple or a grape. And of course, she would say yes, but just the fact that those fruits were kind of expensive we couldn’t really afford it, it was a treat for me. That’s a great memory. Every Christmas even know that I live here in the U.S., I buy grapes and apples. Right here they’re so inexpensive, but it always takes me back to those days. To me it was love. I remember, growing up, all the meals that my aunts or my cousin (later in life) would make for all of us. It was out of love. All the time and dedication that they put in the kitchen to make sure that we were eating healthy or a nice meal.
Another tradition that I had was making coffee for my uncle. He quit drinking. I don’t ever remember him being drunk. I grew up with them saying that he just didn’t drink anymore. So for him. I would have to make the coffee very dark and very hot even when it was a hot day. He would smoke, quite a bit. So it was hot coffee and cigarettes. I liked making coffee for my uncle because he was like my father. So I think food it was a show of appreciation and love and family.
So, when I first came to the States, New Orleans, it was a shock. The flavors, totally different. Things that I would see, for example, the apples and the grapes, they were very inexpensive or they are very inexpensive here compared to Guatemala. So all of those changes for me were just, I wouldn’t say a I shock, but it was just a nice surprise. Trust me, I loved it, gumbo, po’ boy,Cafe du Monde, oh they’re delicious.
Back in 2019, I had a hysterectomy, a complete hysterectomy, and during that time I was going to art school - non-traditional student - and I was working towards my thesis. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I mean I had an idea but I didn’t know how it was going to turn out and where I work, at the Welcome Project, we introduced ceramic classes and that was my first experience with clay. It was kind of strange...during the time that ceramics was introduced. I was going through this hysterectomy. And then, I went through this procedure and then afterwards...I mean my doctor said to you might have some depression. I don’t think it will be bad. So they downplayed the fact that it could be bad, and I didn’t know. It was very strange how I got into ceramics and food. I felt that after the surgery...I was trying so hard to find myself. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. The relationship that I had with clay was life saving, in a way. After the surgery, I was going through a depression. I was doing film photography and that was helpful for me because I would get into the darkroom and you know, it’s dark and it was just me most of the time and I would get lost in it. Clay in a way was a marriage between the two - film photography and ceramics - because both require your total attention. And I just got lost in the process and it wasn’t until months later that I realized how bad my depression was. Thanks to this clay, I was able to survive. The reason why I started making fruits and vegetables was kind of like a show of resilience of how eating healthy after the surgery I was taking care of my body without knowing that’s what I was doing. My body was craving healthy things, I just wanted to reproduce those feelings visually. But like I said, I didn’t know how bad it was until afterwards and just to tell you how bad it was, depression, it tells you that you are alone that no body loves you and that is a lie, but that’s what you go through and that feeling is still with me but it’s not as bad because of film photography and ceramics. It helped me put all of my stress into it, my bad times, even my good times, everything goes into my work.
I make ceramics. For example, I make an avocado, but the pit is real. Or I make a pineapple out of clay but the top is real. Or a papaya the seeds are real seeds. That’s just to show how my body is. How I feel...that although I have something fake inside my body and that part will always remain the same, but my body is decaying. Whether you like it or not. And that’s kind of like a parallel. It’s so maddening. It’s a feeling that I cannot...I cannot get rid of it. It’s always there, knowing that we are all decaying everyday, but whatever is inside of us after a surgery- even if it’s just mental - it remains the same. You cannot stop that process.
After the surgery my body was craving more fruits and vegetables. I started with avocados. I used to eat three or four a day, if not more. So it was excessive. All that stress started … everything that I was eating, was coming out in clay. And that is still one of my rules. I cannot make a passionfruit if I don’t eat it first. Every vegetable or fruit that I make is because I eat it. I think it just started with that obsession of eating avocados. Why am I eating so many avocados in one day? Oh, I”m just going to turn that into a ceramic and then the pineapples, and the papaya, it was representation of my diet of how I was surviving. Up until today, I probably don’t have the right answer, but thinking back that’s just what it was a resilience of trying to stay healthy and stay in this world.