Words: Johanna Harlow – Photos: Andrew Simoni
Some things in this world are universal. Without exception, cultures around the globe contain elements of food, creativity, and storytelling. Though it might take different shapes—tamale
s and telenovelas, kimchi and K-dramas, biryani and Bollywood musicals—the fundamentals remain the same. So why not leverage them to bridge our differences? Such is the tactic of Bay Area painter and printmaker Cynthia Cao, who will be bringing San Joseans together through her upcoming project Taste of Home.
Cao’s latest project is part of her new role as one of five selected Creative Ambassadors chosen by San Jose Creates and Connects (a community engagement initiative created by San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs). “We focus on San Jose residents and their making creativity part of their everyday lives by involving people in opportunities to do participatory creation,” explains Senior Arts Project Manager Emily Sevier of the department.
The hope for the Creative Ambassador Program is to increase deeper appreciation and interaction with the arts in our city, adds Kerry Adams Hapner, who acts as Director at the Office of Cultural Affairs (or Sevier’s unofficial title for her: “Enabler of Crazy Ideas”). “Hopefully they’ll walk the rope over to engage in other arts activities,” Hapner says, “whether its supporting artists, being an artist, going to shows (theaters, performances, concerts), being a consumer of the arts… It’s a public will building campaign!”
For printmaker Cao, the meaning and mission of her role as creative ambassador extends one step further. “I want to seduce them with art materials and have fun with creative projects, but really it’s about their shared experience with each other,” she says with a smile. Pausing a moment, she adds, “I’m a facilitator and I’m helping people have conversations… I’m using art as a way to make a connection.”
Cao has a track record of building bridges both in her community and the arts world through her roles as Gallery Technician at San Jose State’s Thompson Art Gallery as well as Exhibition Designer and Teaching Artist for Chopsticks Alley Art (a nonprofit which promotes Southeast Asian cultural heritage).
Continuing in that vein, Taste of Home will bring neighbors together for two virtual printmaking workshops over the summer as well as a November cook-off (hopefully in person). During these workshops, attendees will make use of free art kits to create prints of food and share food-related memories.
As her first artistic love, printmaking is near and dear to Cao’s heart. “When I was young, if I was good, my mom would take me to Michael’s and buy me a stamp,” she recalls. “My crowning achievement of the week was getting that new stamp!”
The creative ambassador says another inspiration for Taste of Home came from conversations with SJSU students about the campus pantry. These students expressed the wish that their pantry stocked items beyond basics like peanut butter and cereal—such as ingredients their parents used in favorite dishes back home. For this reason, Cao’s project will run parallel to a multidisciplinary SJSU project called Community Table: Creative Approaches to Addressing Food Insecurity as well as invite Chopsticks Alley Art and Second Harvest Food Bank to contribute educational presentations during the workshops.
“Food tells a story,” Cynthia shares, “through the ingredients (that are specific to a region), through the recipes (that have been passed down from generation to generation), through the people that cook these recipes.” But beyond that, it gives us common ground. As Cao points out, “Everyone has to eat!”
With its tasteful blend of cuisine, creativity, and community, Cao’s project is sure to be a recipe for success. “The intersection of art and food is magic,” the artist concludes. “They are great vehicles for conversation connection.”