An Interview with Sari Shryack of Not Sorry Art on Her Gilded ‘Junk Food’ Series

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An Interview with Sari Shryack of Not Sorry Art on Her Gilded ‘Junk Food’ Series

I spoke with painter Sari Shryack of Not Sorry Art about her gilded “junk food” series. In this series, the Austin-based artist places her paintings of iconic “junk foods” from the ‘90s and early 2000s, from Cosmic Brownies to Cheetos to Mountain Dew, against colorful patterned backdrops set in sparkling gold frames. The pieces draw on her and her loved ones’ experiences with food as they grew up below the poverty line and ask us to view foods commonly associated with poverty in a new light. This series requires us to confront our conceptions of how food and class are intertwined in our culture, simultaneously stoking a sense of relatable millennial nostalgia.

As the wealth gap continues to grow, work like Shryack’s becomes increasingly salient. We as a culture must question our own deeply entrenched classism to imagine a better, more just world, and thinking about food is a great place to start. Here’s how my conversation with Shryack went.

Samantha: Can you tell me a bit about your background as an artist?

Shryack: I was able to go to college on an athletic scholarship as a cross-country runner, and so I’m the first gen in my family to go to college. I went to a private liberal arts university, and I did art because I didn’t know if I could keep up with the academics of another, more heavy-hitting course while I was a student athlete. I was like, I’ll do art, I’ve always been good at doodling. Well, it turns out it was way more challenging than I thought. 

I ended up finding a painting professor that I absolutely adored, Todd Lowery, and I fell in love with painting. He was so approachable and open about art, and I just fell in love with it and the medium as a way to express myself. Right after, my husband and I moved to Austin, and I started painting every day, kind of using Instagram like a journal, and I found I really enjoyed talking about my art as much as making it.

Samantha: How did you decide you wanted to focus on still lifes?

Shryack: I actually would’ve sworn that I never would’ve done still life again because we did a lot of it in college to learn, but I ended up finding that if you kind of put a newer spin on it and kind of made it a little less, like, Northern European still life painters of the 1500s, it kind of lent itself to a more contemporary lens. We are such a “stuff culture” that… the update of doing still life in a contemporary way actually made it pretty transformative. I just love playing with it and playing with things. I’ve always been a big fan of thrift stores, and so the act of going to thrift stores and looking for things from my childhood was really fun, and I just feel like there’s so much you can do with still life that it was a really easy-to-fall-in-love-with medium.

Samantha: What inspired you to start your gilded junk food series? What ideas are you trying to explore?

Shryack: I had been doing various forms of food still lifes, or at least food incorporated in my still lifes, for a while, and I started kind of noticing with some deeper exploration of class issues (in my personal life, I grew up below the poverty line) that food was a really quick way to engage class issues. I also just enjoy painting food, so what ended up happening is I envisioned the body of work before I created it, and usually it doesn’t happen like that.

I started thinking about what happens if you really put the gas pedal on the aesthetics side of food. Food can really tap into class issues. There’s this idea around restraint as sort of the opposite, or the counterpart, to low class. In a world of excess and post-industrialization, having access to bright colors and rich fabrics and food and spices is kind of novel in the sense that it used to be, prior to industrialization, really just left to the wealthiest people. There were things like sumptuary laws with certain fabrics being exclusive to the most noble classes. And so we live in this world where so much stuff is accessible, and we’ve almost hit a point where we have the inverse of that. You know, think about like with spices. There’s this idea that spices were a luxury food from the Silk Route, but once they became widely accessible, they were often used to mask food that was a little subpar, like meat that was about to spoil, and it became associated with the lower class, and then all of a sudden, we were in a time period where the blandest food indicates the best quality and is associated with the wealthier classes.

I feel like that happens with a lot of aesthetic things, like color. Now, we live in a landscape where beige and natural wood finishes and black and white are associated with upper-class people and bright colors with the lower class. Food has the exact same thing, where foods that are high in fat and sugar and are very palatable, almost like hyper-palatable, are associated with poorer people and this lack of restraint, and it sort of reflects the accessibility and this constant need to move away from things that are accessible to the masses. 

Samantha: I noticed that a lot of your paintings from the other series you’ve done have either white backgrounds or backgrounds that depict a specific place. Why did you choose the vibrant patterned backgrounds for this series? How about the glittery gold frames? Are they kind of tying in these ideas of excess you’re talking about?

Shryack: Yes… One of my memories growing up [is shopping] at thrift stores a lot out of necessity. It was a little prior to the fast fashion takeover when thrift stores were literally our only option. I remember my mom telling my sister and I when we would look for clothes things like, “You don’t want to have too many clashing patterns and silhouettes… Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have to look poor,” the idea being that there was a certain hierarchy to having, like clashing patterns… would be a tell-tale sign that were poor.

Of course, we probably weren’t fooling anyone in hindsight, but it got me thinking that like, again, there’s another layer of lack of restraint or lack of taste or “too much” and how that’s often connected to lower classes. So, whenever I wanted to paint the junk food, the packaging is really bright and the food itself is often colored with bright dyes, so I wanted to hone in on this other layer of it’s flashy, it’s too much, it’s over the top. There’s no restraint. And I even think by incorporating the gilded thrift store frames with, not only is it gold, but it’s gilded, and then there’s gold glitter on top of it, I wanted there to be, like, no chance that you could overlook the fact that I’m very intentionally making this hyper-palatable and all about excess while being attached to that lower-class connotation.

Samantha: The “junk food” that’s depicted in this series is food that simultaneously feels nostalgic but also has a sense of “badness” or unhealthiness to it that portions of our culture have deemed disgusting. It’s food that we literally refer to as “junk,” after all. Why did you want to highlight these types of foods?

Shryack: I did the Cheez Whiz painting, and I really called out this quote by Gwyneth Paltrow [where she said] she would rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can. People were really, really adamant, saying, “I’m not classist, but I think [Cheez Whiz] is disgusting.” And the only [question] I was trying to pose in that piece of artwork is, is your resistance to that food more that you would be embarrassed if you saw an ex-boyfriend and you were checking out buying Cheez Whiz and Ritz, or is it just that it’s just not healthy and you don’t like it? And all I want people to do is reflect and begin to unpack that because if we have that within ourselves, then if you see a mom on food stamps buying food for her kids—and god forbid she buys Oreos—are you going to think less of her moral character because that’s her food choice? Or are you truly just like, “I’m glad you can feed yourself?” And I just want people to critically look at that. 

Samantha: It’s like, who’s allowed to enjoy what junk foods? Wealthier people can enjoy Oreos and nobody blinks an eye, but poorer people are derided for making these same food choices, even though they sometimes don’t even have access to healthier options.

Shryack: Yeah, and it reflects the fact that there are food deserts. I mean, I think it’s interesting that we condemn those food choices, but like, that may be the only food options nearby. And there’s also this willingness to condemn convenience foods, and yet, we know an aspect of poverty is that it often encroaches on our time. A lot of people hold multiple jobs in order to stay afloat… So, of course they’re going to buy personal pizza, and you know, McDonald’s or something like that to help them out. But we’re so quick to condemn it, and I just think that has to do with the fact that class and food are so deeply intertwined in our culture. 

Samantha: How did you choose the specific “junk food” products you wanted to highlight? Why did you focus on packaged junk foods over, say, fast food?

Shryack: I think I’m just thinking about my personal experience with it. Like, growing up, we had food stamps, so I was really lucky that, you know, within reason, I think compared to some of my peers, we had beans and rice mostly. I think I was pretty lucky. But when I was a little bit older, like in college, my sister, who I’m very close with… worked at a gas station. She got paid minimum wage, and she has a family. She would feed her kids gas station food, and she would feel awful about it, like guilty, terrible. But they lived in a town where that was their only real option… She would tell me, like, I’m trying my best to get protein. We did beef jerky, and I try to get them the whole grain crackers. But there was this guilt and shame she felt around feeding [them] gas station food. So I don’t know if I necessarily perfectly weighed it out, but it was more that it was just a very close story to me of my loved one feeling so much guilt and shame and like she was a bad mom because all she had access to were things she could get at a gas station, so that’s just kind of what I honed in on… I did a Baja Blast one, so it’s not entirely avoidant of [fast food]. It was just more like, when you’re absolutely strapped for cash, a lot of times, I think gas station food.

Samantha: Can you talk about the importance of art coming from working class people?

Shryack: There are a couple of articles I’ve read pretty recently. One was from the Guardian; it was in the UK (I will say that the UK does have better social mobility on the Global Social Mobility Index than the United States). [The article said] that there’s been a decrease of artists from working class backgrounds from what they called the golden age of working class artists, which was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now, there’s less than 8% of all artists who are from working class backgrounds, and they kind of cite the growing wage/income gap between the very wealthy and the very poor.

There was another study [in an article from Smithsonian Magazine] that basically said that in the United States, for every $10,000 your family of origin makes, you’re 2% more likely to be in a creative field. And obviously once you hit that million-dollar plus milestone, your likelihood of being in the arts is way, way, way higher than the rest of the population.

I, as someone who went to a nicer school and has been in the art world, have noticed that those stats are totally backed up. I really struggle to see people who have a similar background to me, and I think it really creates this negative sort of cycle where there’s less of a precedent to see it in the arts so when it does occasionally show up, you know, artwork around class, it’s not well-received…

The bummer is that we’ve never needed [class-conscious art] more than now in this growing wealth gap culture. [We need] people who are sort of synthesizing and digesting what it is to be poor in America, what it is to be poor in the richest country on earth. And, you know, I think we’re all missing out. I never want to go after wealthy artists inherently. I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. I think every slice of the population has artists in it, so I don’t think it’s like, necessarily watering down the art, per se, but I do think that whenever you don’t have certain perspectives, you create sort of an echo chamber, and that’s just not conducive to good, meaningful art, in my opinion.

You can check out Sari Shryack’s work and commentary on Instagram and TikTok. You can buy her artwork on her website.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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