I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I owe my entire life—everything I have ever loved, everything I have ever believed in, every vision I have ever had for the future, and the person I set out to become when I was young, and who I am becoming still—in some way or another to art.
Art gave me an understanding of the past and, with that, I created a vision for my future. I saw who I could be. I saw what I could do. And with very little other education, it has come to be. I came up with my purpose and method for ice cream making through art. I continue to find inspiration this way.
When I was on both book tours I was honored to visit 25-plus cities on each over a space of a few weeks, and made it a point to visit at least one museum in every city. Though I’ve been to lots of museums in the big cities, like MoMA, The Met, and Chicago Institute of Art, the tour gave me a chance to explore museums and destinations that I may never have gotten to. I visited the Atlanta History Museum, The Alamo (where I learned the history of the bowie knife, and that bowie is pronounced boo-ie!), The Charleston Museum of history (the museum is the exhibit), and the Toledo Art Museum, and many others — all absolutely fantastic.
I sometimes think of paintings as old friends. Gauguin’s “Still Life with Three Puppies,” Matisse’s red room and Paul Cezanne’s The Bather, as well as Andy Warhol at MoMA, Thiebaud in SFMoMA, the della Robbia’s at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bellows at Columbus, Cleveland and Chicago.
I was once almost alone in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence during a very cold January. I was one of five people, including my sister, standing around Michelangelo’s statue of David that year. It was nice to be almost alone with a super hot ancient dude (and Michelangelo’s David is so much more thrilling in person than Donatello’s). I also saw the Museo Galileo in Florence, which I recommend, especially one of the last rooms where wax casts of roughly 400-year-old, births-gone-wrong fill the walls — at the horror of the viewer, but which gives a grim view of what childbirth and life in general was like in that era. Though Florence can get frigid in January, it’s a good way to view these pieces without crowds.
I was at SFMoMA more than 20 years ago and that was when I first fell for Thiebaud and then Diebenkorn. I also saw the Wayne Thiebaud ice cream cones in the Phoenix Museum of Art, which is a fantastic museum. In the early days (the mid- to late-1990s) of making ice cream, Wayne Thiebaud was a huge inspiration.
In Athens, in 1998, I spent a long time at the Acropolis. I spent my youth obsessed with ancient Minoans, Greeks, eventually Romans. I studied Hellenic things in college also. So it was exciting to visit Delos, a sacred island in the Aegean with nothing more than phallic sculptures by the hundreds. I took classes on ancient art at The Ohio State University, so being in Greece was like Mecca for me. Even now, on my nightstand, is Stephen Greenblatt’s book “The Swerve,” which is so transporting I started it over the moment I finished it. It bridges the culture and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome with The Renaissance-Enlightenment-Modernism, through a curious character in medieval Florence called Poggio. One second you’re in the library of Alexandria, the next you’re in Florence or Rome of the 15th century, then Herculaneum pre-Vesuvius, or Athens. It’s nice to be able to picture some of these places.
I saw a George Bellows exhibit at The National Gallery in DC, where I fell in love with his work, so much so that I made a special trip to NYC to visit him at The Met, and then again back in his hometown (and mine as well), Columbus. I even made ice cream inspired by one of his frothy seascapes (salt water plum blossom) and did a voice session about the painting for The Columbus Museum of Art. To see an artist’s body of work together is a once in a lifetime experience. You understand so much more when you can do it. I love Winslow Homer, but it’s Bellows that I can’t get off my mind. It’s powerful and deeply emotional to me. And to think: Where I sit right now is just a long walk from the home he grew up in!
I made another special trip to New York to view Matisse this way at MoMA last year. But I had studied his cutouts for a long time. They were on display in St. Louis the year I was born (1973), and I had a book and posters of that show growing up. Still have it. I loved Matisse while in college studying art history. I still love thinking about France between the wars. Once I went to Vence in southern France to see the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence (home to a number of Matisse originals). I made an ice cream in honor of it in the early 2000s — rosa centifolia with shards of colored broken-glass candy — because I couldn’t stop thinking about the chapel and those rare fragrant roses of nearby Grasse. I woke up thinking of it, thought of it all day, and went to sleep thinking of it. It was Grasse where I wanted to go to learn perfume before I became an ice cream maker, and the dream of that place that got me into making “perfumed” ice cream in the first place back in the mid-’90s. Going there in person was an absolute dream, and I carry a little bit of that place with me still.
And on roses, I was awed recently in Cincinnati at the 21c Art Museum by a gigantic rosebud-crusted sphere. Before I even saw the thing, I was overtaken by the scent of dried roses, which is like rose-scented tobacco and honey. I followed my nose around and found that 3- or 4-foot rose-covered ball and spent a few minutes wondering if the artist wanted the aroma to be a part of the exhibit. I left unsure, but it was the scent that I was moved by and what I have been trying to recreate as ice cream.
Just standing at The Getty in LA with its enormous, imported travertine walls is an otherworldly experience. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but the wind seemed small in comparison, and when you spoke, the vastness absorbed every sound — it felt like the world had stopped spinning. That, and the dusty, floral scent up there was the only thing I actually remember about the trip. I’ve made an ice cream inspired, in part, by carrying the memory of that place around with me for so many years. It’ll be out in May.
While in the south of France many years ago, I perused the Fondation Maeght in St.-Paul-de-Vence, where I found Matisse’s large charcoal gesture drawings, which have more emotion than anything I could ever produce on paper or canvas using every tool known to man. This is where I learned the power of reduction. That something is not finished when you have added all you can to it, but rather until you have removed all you can from it. A concept I aspire to even now.
Art has inspired countless ice cream flavors, in many ways it inspired the whole ice cream concept from the beginning, but it also informs and inspires how and why we make what we make everyday at Jeni’s, and our drive to take risks, learn, and get better everyday. It’s why we have an in-house art and design team, rather than outsourcing it, it’s also why we make the ice creams that only we can. Because art moves us, inspires us, and answers the question: Why?