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'I am trying to have broader conversations': Otter Tail County artist explores cultural connections

Erhard artist Kandace Creel Falcón recently interviewed area Latinx restaurant owners, grocery store owners, and home cooks, who shared stories about what food means to them. As Falcón listened to those stories, the artist created "Nourishing Narratives: A Latinx Foodmap of Community Comida in Otter Tail County," a food-mapping project that traces and records the role of food in rural Latinx communities.

Artist Kandace Creel Falcón stands in front of Falcón's series of paintings, "Kitchen Saints," which are bottles of hot sauce painted in oil on found wood. The works pay homage to Catholic retablos.
Artist Kandace Creel Falcón stands in front of Falcón's series of paintings, "Kitchen Saints," which are bottles of hot sauce painted in oil on found wood. The works pay homage to Catholic retablos.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus
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PERHAM — For many artists, their work isn't just about creating something beautiful, it's about creating an avenue for larger cultural conversations.

That's the case for rural Otter Tail County artist Kandace Creel Falcón, who recently had several series of works on display at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center . Falcón's exhibit closed on Friday, May 20, at which time the artist and the public had the opportunity to chat.

Falcón, who uses they/them pronouns, is originally from New Mexico. They started out in art at a very young age, learning how to cross stitch. As a Xicana person, Falcón grew up in a heavily Latinx community, which they said is very different from the culture the artist has experienced since moving to Minnesota in 2004. This heavily influences Falcón's art, which incorporates a mix of Southwest and Midwestern styles.

"Aesthetically, I like to bring in a lot of color and a sense of vibrancy from Southwestern geographies into Midwestern spaces," Falcón said.

A series of acrylic paintings the artist made, "Interior Intimacies," which show spaces of Falcón's home in Erhard, Minnesota, are brightly colored to evoke a Southwestern flair but also have recognizable Midwestern kitchen aesthetics.

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This up-close shot of Falcón's oil painting, "Our Lady Cholula," from the series, "Kitchen Saints," shows the detail in each paint stroke.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Falcón is drawn to exploring that mix of identities through their artwork. When Falcón first moved to Minnesota, the artist was a tenured professor who taught women and gender studies in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Though they moved to rural Erhard in 2019 to pursue art and writing full-time, Falcón's interest in femininity and domesticity is still portrayed in their art.

For example, Falcón incorporated cross stitch into their "Interior Intimacies" paintings, since cross stitch is typically associated with women. They wanted to combine this art style with traditional acrylic paint to challenge what people consider "high art" through femininity.

Food, one of the exhibit's biggest inspirations, is also a way Falcón incorporates the concept of femininity into their artwork.

"To me, food is an entry point to thinking about larger themes," the artist said. "Food is largely prepared by women in their homes. It's associated with women's roles. Certainly in my family, food has played an important role in gatherings. I was just really interested in learning about other people's relationships to food and what they offer to the community through food."

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This series of photographs shows several different locations of Falcón's foodmap of the Latinx community throughout Otter Tail County.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Falcón was able to further explore that interest in food through art when they received a grant for a story-gathering project from Rethos (a Minnesota nonprofit that connects people through historic places and promotes community). The artist immediately knew they wanted to connect with Latinx food workers throughout Otter Tail County.

For that project, Falcón interviewed area Latinx restaurant owners, grocery store owners, and home cooks, who shared stories about what food means to them. As Falcón listened to those stories, the artist created "Nourishing Narratives: A Latinx Foodmap of Community Comida in Otter Tail County," a food-mapping project that traces and records the role of food in rural Latinx communities.

"It was really fun to see how food functions for others in similar ways that I do," Falcón said. "They think about it as healing."

Falcón depicts the healing qualities of food in the series, "Kitchen Saints." While some of the paintings in this series are acrylic renderings of tequila bottles — as tequila is considered important and healing in Falcón's Xicana background — the others are oil paintings of different hot sauces, painted on found wood that has been reclaimed from other purposes, such as from old pallet boards on Falcón's family members' farm.

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Falcón's acrylic painting, "Don Julio Añejo Claro 70th Anniversary Edition" depicts a tequila bottle. It, along with several other tequila bottle paintings, was recently on display at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

This process is rooted in retablos, a Southwestern style of representing saints on wood paintings, typically associated with Catholic iconography. Not only does Falcón's art have roots in their Xicana upbringing, but it also has origins in the artist's Catholic upbringing.

Falcón created these oil paintings with the concept of portraiture in mind, meaning they wanted to represent the essence of the hot sauces in how they painted them, such as the different flourishes they applied in the halos, inspired by the sauces' flavors.

"I wanted to really use that idea (of retablos) to venerate the ingredients in my kitchen that bring me joy," Falcón said.

The artist also took inspiration from Catholic saints while naming the portraits, such as "Santo Sriracha," a painting of a Sriracha bottle with a shining sun-like halo peaking from behind.

Utilizing religious iconography is another way Falcón's art represents their intersecting identities — in this case, their Catholic identity and queer identity.

"I think queerness as an identity is really about challenging normative ideas and challenging binaries and challenging rigid structures we have in place around gender and sexuality," Falcón explained. "Through representing these hot sauces while evoking Catholic history, I feel like that is a very queer project."

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Falcón's oil painting on found wood, "Santo Sriracha," sits on display as a part of the "Kitchen Saints" series at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

The Catholic iconography and portraits of familiar foods are ways for Falcón to connect with all different types of people throughout rural Minnesota. Because, as the artist said, food is universal.

"I am fascinated by food; it's one of the ways we all connect because we all have to eat," they explained. "Food is often the bridge to get to know someone and navigate cultural differences."

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We live in a world with a lot of contradictions, Falcón said. The artist finds that, throughout the U.S., many people love Mexican food but hold anti-Mexican sentiments. Falcón wants to use food and religion as an entry point to have broad conversations with people about larger cultural topics like this.

"I think all artists' identities always influence their works, but I think artists of marginalized identities get assigned different levels of meaning in ways we talk about work," Falcón explained. "So an entry point to Catholicism and Western art helps makes those connections to broader conversations."

Falcón continued, "It's not just about identity. It's not just my personal story and the identity categories put on me. I am trying to have broader conversations. Are you simply consuming difference, or are you trying to engage with difference in a meaningful way?"

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Kandace Creel Falcón talks about the inspiration and artistic methods behind the artist's "Kitchen Saints" series of oil paintings on found wood.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

For more information about Falcón, visit kjcfalcon.com or find the artist on Instagram @artofkcf .

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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