Outstanding in the Field

I’ve sort of needed a few days to process the greatness that was the Outstanding in the Field dinner Marci and I attended Friday night. My views on food are pretty transparent. Basically, I see cooking, creativity, and art as all being very interrelated. I have found that making records, starting/running businesses, and cooking all share an awful lot of the same, er, ingredients.

I also feel that the theme of my new book (The Artist’s Dilemma) – helping artists find ways to connect directly to their constituents (and in a scale-able manner) rather than passing off their creations to someone else to “market”/”distribute” – is very much inspired by chefs. In a sense, a chef is the truest distillation of the artist’s dilemma. She spends years honing her chops, finding her culinary voice, etc., and then opens a restaurant. She then finds that no longer is she able to do the things she got in to the business for (creating/cooking), but, instead, is a business owner. Of course, she has zero training on how to run a business. The results are predictable.

I marvel, therefore, whenever I see a chef who has managed to maintain artistry, and scale to a degree where they have a successful business and stay true to their creative/gustatory ethos. These rare people have solved the artist’s dilemma. No different for authors, film makers, musicians or any other artist.

Outstanding in the Field is an emphatic example of the solving of the artist’s dilemma. Founder, Jim Denevan is an artist first and foremost. From his bio:

Jim Denevan makes freehand drawings in sand. At low tide on wide beaches Jim searches the shore for a wave tossed stick. After finding a good stick and composing himself in the near and far environment Jim draws– laboring up to 7 hours and walking as many as 30 miles. The resulting sand drawing is made entirely freehand w/ no measuring aids whatsoever. From the ground, these drawn environments are experienced as places. Places to explore and be, and to see relation and distance. For a time these tangible specific places exist in the indeterminate environment of ocean shore. From high above the marks are seen as isolated phenomena, much like clouds, rivers or buildings. Soon after Jim’s motions and marks are completed water moves over and through, leaving nothing.

Here’s an example of his work:

In many respects Mr. Denevan reminds me of no one so much as John Corbett’s character “Chris” from Northern Exposure. Chris is one of my all-time favorite characters of fiction, and both Chris and Mr. Denevan share a true artist’s spirit:

Of course, if you’ve watched the show, you know Chris doesn’t fling the cow; he flings a grand piano. It’s an amazing moment (though sadly not findable (by me at least) online). Man, I miss that show.

There’s, of course, a similar emphasis on the aesthetic moment going on with Mr. Denevan’s visual art. However, while these moments emphasize the connection between fleetingness and beauty, all art is really about the aesthetic moment. Certainly live music represents this, with recordings only attempting to approximate the more ethereal nature of the live performance, even while, occasionally, becoming a genuine artistic moment (while you listen) in and of themselves.

Art is about the moments of being present: looking at the painting, listening to the music, reading the book, watching the movie.

The art is influenced by the context. I got into a kerfuffle with someone who had (politely) taken issue with an article that I wrote, and which appeared on TuneCore. Basically, this gentleman disagreed with my exhortation for artists to get out there and find a constituency with shared values (psychographics). This gentleman recommended instead that artists simply focus on writing great songs, and he believes – thanks to technology – the songs will be delivered to those predisposed to want to hear them. In my retort to this I stated that I feel that only through context can a song be deemed great (a great song isn’t a priori great, its “greatness” emerges out of context (a posteriori). My point being that context plays a role (a large role) in art.

This (finally) brings me to Outstanding in the Field. This emphasis on context is best summed up by quoting from Mr. Denevan’s site:

Jim Denevan is an accomplished chef and founder of Outstanding in the Field, a world-wide moveable feast, a seasonal open-air investigation into the quality and meaning of place.

Outstanding in the Field grew out of Jim’s “farmer dinners” which took place during the mid 1990s at tiny Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz where he invited local farmers to preside over special meals featuring their just-picked harvest. The first Outstanding in the Field “farm dinner” took place at Mariquita farm in Corralitos, California in September of 1999.

Outstanding in the Field has hosted 75 events since 1999. In 2008, Outstanding in the Field goes even farther afield and ventures beyond North America — bringing our long table to selected sites around the world.

This commitment to affirming the connection between what you eat and why you eat is crucial. It’s obviously crucial from a sustainability perspective (checked the price on those fertilizer futures recently?), it’s also crucial from an artistic perspective.

The entire event brings context to food and art. It requires effort. Marci and I had to drive about an hour and a half to get to Big Branch, LA, but our drive was trivial compared to the many attendees who had flown from all over the country (having been unable to get tickets to events closer to their homes).

Trivial or otherwise, the drive itself was the first step in setting the context: leaving New Orleans, crossing the bayou, finally entering farm land. It was a transition, and artistic moments require you to transition from one mental space to another.

Upon arrival, the transitions continued. Being amidst the produce and the poultry, the mosquitoes and manure, while drinking darn good champagne, and watching the amazing appetizers being made (menu above in the photostream) all contributed to setting the artistic moment. This is only enhanced by the table setting, and the subtle, but emphatic, details that Mr. Denevan and his team tend to (the parking of the bus, the chalkboard sign, etc. (photos above)).

The meal was preceded by a brief discussion about the food we were about to eat… by those who had grown the food and cooked the food.

As we ate, the purveyors walked down the length of the table continuing to talk about what the food meant to them. The woman who foraged the chanterelles was followed by the man who kept the bees which supplied the honey.

I managed to speak briefly with Mr. Denevan. I told him that what he was doing resembled what Kristin Hersh’s manager, Billy O’Connell had just described to me the other day: Kristin was doing small, intimate gigs at the homes of a select fans. The fans were to set up the environment and invite others to their home to share the experience with them.

Mr. Denevan listened very attentively, smiling all the while, before saying, “You know, I’m a musician.”

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