A stack of brick-like bread loaves with a green lawn in the background.
Photo: Lexie Smith

Artist-Baker Lexie Smith on the Beauty, Craft, and Politics of Bread

By Aileen Kwun
August 15, 2020
6 minute read

Lexie Smith is an artist and baker, though it’s only relatively recently, after years of working in restaurant kitchens and balancing creative pursuits on the side, that she wholly fused both passions through her community-based art project, Bread on Earth. Her work often takes on various forms, from performance and installation to photography, writing, and publishing, all centered around bread and its cultural resonances. As New York City went into lockdown this spring, Smith offered to send a free sourdough starter to anyone who requested one, and has mailed out more than 1,000 to date. We recently spoke with Smith, just as she was harvesting her first crop of grains in Upstate New York, about why the humble food serves as an apt vehicle for discussing social, political, economic, and ecological concerns.

When did you start baking bread?

In high school, at around age fifteen, as a way of attempting to find some control over my surroundings and my physical and emotional state, both through what I was putting into my body and what I was doing with my body. And that remains an important part of the baking process for me. I never used recipes, though I read them religiously, as a way of teaching myself how to do it.

Then I went to college, and baked the whole time. I often thought about leaving to go to cooking school, which I’m glad I didn’t do. But baking was always with me, competing for my attention and affection for art, always.

After college, I visited farms in Puerto Rico and Hawaii. I later ended up in Texas. I was writing and drawing, and couldn’t make a dime doing either of those things. So I just did what made sense to me, which was to bake and sell bread at the local farmers’ market. I had a deep, abiding affection for bread, but my relationship to it remained very personal and in its own little bubble. I didn’t know other bakers. I worked as a pastry chef in Austin for a couple of years, but burned out pretty quickly and moved back to New York, and got back into art. Then I started baking for a few restaurants downtown, ended up doing that more than full-time, and stopped working in art and design. It was a bit of hopscotch for a couple years.

At what point did you decide to merge your love of baking with your love of art?

Eventually, I felt deeply underwhelmed and under-stimulated from just working in a restaurant kitchen. I decided, without much forethought, that I had to combine my creative pursuits and my interest in food. So I left the restaurant kitchen—and I got incredibly lucky. I have no other real way of justifying how I’ve been able to pull off baking in a nonconventional setting, for a nonconventional audience, outside of a traditional food establishment. I began making food and sharing it in something of an art context, and was really interested in how people interact and react to food outside of food settings.

You’ve made bread for art fairs and gallery installations, and earlier this spring, as people jumped into homebaking, sent out hundreds of sourdough starters to your online followers. What do you make of shifting cultural values around bread?

I was constantly coming up against resistance to bread and dessert among the privileged elite of downtown New York. People have this thing of, “Oh, no bread. I don’t eat bread.” Which is so Western, and indicative of the immense privilege we have in our choices for what and when and how we eat: to be able to reject a food that has been, for centuries, the basic necessity to so many humans and cultures around the world.

As someone who is interested in the soulfulness and the history of bread, I was concerned and fascinated by that rejection. That was around 2016, which coincided with Trump’s campaign and election. I began to see bread as a unifying force—metaphorically, symbolically—and also as something that represented the abuse by power across cultural, political, and ecological sectors, which we know are often combined. I gave the overall project a name, Bread on Earth, and began intentionally focusing on the history of bread: making it, talking about it, and sharing it in a way that encourages dialogues about how we live now.

Some of your work is performance-based, and projects often take on sculptural, colorful, and complex forms, where you’re treating the dough as if it were clay. When did you begin experimenting with the aesthetics of bread?

On a biological and historical level, bread leads to so many different departure points for conversation, and aesthetically speaking, it’s incredibly rich. It’s naturally malleable. I’m inspired by it, and realized I could get people’s attention by taking this item that’s mundane and so ubiquitous that it’s overlooked, turning it on its head, and making something that’s very basically eye-catching. As soon as I started making bread that didn’t look like what people expected a loaf of bread to look like, they became interested in having a conversation. I love bread, but this is about getting to a place where you can talk about other things.

Food is an incredibly basic but useful tool in considering all these issues surrounding class, education, and even politics. Consider the word “companion.” It means someone you break bread with, but in a deeper sense, it’s also the person that you’re designated to eat the same kind of bread as. At a time in Europe, if you had white flour, it meant you were one of the very few who could afford to have your wheat sifted and be left with this beautiful, pristine white flour. Now, white flour, or white bread, is either seen as a common indulgence or as a cultural synonym for fascism and white supremacy. We don’t often think about it, but the color of bread is always represented in where you stand in the world, what is privileged, and what is valued.