By Hannah Howard
“I eat my models,” says artist Mike Geno. “Just about always—that’s my rule.”
It’s a good rule, considering Geno’s models are streaky slices of bacon, majestic wheels and wedges of cheese, and glazed donuts. Geno makes an exception for the sushi rolls—raw fish doesn’t hold up so well after a few hours at room temperature.
Geno didn’t set out to be the nation’s most beloved food artist. He worked as a meat cutter while in college at Temple, then went on to pursue his MFA in painting and drawing at Southern Illinois University. He needed a topic for a thesis—meat!—and he needed to paint fast. The steaks and chops he rendered would also be his dinner. He was an actual starving artist, but he was onto something. “When I returned to Philadelphia after grad school, I realized I was becoming more and more focused on food and the food scene,” he remembers.
Back in Philly, Geno befriended blogger Tenaya Darlington, also known as Madame Fromage. Darlington turned Geno onto the ooey, gooey, nutty, stinky, fabulous world of cheese. Together, they went on cheese treks to local shops and spent afternoons browsing the case at Di Bruno Brothers, searching for portrait-worthy dairy discoveries. They found plenty.
Geno became fascinated by cheese. He didn’t just paint cheese—he lived it, breathed it, and became passionate about cultivating cheese knowledge. “I would learn about the process, how it was made, the animals, the milk, the culture or region connected to it,” Geno said. “I wasn’t just painting cheese, I was painting history.”
In turn, the cheese world fell in love with Geno and his work. And of course they did—Geno honors cheese in a way that is majestic and rare. His paintings make me hungry. Like any art that means something to me, they make me think and feel and stop me in my tracks.
He explains of his paintings: “I consider them portraits because they’re really about the subject itself. The food is not a prop or a part of an assembly.” To me, they’re portraits because they capture not just the cheese’s luscious textures, bright colors, and shapes, but something deeper, their soul. Cheeses have souls, of course.
Geno respects the tradition, work, and love that goes into crafting great food. “Someone made this cheese. It’s their art, too. It’s necessary to tell their story.” In this way, Geno has become a cheese person in his own right. “Painting is my way of learning and teaching myself.”
Geno’s current project has him hard at work creating a comprehensive American cheese map. “I’m trying to represent each of the 50 states with at least one handmade, artisanal cheese made in that region,” he says. He’s nearly finished. He’s painted a spicy gouda from Alaska called Winter Fury, a round wheel of feta from Crow’s Dairy in Arizona, and a goat’s milk blue cheese from The Old Windmill Dairy, a farmstead cheesemaker in New Mexico.
From our fine state of New York, Geno has painted more than a dozen cheeses, including two renditions of Kunik, a meltingly lush triple crème made in Thurman. There’s a peppercorn studded goat’s cheese from Coach Farm, the leather goods empire that turned its attention to making fine cheeses in Pine Plains. In Geno’s portrait of Eden, a raw cow’s milk beauty from Sprout Creek Farm, the cheese lies on its pillowy rind-belly, its crystalline sunshined-hued paste peeking out.
“I love cheese people,” says Geno. “It’s a community that I’ve really become a part of. I’ve never been treated so well in the art world.”
Paintings: Mike Geno