Kate Daughdrill on the power of social sculpture


Artist and organizer Kate Daughdrill hosts weekly meals in her community. “Eating food with other people is one of the most natural ways to be together,” she said. Artist and organizer Kate Daughdrill hosts weekly meals in her community. “Eating food with other people is one of the most natural ways to be together,” she said.

“Social sculpture is the idea that whenever we’re shaping our own lives to be more beautiful, it’s an intentional act to bring more beauty or well-being into the world,” said Kate Daughdrill, a Detroit-based artist, farmer, and teacher who graduated from UVA.

Daughdrill is one of 20-plus presenters slated to bring social sculpture to Charlottesville’s biannual New City Arts Forum. The 2014 event, titled “Art, Food, and Community,” will be held at The Haven and according to the event website, will “highlight overlapping practices of contemporary art and food systems.” Discussions and performances center on topics like art- and food-based social engagement, land-use art, and food-based sculpture.

“Both food and art bring us to the present, to what we’re seeing, hearing, and experiencing,” Daughdrill said. “The word aesthetic comes from ‘of the senses,’ and so much of food is about the sensual experience of eating and nurturing ourselves. We’re affected, even on a cellular level, when we bring something in to digest it, either for nutrients or aesthetic nourishment.”

When she was a studio art undergraduate at UVA, Daughdrill co-founded The Garage and began to make “living sculptures,” works that utilize the sculptural forms of edible plants. Since moving to Michigan for Cranbook Academy of Art’s MFA program, she also cultivates creative social projects like Detroit SOUP, a community dinner program that awards micro-grants to artists and inspired Charlottesville SOUP and meals-as-arts-incubators around the country. Last summer, she formed a creative CSA that distributed art objects as well as produce from her garden, an experiment mirrored by The Bridge PAI in the fall of 2013.

“For me, it’s the daily acts of caring for myself and other people and doing it with intention and care,” said Daughdrill. “Art has a unique role in claiming what matters, of saying, ‘this is meaningful,’ and bringing the next layer of wonder to those experiences. Whether that’s setting a table or arranging a house—even how I stack the wood I use to heat my home feels like the art of the everyday to me.”

In addition to reaching new community members, Daughdrill works to nourish neighborhood intimacy. In partnership with artist Mira Burack, she developed Edible Hut, a community gathering space in Detroit’s impoverished Osborn neighborhood. The hut, which has an edible, living roof modeled on Jefferson’s rotunda, “claimed that space for something positive versus negative,” Daughdrill said. “The neighborhood wanted a beautiful, safe space for the community to share, and this allowed us to reclaim a public park that had been abandoned and neglected.”

Daughdrill’s own neighborhood gathers around her studio, a renovated house and vacant lot-turned-agricultural operation called Burnside Farm. Once a week, she hosts weekly meals for her community. “Eating food with other people is one of the most natural ways to be together,” she said, and it forges community in the face of universal struggles.

“[Like Detroit,] there is poverty and need in Charlottesville,” Daughdrill said. An event like Charlottesville SOUP at the New City Arts Forum is one way to address it. When participants eat their communal meals, they’ll donate admission fees to a philanthropic arts project selected by community vote.

This is the sort of deliberate, fundamentally creative act that, for Daughdrill, helps elevate and give meaning to daily life. “For all our differences, the similarities are what I come to,” she said. “Human beings want to connect to themselves and each other and plants and something higher than themselves. And growing food and eating it on Sunday nights with my neighbors is one of the most profound experiences I can create.”