Saturday, January 8, 2011

A'Mhara Russell

It’s not every day I get the chance to eat art.

When I received the call from a friend to interview A’Mhara and taste her cupcakes, I was somewhat skeptical. After all, although my understanding of art and its genres is limited, few references indicated ‘cupcakes’ as a possible means of creative expression.

But who am I to say? After all, there is not rule that says you can’t eat your art. Why, there have been many times when I’ve had to eat my words, and I do use those verbal ingredients as a means of releasing my creative spirit from time to time. Apparently their bitterness isn’t always to everyone’s liking, as I have discovered.

So, I ignored the possible bias of my informative friend towards this seemingly loose connection between cooking and creativity and headed once more into the inner reaches of Darwin suburbia.

I have known A’Mhara for some time but only on a second level of acquaintance, sufficient for me to nod in passing but not one that would give me any essence of who she is. So I found myself approaching our time together with eagerness and anticipation. What struck me immediately upon our meeting was her strong presence and a command of the situation at hand. There was a directness about her manner and movement that put me immediately at ease. It is as though all has been taken care of and all I need do is to sit back and enjoy the ride. Combined with this was a voice and manner of conversation that did not falter. I was reminded of a news reader on SBS or a damn fine teacher bringing eager young minded to order. A well places smile sprung to life and I swear the room got a whole lot lighter.

And she began.

I watched and listened as the attentive child. A’Mhara seemed less conscious of her actions than I did. The kitchen is was organized, with everything within easy reach. She moved effortlessly between utensils hanging like tendrils from the ceiling to bowls and ingredients placed along the work bench. At the same time, AMhara provided me with a running commentary on the contents, actions and a bit of history thrown in. I couldn’t see her feet from where I was sitting but I imagined them dancing across the tiles as dexterously and efficiently as Ginger Rogers in the arms of Fred Astaire. She spoke of an interest in cooking that went back a long time. There was a strong suggestion of the influences of her mother, but in an energetic sense more than a creative one. Standing still isn’t an option in this household. Engagement is the lifestyle. Connection with the world is strongly inked with what one does and how much effort is put into it: a ‘Rest when you’re dead’ philosophy.

At twenty-something A’Mhara is well defined. She is in a career of choice working in a place of choice and doing what she chooses. It shows. She spoke as affectionately of her work as a librarian as she does of her passion for cooking. I wondered if there is a similarity, a transfer of skill set than links the two occupations. Is a recipe akin to a reference? Is baking synonymous to cataloguing books?

As the conversation continued I became aware of changes. The flurry of activity had waned momentarily and an irresistable odour eminated from the kitchen. I checked to see if I’m not salivating in any obvious way. After all, I didn’t want to seem too eager for this session to finish. One might think I only came here for the food. Before I could say ‘pass the plate,’ a tray of hot cupcakes appeared before me, perfectly rounded and browned; just as they would be in a Nigela Lawson cook book. For a moment I was taken back to the Saturday afternoons in the inner city suburbs when, as a young boy, I would be the first to feel the heat from a freshly baked cake as my mother drew it from the oven. Then juggle that first piece of steaming sponge on my tongue until it was cool enough to consume. So this is art, is it not? Emotions like this are not evoked by ordinary things. It requires a very special talent to get it right.

A’Mhara has been making cupcakes for a year or so in any serious nature. She expressed some surprise that others would value her skills and want to buy her art. Personally, I thought she underestimated her skills, but don’t most artists? Her web site was established during the year to get her message out there and even without the necessary olfactory stimulation, she has had a good response. Orders are coming in and her repertoire is expanding. She sees the future need to move from her mother’s kitchen but at the moment she is content to allow the magnitude of her industry to be guided by her current time and space.

The cupcakes had cooled sufficiently for the icing, a masterpiece in itself that was prepared beforehand, just as they do in the TV programs. This magic of marsh mellow and colour sat delicately on top and the object become a sculpture, only to be surpassed in beauty by the very next move.

‘Try one’ A’Mhara beckonned, as if I needed any prompting. As my teeth sunk into the freshness and my lips became covered with the sweetness I wondered how Rembrandt felt when someone took a bite out of ‘Nightwatch’. If A’Mhara had any attachment to her work she had better get over it real quick because I’m going in for a second dip.

‘Take one home for Christine’ she offered.

‘Sure, she’d love one’ I lied. This is one piece of art Christine will never lay her eyes on. ‘Only one?’ I thought. I wouldn’t like the rest to get stale. Still, I didn’t want to appear greedy and I could always buy some.

As I left A’Mhara to the remaining dozen, I reminded myself of my own prejudices and how they have changed. My narrow view of art with it’s traditional limitations is slowly being demolished. No longer is art perceived as an object produced by aging artisans in airy attics to be sold at high prices or grace the walls of our galleries. A’Mhara has pointed out quite clearly that art can be expressed in the most edible forms, prepared with precision for even the most ordinary sole like mine and express the artists feelings and passion about the seemingly mundane parts of every day life.

Thanks for that, A’Mhara.


A’Mhara managed to feed the soles of quite a few people at the Christmas Craft Extravaganza in December. There are about three hundred art lovers out there who couldn’t possibly look at a cupcake in the same old way again. Two gentlemen passed me on one occasion, artwork in mouth, drawing straws on who would return to A'Mhara's stall to make the first marriage proposal.

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