A few months ago, Dana Sherwood went shopping for a dinner party. On her list were pigs' tails, a three-foot ox liver, a whole chicken and mangoes. She spent a week preparing an al fresco feast including carne de sol and traditional Brazilian street meats. Then, on the appointed evening, her guests arrived one by one: an ocelot, a fox, bats and blue morpho butterflies. Tropical falcons swooped down and snatched bits of fish off a platter.
For Sherwood, an artist whose work involves cooking elaborate meals for animals all around the world, it was a resounding success. “My favorite part was getting that ocelot. I hesitated about putting the raw chicken out because that’s so taboo for humans, but it ended up being the most enticing thing,” she says. “That’s my main concern, how can I get their interest?”
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I’m interested in the cross-section of nature and culture ... I think of the animals as collaborators.
Sherwood, a former pastry chef, studies the foods appropriate for local species, then designs a menu accordingly and watches as the animals feast on her sculptural creations. Afterward, she displays photographs, videos and watercolors based on the meals. Her latest body of work—from a meaty picnic in the Brazilian savanna—will go on view at Denny Gallery in New York from January 10 to February 21.
“I’m interested in the cross-section of nature and culture, and I find that elaborate food design illustrates this idea perfectly,” Sherwood says. “I think of the animals as collaborators.” In the past, she has baked a 14-layer cake for mice, grilled grasshoppers for baboons, sculpted birdseed gelatin molds and flipped pancakes for reindeer. Her favorite dinner guests may be raccoons, because “they’re not afraid of anything.”
One of her biggest surprises came not in the wilds of Norway or South Africa, but in her own backyard, in Westbury, Long Island. Sherwood had never seen wildlife while she was growing up in the suburban hamlet, and her family never secured their trash cans at night. But when she left out a home-cooked meal one evening, she was delighted to find raccoons and foxes emerging, seemingly out of nowhere. “That’s one of the most interesting things, to find out how wild our cultivated, developed spaces actually are,” she says.
Other times she finds that, despite her grand efforts, animals behave just like people. More often than not, they'll take pizza and cake over locally sourced vegetables and seeds. But that doesn't mean you should try this at home, Sherwood says. “No, no. I don’t condone feeding animals willy-nilly!”