Baguettes are heaven, but would you buy one you couldn’t eat? You may be shaking your head no, but people are doing just that: Not-for-consumption loaves of bread are flying off the shelves at a fancy deli in New York City. The same goes for inedible spring onions and clams you can’t digest.
It’s all art. And consumers are proverbially gobbling the goods up.
British artist Lucy Sparrow opened a new exhibition, “Delicatessen on 6th,” in Rockefeller Center earlier this month. The immersive installation is fully stocked with soft sculptures made of felt. Step foot inside and you’ll find food items native to a luxury grocery store — oysters, mussels, croissants, cheese, canned goods, all manner of produce — except each item is stuffed and cuddly, with two black eyes and tiny smile. Just picture your favorite childhood teddy bear … now imagine it’s a butternut squash.
Sparrow’s inventory is striking: She began the show with some 30,000 items. The pieces are available for purchase, and prices won’t make you wince. The cheapest item (a tiny shrimp) is $5, and the most expensive (a lobster) is $200. Affordability is immensely important to the artist.
“I don’t come from a rich background,” Sparrow, 33, says. “I love art. I always wanted to see art in everyday life.” She wants her work to be attainable. “Art shouldn’t be for people who have loads of money or that come from nice backgrounds,” she adds. Instead, “it should be for absolutely everyone, and it should be approachable. It shouldn’t be like, ‘oh, this art is super intelligent. You wouldn’t be able to understand it.’”
Anne Ellegood, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, says the financial accessibility of Sparrow’s work is “really refreshing.”
“Most mainstream press about the art market ends up being about pieces that sell for exorbitant amounts of money at auction,” she adds. Sparrow strives to maintain price points “that everybody could afford, potentially. You don’t see a lot of that, honestly.”
The installation’s setting — in a commercial complex, with shops, offices and attractions, rather than an art gallery — also adds to its reach. “People are going to just bump into it,” Ellegood notes, even if they “have no intention of going to see art.” For Sparrow’s work, “that seems quite important, that it’s more integrated with the urban landscape.”
Last year, in Los Angeles, the artist mounted a similar “Sparrow Mart,” with 31,000 felt groceries. Items ranged from bubble gum to toilet paper to Frosted Flakes. In 2017, she opened her first New York installation, “8 ‘Till Late,” a fake bodega filled with felt wares that was forced to close nine days early because she sold out of art. (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Vagisil and Heinz ketchup were among the items to sell out within hours of the show’s opening day.)
Ellegood views Sparrow’s work as having “important ties to certain projects that came before her, that have to do with similarly creating an environment that people experience in this holistic way.” She singled out Liza Lou’s “Kitchen,” which Ellegood describes as a “landmark feminist” piece from the ’90s.
“Liza Lou created a full-scale, one-to-one kitchen, where every single object in the kitchen is covered with beads,” she says. The work utilized “craft traditions that aren’t always associated with the most avant-garde, contemporary artistic practices.”
“I think she was trying to push the contemporary art world to, in some sense, take beading as seriously as they take painting,” Ellegood continues. “And it seems to me that Lucy is doing something similar with felting.”
Back in Britain, in 2015, Sparrow garnered attention for “Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium,” a London sex shop furnished with carnal paraphernalia (condoms, lubricant, vibrators — all composed of felt). Her breakout show, “The Cornershop,” was held in 2014. Success came “overnight.”
“I sort of went from earning about 7 pounds an hour working as a receptionist to actually having to establish my own company to sort of process the funds and the money that I made from selling stuff,” she says of the 2014 installation, which was funded by a U.K. Arts Council grant and a Kickstarter campaign. “I actually have never been back to work a proper job,” Sparrow adds. She supports herself with her art.
In the workshop she calls her “felt cave,” which is attached to her house in Suffolk, several miles east of Cambridge, “there’s fabric absolutely everywhere,” she says. Bins brim with scraps. “It actually looks a bit like a child’s playpen. That’s all I can liken it to.”
Long before her stateside installations, British shows, receptionist gig and her time as an exotic dancer — she danced for five years, from roughly 2007 to 2012 — Sparrow was clear on her desired career. She has always wanted to be a felt artist.
“I’ve always known, from when I was a really young kid, that this is what I wanted to do,” she says. As a child, she was drawn to “cuddly but unexpected” objects.
She didn’t like teddy bears; she liked stuffed spiders. She liked cuddly food. These sorts of “unusual” objects weren’t readily available in stores, so she learned how to sew her own. One of her earliest creations, constructed around age 6, wasn’t made of felt, but it did imitate a common item. She crafted a pair of shoes “completely out of candy wrappers and sellotape, and I made the soles out of cardboard, and I used to wear them around the street where I lived,” she says, adding: “I just thought I was the best thing ever, I was like, ‘I made my own shoes.’”
Another childhood objet d’art marked a harbinger of what was to come. “I made a fried egg and sausages and bacon, and then I used to take them into the bed with me at night,” she says. (Cuddly breakfast is not a far cry from cuddly groceries.)
Sparrow’s art may be easily recognizable — one doesn’t need an art background to understand a plush rye bagel or a can of beans — but on a “higher level,” she says, her exhibitions create “an entire fake world.”
“I was quite a weird kid, and I think I definitely felt shut out by a lot of the world because of my own weirdness,” Sparrow says.
In her work, she aims to construct “an alternative world that is softer, is simpler. It’s an escape from the real world.” A departure from the present. “More than anything,” she thinks, “that’s what art is about.”
“Delicatessen on 6th” is on view at Rockefeller Center in New York, through Oct. 20. The installation is open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.