Artistic Expression in the Produce Aisle

Katie Lanciano

hide captionIn-store artist Katie Lanciano studied jewelry making and sculpture in art school.

Neda Ulaby, NPR
Cod fillet sign i i

hide captionA seafood department blackboard decorated in art deco style by Katie Lanciano.

Katie Lanciano
Cod fillet sign

A seafood department blackboard decorated in art deco style by Katie Lanciano.

Katie Lanciano
Meat department sign i i

hide captionIn-store artists use local flavor and irreverent humor.

Katie Lanciano
Meat department sign

In-store artists use local flavor and irreverent humor.

Katie Lanciano
Trader Joe's display i i

hide captionIdiosyncratic signs were common in the small stores that big chains replaced.

Courtesy of Trader Joe's
Trader Joe's display

Idiosyncratic signs were common in the small stores that big chains replaced.

Courtesy of Trader Joe's

Artists found work during the Italian Renaissance with powerful families like the Medicis. Now, some artists are being supported by companies that sell Florentine cookies, as two large upscale grocery chains employ hundreds of in-store artists.

Whole Foods Markets employs a full-time artist at each of its 183 stores in the United States. Another national chain, Trader Joe's, uses mostly part-time artists at each of its 263 stores. Both companies provide their artists with health benefits, a starting salary of around $13 an hour and a store discount.

In Philadelphia's Callowhill neighborhood, artist Katie Lanciano inscribes blackboards at the Whole Foods Market with hand lettering and original artwork. She could use stock pictures of fruit and farmers that the company keeps on hand, but says she'd rather reflect Philadelphia life. When a Salvador Dali exhibition opened in town, she drew cow skulls and dripping clocks on the store's chalkboards.

Lanciano started working at Whole Foods nine years ago, making smoothies at the juice bar, and worked there while attending art school, where she studied jewelry making and sculpture. Now she's known as a grocery-store chalkboard artist. She says, "It's like a revolving gallery. People get to see my artwork every day."

Kelly Towles, a former Whole Foods artist, is an in-store artist success story, having learned to manage invoices, deadlines and commissions. His graffiti-inspired work is on display at the David Adamson Gallery in Washington, D.C.

"I learned to manage myself a lot," Towles says. "If you're an artist, no matter how grungy graffiti you think you are, you need to learn how to be business-oriented."

Lanciano says her time drawing on Whole Foods chalkboards has paid off in a way few artists expect — with company stock. "The stocks I got from Whole Foods bought my house," she says.

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