As a youngster, Sandra Marshall would sit at the family dinner table playing with her food.
Rather than demand their daughter stop it, her parents, Elaine and Richard Davis, set a rule: she could play with her food as long as she also ate it.
Even then, her parents could see she wasn’t mindlessly pushing the peas and potatoes around her plate; she was creating childlike artworks with them.
Food was her palate and her plate, her canvas.
The creative parenting directive paid off.
Now a mother of two teens, Marshall is gaining social media renown for playing with food. Only now she’s a creative vegetable food artist with Facebook and Instagram fans worldwide.
On Facebook alone she is nearing 10,000 followers.
“And it’s all been organic, I haven’t spent a dime,” she said, laughing at the unintended pun.
In her hands, iceberg lettuce, dates and sweet potatoes morph into Baby Yoda; eggplant becomes Darth Vader; watermelon works into a very red-faced, bespeckled male portrait that everyone seems to think resembles any number of people; and onion, eggplant, avocado, mushrooms and more evolve into a spot-on likeness of Kim Jong titled “Where is Kim Jong Onion?”
“I have a whole line of political dinner art. I don’t post them often as it is hard to digest in too many ways,” she said. “I get in trouble for some of my political art.”
Her friends are enthralled and enthusiastic.
One even sent special produce for Marshall to use in a work, using Fed Ex to send tiny red onions from which Marshall fashioned a stunning peacock that adorns the cover of her 2020 calendar.
Yet, like her first book, “One Hot Night at the Veggie Bar,” the calendar quickly sold out.
That first book, 65-pages of racy veggie artworks meant for adult viewing, sold out in its first printing.
“We’re going to do another edition,” said Marshall. “I have two other books coming out too – one a food art children’s book with sing-song poetry and another which will be a mixture of what I’ve put on Facebook but in high-res photos.”
Marshall’s plant-based artworks are also accompanied by an equally-engaging story.
“There’s always a story with these pieces,” she explained. “Some of them short stories, some of them long, but always a story.”
She said most of the stories come to her during or immediately following sleep.
She uses only vegetables for her food art. Some, like eggplant and some mushroom varieties, were new to her but attracted her due to their color or shapes.
She said most of her family members try to follow a plant-based diet – a practice inspired by her daughter, who, at age 5, announced she was no longer eating meat.
“We could see she was serious, even at this young age, so I started researching plant-based eating. Our family is pretty much plant-based eaters now,” said Marshall.
But how does one get to from preparing dinner with vegetables to making art out of them?
Marshall said it harkens to her childhood food play – and the stories that accompany her food art does the same.
“I used to write poetry as a kid about why I didn’t want to clean my room. My parents said if the poems were deemed good enough, I didn’t have to clean it. And my room was usually messy,” she laughed.
Those far-sighted parents now live in Sun Lakes and are, according to Marshall, “my biggest fans.”
Marshall holds a degree in early childhood education from Arizona State University, and in 2014 opened Be... An Artist Studio in the Trader Joe’s shopping plaza in Ahwatukee.
“I closed that last June and started Tiny Mobile Studios, which brought art instruction and supplies to children’s parties and gatherings. Of course, that’s going nowhere during COVID, so I’ve had more time to concentrate on my food art,” she said.
Her artwork - most so detailed they often look like a painting – aren’t wasted or tossed away. Instead, they are incorporated into the family dinner.
Her recent sculpture of “Rosemary,” who is described in the accompanying story as learning to reset during COVID quarantine, had her cauliflower hair “baked with balsamic and garlic” and served for dinner to her family.
“These artworks are my bonus before I make dinner,” she said. “I don’t love cooking, but I do when I put these together first.”
And she said she generally sets out with an image in mind, prompted by the vegetables before her, but there are others that evolve of themselves.
“Usually I know what I’m going to do with a piece, but not always. The watermelon man portrait is a good example; I wasn’t planning on carving him, he was just there,” she said.
She praises her husband, attorney Greg Marshall, for encouraging her to play with her food – an helping her in the kitchen.
“My husband is a great cook – in fact, he cooks more than I do. When we need to eat, he cooks,” she said.
She estimates she’s done innumerable food art pieces.
“I’ve done hundreds and hundreds by now,” admitted Marshall.
“We’re a very creative family, and we’re actually embracing this quarantine. My daughter is designing and sewing her own clothes for school, my son builds computers – an expensive hobby but he’s good at it – and my husband relocated his law office to our house,” she said.
Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Marshall has also launched another project, this one to help her neighbors discover their own hidden art talents.
“We’re making painting kits and delivering in Ahwatukee,” she said. “We provide hand-sketched canvases of whatever a person wants. They can provide a photo or we can use general items like dolphins, sunsets, favorite characters or sports teams, etc.,” said Marshall.
“After we draw it on canvas, we deliver it along with painting kits that include an easel, brushes, and all the custom colors,” she explained. “We text the buyer before we leave our home, then text them when the kit arrives at their door.”
The canvases are available in sizes up to 16’ x 20.’ The cost is $29 for the pre-sketched canvas and paint, $10 for gently-used fold-up easels and new brush sets for $7.
All can be paid through Venmo and PayPal.
“We’re now also offering pottery items that are non-food safe and can be painted with acrylic colors,” she said. “We have things like night lights, fancy boxes, piggy banks, dinosaurs and more.”
Marshall’s fans are world-wide, and she said she and her family keep a map pinpointing the social media responses.
“It really helps me see the world is so small,” she said. “I get responses from South America, Australia, Germany, India, really from all over the world.”