Sustenance: A Fine Art exhibition as part of the Living Lab

This semester, a group of seven Fine Art students opted to join the Living Lab and make a collaborative response to issues around the food system, together with their lecturer Helen Turner. The result was SUSTENANCE, an installation, an exhibition, a provocation, a banquet, an experience. Students fashioned vessels and ritual objects, dyed tablecloths with foodstuffs, inscribed their food memories on the walls. The exhibition explored the social and sensory experience of shared eating, but also made a particularly sharp comment on food insecurity, social class divisions and their impact on wellbeing.

Here Fine Art student Sam Keane and Living Lab intern Meg Padgett reflect on the process and its outcome. Photographs by ISJ intern Matthew Peyton.

A student’s memories of family values and family tensions expressed at the dinner table

Artist’s reflection on the process, by Sam Keane, 2nd year Fine Art student

The exhibition for me was an opportunity to talk openly about food poverty. To ponder on British values, on food. Women’s roles within the kitchen and – in a pivotal moment in time – what if that history repeats itself?

Balls of gruel covered in chocolate, reflecting tensions between luxury and poverty in York

Looking at British history of food poverty we quickly discovered how food had previously been used as a power tool, particularly gruel. It was used as a deterrent and as a method of controlling people. These poor people who had no choice but to enter the workhouse, often only for being born in such a time. It resonates deeply with today’s food crisis. We are facing the government having control and making people choose between eating and heating both equally important and both simple human rights. We are in a time of Internet and technological advances people back then couldn’t have even imagined. Yet here we are, working class, upper working class, struggling to get by. Each member of the public thinking about what will stop the cost-of-living crisis soaring more.

People are on well-paid salaries yet struggling to get through each week. Soaring in debt. To me it resulted in the idea of the Victorian era only wanting the world to be decided by the very rich and they would have all the power. No more middle class. My work highlights the issues of the past and give people a moment to consider are we heading back that way. Who thought tax cuts for the richest was a good idea? This trip into the past only enlightens what the future could hold unless the working-class fight back. We fight for the right to both eat and be warm. That the government could hold food as power, and we be left with

Students made ceramic vessels and hand-printed napkins exploring the themes and taboos of dinner table talk

nothing but a mark in history until something is done. The world isn’t okay now so let’s highlight and talk about the issues and start making changes. 

 I’d like to thank the Living Lab for the opportunity to work with this difficult subject of food poverty in Britain. It’s been enlightening and hopefully started to create change. 

Exhibition Review by Meg Padgett, ISJ Living Lab intern

One of the key things for me in being a part of the Living Lab is the opportunities it provides for students to connect their subjects and own practice to real world, ecological issues. This is inspiring to see as it allows us all to understand how we can take our passions and relate them to any issue. With the current focus of the Living Lab being around ‘feeding the campus,’ and reshaping food systems, this offers an opportunity for students across a range of modules to explore their own feelings and experiences in relation to food.

Recently, a group of Fine Art students put together an exhibition, ‘Sustenance: a Fine Art exhibition as part of the Living Lab,’ that explored the topic of food, and their own personal connections and relations to food. The exhibition is a key example of how the Living Lab can invite us to come together, all to focus on and discuss this topic.

Laid out partially like a banquet, the room of the exhibition had an opening and exciting atmosphere as soon I walked in. The energy of the room, and the artwork, made it truly clear to me how passionate the students were about their work on this exhibition. The banquet table was an open place for us to sit, share food and drink, and share our feelings in response to the exhibition. This element of the shared table was lovely as it became a place to sit and reflect on the artwork around us, opening conversations between everyone.

The students and their lecturer seated at the exhibition's banquet table

The banquet table, complete with chocolate-coated gruel and selections of fruit!


As part of the exhibition, there was food and drink for us all to share. The inclusion of the chocolate-coated gruel stood out to me, as with Gruel often being a food we associate with poverty, this immediately provoked me to begin thinking about food poverty in and around my own experiences. Throughout my role, I have been interested in helping students understand how to deal with their emotional responses to these issues, therefore this was a key moment for me. Even more so through my time so far with the Living Lab and seeing what the different modules are doing in response, it has become clear to me that collaboration and sharing is vital to discussing these topics!     

Cards painted with foodstuffs reflecting students’ home food cultures

Written on the doors, there were various personal, real-life stories based around people’s experiences of food and their relationships with food. These stories surrounding the room struck me, as they brought to light how important it is to share stories with one another, and truly displayed the different connections we all might have with food. In surrounding the room, the stories were constantly reminding us that food is something we can all relate to and connect with.  This exhibition is a key example of how we can bring people together, and I hope to continue these feelings of community and collaboration going forward.


Following conversations facilitated by SUSTENANCE and in other Living Lab events, the project will be taking a close focus on food poverty and the cost of living crisis over the coming months – so watch this space.