Turning Food Into Art
This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Image above courtesy of Christine Tobin.
Christine Tobin is an accomplished illustrator and sculptor whose artwork has been displayed in galleries in New York City and Boston. But after studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University (SMFA at Tufts) (DIP '98) and Tufts (BFA '05), her career took an unexpected turn into the world of food styling.
Ever wonder why the food you see in a movie, magazine, or cookbook makes your mouth water? That's a food stylist's job. These professionals—usually chefs—style and arrange plates to look as appealing as possible when being filmed or photographed.
Tobin first worked as a food stylist on a cookbook published in 2006. She subsequently branched out into commercials for the likes of Pizza Hut and Dunkin' Donuts and then Hollywood films such as "Black Mass," "American Hustle," and last year's "Little Women."
Her interdisciplinary studies at SMFA, Tobin noted, still shape her work today. "It's sculpture, it's design, it's painting. It's all of it. But you just happen to be able to eat it," she said.
A Lifelong Love of Food and the Arts
Growing up in the Boston suburb of Holliston, Massachusetts, Tobin was always around delicious food. Her mom and her Sicilian-bred grandmother were serious cooks, and the family regularly got together with neighbors to share lavish feasts featuring menus from various parts of the world. Tobin often assisted in the kitchen, with salads her specialty.
Her interest in art goes back to her youth as well. She was the kind of child who would spend hours working on a painting. In high school, she struggled in most of her classes—but not the arts. After moving to Cape Cod for her final two years of high school, she went on to graduate from Endicott College with an associate degree in graphic design.
While waiting tables and taking continuing education classes in art, Tobin became friendly with co-worker Oliver Nikolic, an SMFA alumnus. Nikolic was impressed by her printmaking skills and encouraged her to meet with an SMFA admissions counselor. She was accepted and began classes in 1994.
Over the next four years, Tobin explored printmaking, papermaking, sculpture, and video performance. She came to appreciate the strong sense of camaraderie within the Museum School community.
"It was a building filled with misfits who were creative geniuses and wanted to get excited about art and excite each other," she said. "I fell in with a group of people who were hardworking artists, took it seriously, went to each other's critiques, gave each other studio visits, and just supported one other."
Discovering Food Styling
After completing the Studio Diploma program, focusing on sculpture, Tobin received a traveling scholarship, which helped her fund her BFA in fine art from SMFA. Next came over six years as a waitress at Cambridge's Oleana restaurant, where she had the good fortune to work with renowned chef Ana Sortun.
"It was so beautiful to see how she was plating food. I got the opportunity to watch her do that and understand how the food was being presented," Tobin said. "She had this focus and concentration, just as any artist would. That triggered something in me. I realized that this was art."
Sortun later asked Tobin to work on Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean, the chef's first cookbook. Following that project, Tobin worked with a photographer and prop stylist on various shoots for advertisements, product packaging, and food magazines.
One day in 2012, Tobin received a call from a prop master looking for a food stylist for "Labor Day," a film starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that was being shot in New England. Food stylist John Carafoli, her mentor and a fellow SMFA alum, had passed on her name.
Tobin got the gig, which included a rather steamy pie scene. She has since worked on 16 more films and TV shows, calling "Little Women," and the chance to work with director Greta Gerwig ("she's a goddess; just lovely"), one of the highlights.
SMFA Made a Mark on Her
Reflecting on the 20-plus years that have passed since graduating, Tobin said that SMFA fostered in her certain qualities and skills that have contributed to her success.
"My work ethic definitely has something to do with SMFA," she said. "And my classmates were a big influence. Through review boards with peers and mentors, you developed the confidence to present your work, talk about your process, and explain the importance of what you wanted to create and share. And on the flip side, there's being able to take constructive criticism and defend your work."
As the key food stylist for Christopher Kimball's Milk Street, Tobin works on shoots for the organization's cookbook, magazine, and TV show. She's also on set for the pilot of "Julia," a potential HBO Max miniseries about one of her childhood heroes, chef and television personality Julia Child.
"There are definitely times when I'm aware of how my SMFA experience comes into my work now," she said. "For 'Julia,' I have to put together these mood boards and storyboards of my ideas. If someone asks about a decision I've made, why I think Julia would have done something in particular, I have to defend my stance.
"Being able to articulate what I'm thinking—that all goes back to when I was first having to talk about process and art at SMFA."