by Claudia Opper
Print by Jane O'Neal. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Seemingly suspended in air, a persimmon is the prominent subject of this Jane O’Neal print. Though the work shows a singular food item, its presence in the frame is provocative. Representing the fruit larger than life accentuates the aging process that happens immediately after picking a persimmon off a tree. Consequently, it invites viewers to ponder an important aspect of a feast: even when dishes are stripped to their most simplistic forms, to eat we must kill.
The fruit is propped up so that the stem and leaves point towards the spectator. In an analysis of the O’Neal gallery where this work originally appeared, Shana Nys Dambrot remarked, “Eerily, it is also clear that nothing on display is still alive.” The shriveled leaves appear to already be brown at the edges. Instead of focusing on the plump, juicy flesh fit for consumption, one is asked to consider the part of the fruit that is not edible, but also is imperative nonetheless.
This calls into question an interesting process in the act of dining and feasting. Food is necessary for sustenance, for human life. Yet, in order for humans and other animals to fuel themselves, they must consume organic matter. There is much precedent in showing sacrifices required to eat in literature and film. In a work as fundamental as the Old Testament’s Genesis, a stay in the Garden of Eden was given up for a bite of the forbidden fruit. In more recent years, the townspeople in the film Chocolat (2000) trade in tradition for the enjoyment of chocolate. O’Neal focuses on a more rudimentary connection between feasting and trade-offs. By prominently displaying the part of the persimmon that once allowed the fruit to form, one realizes that the fruit has been plucked from its life source for the purpose of nourishing someone else. While people may more commonly associate killing as part of the food preparation process when meat is involved, harvesting produce can also be viewed as an act of where something must be cut off from its life source before it can be used in a meal. Seeing one piece of isolated fruit invites thoughts about how much time and energy was involved in creating and killing what serve as basic ingredients that might otherwise be ignored when feasters are inundated with the remaining components of a feasting experience.
So why a persimmon? Why was the persimmon chosen to convey these messages of life, decay, and sustenance? O’Neal has not directly commented on her choice of subject. Although not a staple fruit in America, persimmons are native to Asia and have been grown in the Mediterranean for over a century (Morton). Known as kaki in Japanese, the persimmon is especially prevalent in Japan (“The Many Uses of the Delicious Kaki (Japanese Persimmon”). There, it is prized for both being ready-to-eat as soon as one cuts into the fruit and for its many uses post-fermentation. Since the fruit holds value soon after it is separated from the Earth and once it has time to chemically change after a fermenting process, the persimmon appears as an excellent choice for showing how all meals include trade-offs; even produce must be separated from its energy source in order to then to provide sustenance for feasting animals.
Dambrot, Shana Nys. “Jane O’Neal.” Nihilesentimentalgia, 27 Feb. 2012, nihilsentimentalgia.com/2012/02/27/%E2%94%90-jane-oneal-%E2%94%94/.
Morton, Julia F. “Japanese Persimmon.” Japanese Persimmon, Purdue, 2020, hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/japanese_persimmon.html.
“The Many Uses of the Delicious Kaki (Japanese Persimmon).” Japan Info, 7 Dec. 2015, jpninfo.com/35207.