May 16, 2014

Spotlight: Dayna Safferstein
The wildly wonderful (and delicious) world of Dayna Safferstein.

Whales and bears, cantalopes and pokemon cards! Nudes and great danes and salmon! These are the contents of Dayna Safferstein’s illustrations. She dabbles in printmaking, focuses in drawing and throws some watercolors in between, imbuing every bit of her work with the same sense of play and ease. She has created character studies of her friends in the form of “survival kits,” and has built a “Create Your Own Adventure” game for friends and nature-enthusiasts. She's been known to bring home a pineapple in the dead of winter (on one or two occasions), loves vegetables, the color orange, shower tunes, and really, above all else, Cooks Illustrated magazines.

Right now Dayna is concocting a cookbook with her close bud and fellow in food-justice activism, Maximus Thaler. The book tackles the question, “what do I cook with the contents in my refrigerator?” with plenty of suggestions and a sense of immediate practicality. Dayna’s drawings for the book include piles of lentils, bunches of cauliflower and skins of avocados. Each is rendered in detail, with beautiful colors and textures that make us, well, hungry. We chatted with Dayna about her spirit animal, affinity for games, and creative process.

THE LE SIGH: Introduce yourself!

Dayna Safferstein: I'm Dayna Safferstein, an illustrator and adventurer. I love the color orange and I think little tree car fresheners are the perfect form. I live in Brooklyn right now and my favorite thing to draw is food. I see games in everything and I consider myself a scientist. My first book is coming out this fall. It's called A Curious Harvest: The Practical Art of Cooking Everything, written by Maximus Thaler, illustrated by yours truly.

TLS: What are your top five favorite art supplies? Have any materials in particular changed your process and really allowed you to grow into your style?

DS: Staedtler Triplus Fineliner Pens, Bristol Smooth Paper, Handbook Sketchbooks, Micron Pens and Cretacolor Watercolor Pencils. The Staedtler pens have given me confidence in my lines--I rarely sketch anymore. I just dive right in and oftentimes things turn out wonky and misshapen but I wouldn’t want them any other way.

TLS: Who are your favorite illustrators right now? What other artists do you super like a lot?

DS: Illustrators: Julia Rothman, Maira Kalman, Lindsay Mound, Claudia Pearson, Stacey Rozich, Lieke van der Vorst and Charlie Harper. I love Wes Anderson, big time. Somehow I didn’t really discover Wes Anderson until this year. Many aspects of his cinematography remind me of my work: his "here's the plan" scenes in particular. I want my work to say "here's the plan," and then give you a slightly nonsensical but rigidly organized sequence of events to follow, that will lead you on some sort of adventure. The flatness of Wes Anderson’s shots also greatly appeals to me (see my survival kit series and my general rejection of backgrounds), as well as his whimsy, his color schemes and the fact that he is a world-builder. Each detail is considered, each detail fits within the film perfectly.

TLS: What’s your spirit animal?

DS: For the longest time I was a bear. Then I dated another bear for two years and when we broke up being a bear just didn’t feel right anymore. I couldn’t handle bears for a long time, but I made it my New Year's resolution to reclaim my identity as a bear. But now I’m not 100% sure I’m still a bear. What does a bear metamorphose into? Whatever the answer to that question is, that is what I am.

TLS: Your book A Curious Harvest is coming out this fall, published by Quarry books. How did this project come about? Can you describe the process of illustrating a book? What’s the best recipe in the book?

DS: It all started in the Crafts House at Tufts University. It’s this hippie co-op type special interest house where I lived officially for a year and unofficially squatted for another year, sort of. We ran the Crafts Center at Tufts, threw crazy themed parties like Cosmic-Sonic-Narnia, and cooked dinners open to the entire Tufts campus every night. This is where I met Maximus. In the spring of 2013 Maximus got a lot of attention worldwide for starting a Kickstarter to raise money to start a dumpster diving kitchen. Maximus is a freegan (I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him pay for anything) and is all about changing the way we equate price with worth, especially when it comes to food. The amount of food that's thrown away daily from grocery stores is enormous, and the role of the Gleaner’s Kitchen was to create a community in the wake of that waste - to take the still perfectly edible and delicious food, deemed unsellable and tossed out, and use it to fuel a new system of exchange based on a different kind of worth. A world where food was given for free in exchange for art, music, manual labor or good company.

But anyway, Maximus was all over the radio and the news for Gleaner’s Kitchen, and the editors at Quarry sent him an email asking if they could come to dinner. So we cooked up a huge dinner, and also a pitch for a book. This was maybe in April, and by June we had a book deal. This was an absolute dream come true for me because my favorite thing to draw is and has always been food. So I spent about two months doing nothing but drawing food, day in and day out. And then of course I got to eat the food after I drew it, so I got to try all kinds of weird things - the weirdest was yukka which pretty much tastes like a potato.

I can’t really tell you what the best recipe in the book is because it's not really a recipe book that tells you, “go out and get this, this and this to make this.” It's more of a create-your-own adventure cook book that tells you, “oh, you have onions? If you also have beets you can make this, but if you don’t have beets and instead you have lamb, you can make this...” My favorite is Maximus's solution to “if you have tofu, onions, garlic, and a slew of assorted spices and sauces.” This makes a really killer tofu dish that is impossible to get wrong, I swear. It tastes incredible every time and the beauty of it is that there's so much room for error, so much room for substituting ingredients, and every single time it's delicious.

TLS: Do you think you’ll be drawing more foods in the future, or are you more drawn to other subjects?

DS: You’d think I’d be over drawing food by now. Weirdly, I’m not at all over food. My dream job right now is held by a man named John Burgoyne. He draws the back covers for Cooks Illustrated (and I believe the inside black and white illustrations as well). Every issue has the most exquisitely illustrated collection of a specific type of food on the back. One issue will be “potatoes,” and another will be “citrus,” etc. I drool just looking at them. I don’t only like to draw food though. I love drawing field guides and collections. I want to create a series of patches (along with tasks you have to complete in order to earn the patches) inspired by the Girl Scouts.

TLS: What projects are you currently working on? What are your dream projects or collaborations?

DS: Right now I’m working on marketing my book. Because I’m all about making games, I’m turning the blog tour into a scavenger hunt. Each blog will have an illustrated prompt, requiring audience participation, and the best responses will win prizes, such as free signed copies of Curious Harvest and signed prints of my food drawings. For instance, one prompt is going to be something like, “you know that item that's been in the back of your fridge forever? Take it out. Cook something with it. Photograph it.” If it's a cooking blog, the challenges will be cooking related. A radical blog? A dumpstering challenge. An art blog? I’ll probably do something like send you to a market and have you document things through drawings. And there will be a clue on each blog that will tie together at the end for the final challenge. I’m really excited. I live for this stuff.

TLS: What would be in your survival kit if you were to make it today?

DS: Plastic vampire teeth, a car freshener, a ghost (the classic Halloween style), chapstick, a meatball, a Triplus pen (orange), a brussel sprout and a small ceramic bear figurine. Specific to this very moment, there would also be a falafel in my kit. I really want a falafel and I’m super hungry and I just got back from traveling yesterday so I don’t have any groceries.

TLS: When and where do you feel most inspired and productive? What gets your creative juices flowing?

DS: I get most inspired when I’m surrounded by things I'm in awe of. I never travel to a new city without visiting its outdoor market, because the displays of colorful food overwhelm me with an urgent need to draw. Most recently, I got crazy inspired in Portland, Oregon when I visited Powell’s home and garden bookstore. Food porn. All of it. And the entire anthology of Cooks Illustrated magazine, bound into a set of books that I will soon own, mark my word. My roommates will likely kill me for bringing what is essentially a small encyclopedia set into our tiny Brooklyn apartment. It’s worth the sacrifice. I love bookstores also because of all the little illustrated nicknacks they sell. You know, the impulse buys? The books and dishtowels and stationary. Yes those - they are brilliant.

TLS: What do you hope people will take away from your work?

DS: I hope my work inspires people to interact more playfully with their world; lose their breath over the perfection of a Little Trees Car Freshener, create a field guide for their bathroom, appreciate the things they see everyday all the time and then fuck with them, make themselves and other people see them differently. I worked at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side for some time this year, and I always wanted to make a game called “Regular Bingo” where we had all the regular customers shuffled onto bingo boards, and every employee working at the time would get a bingo board and we would check the regulars off when they came in. This plan was foiled when we realized that because we didn’t know most of the customers’ names, we all thought of them differently in our heads. One person’s “cinnamon raisin bagel with scallion cream cheese guy” is another person’s “guy with the neck-beard who might be a chef.” The point of this story was that when you mess around with the everyday, you can never, ever be bored.

TLS: Let’s talk about your sketchbooks. Do you keep separate journals for drawing and writing?

DS: I’m in the process of creating a time capsule for myself. Not really, well, maybe someday, but I’m intentionally leaving a record of my existence. I’m not sure who it's for just yet. My method is two-fold. One: every morning I get up and the first thing I do as I’m sitting on the toilet is type up exactly what I did the previous day. All of my days, for three years now, are recorded on a website called "Oh Life." They used to send me my day from a year ago with every email, but I disabled that because I felt like I was living in the past. I suppose this inspires me to do really exciting things so my days will be worth reading about, although I hadn’t thought of that until just now.

Two: I keep sketchbooks, meticulously, and I have for about six years now. I go through about two a year. I have a library of them. The way I make sure I’m always working in them is I don’t make them precious. They’re filled with to-do lists, life plans, bubble charts sorting out my weekly mid-life crises. If my sketchbook was reserved for finished drawings I would never write it in. That’s why I use it more of as a place to collect thoughts and images that inspire me. When I’m looking for inspiration I flip back to the beginning and take pieces I like from old drawings: oh, I like this font, this color combo is good, this is a nice pattern. So everything is constantly working upon itself. I consider my sketchbook my toolkit, so when it’s time to create a finished piece, I have all these tiny inspirations ready to combine.


Earth, wind, or fire? Earth
Cerulean blue or tangerine orange? Tangerine orange, duh
Hiking in a forest or swimming in a sea? Hiking in a forest (with a pond to jump in at the end)
Hunting bears or gathering berries? Gathering berries
Flora or fauna? Flora probably? No I want both
Maira Kalman or Julia Rothman? Maira Kalman, right now. Ask me tomorrow and I might say Julia Rothman.
Old leather hatbox or mangy little knapsack? Mangy little knapsack
Wild Belle or Alex Winston? Wild Belle
East Village or Greenpoint? East Village
Blank moleskine page or graph rhodia paper? Handbook! Paper is thicker. I love graph paper but rhodia & moleskine aren’t thick enough
MoMA PS1 or Brooklyn Museum? Museum of Natural History!

Check out more of Dayna Safferstein’s work here.

Anna Furman is a girl doodling and noodling around Brooklyn, New York. She archives Warhol polaroids during the day and dabbles in whiskey drinking and wax casting at night. She believes that most existential problems can be solved by consuming chocolate and Vitamin D. She makes jewelry.