Partner Profile: Meet Mike Geno, Cheese Artist

Cheese has been a staple on our plates for millennia but rarely has it been elevated to the stand-alone subject of fine art. That changed in 2012 when Philadelphia artist Mike Geno turned his creative energy toward wedge-shaped beauties. Over the past 5 years, Geno has made a splash painting nearly 300 different cheeses from around the world.

CJ: What inspired you to begin painting pictures of cheese?

MG: “I had been painting images of other foods for a while when a friend gave me a birthday gift card to DiBruno Brothers. I let the cheesemonger lead me through some great cheeses and left with a $25 wedge of Gorwydd Caerphilly. It looked like a big, beautiful piece of cake. I couldn’t see just eating it, so I painted it.

A few months later, I had a show scheduled at a Seattle art gallery and needed a new series of 25 paintings for the show and kept looking at that picture and wondering about a cheese series. As luck would have it, I had met Madame Fromage, Tenaya Darlington (co-host of the Philly/Chester County Cheese Journey), at a foodie potluck and we hit it off. When I had the idea, I called her up to see if there were even 25 cheeses to paint.

It turned out that she lived in my neighborhood and invited me over that night for a tasting. She was excited to teach me about cheese and pairing food and wine. I left with three wedges of cheese which became part of the series and it grew from there.

CJ: How do you choose which cheeses to paint?

MG: Early on, Tenaya and I made weekly Cheese Treks around Philly – to DiBruno Brothers, the Italian Market, Reading Terminal, farm stands and we enjoyed discovering new cheeses. I’d come home with 4 or 5 cheeses which I would paint and then eat. It still happens like that sometimes. I’ve enjoyed painting many of the local cheeses from Birch Run Farm, the Farm at Doe Run and others.

Now, because I have been at it awhile and have met so many great people from the cheese world at different events, cheesemakers will often send me cheese or commission me to do a portrait.

Three years ago, when I was at the Sacramento ACS (American Cheese Society) conference, I started meeting people from the west coast who I hadn’t met previously and they started asking me, how come you don’t have a Colorado cheese or a New Mexico one? I just didn’t see their cheeses all that much. It happened so often that week that I started working on a cheese map where I hope to get a cheese from each state represented. I’m still working on it.

With the amount of interaction with the American Cheese Society, I really started to appreciate what’s going on in this country. It inspired me to want to archive what’s going on.

CJ: How have people responded to your work?

MG: Very early on, Tenaya featured me on her blog. A short while later, Culture Magazine and the Philadelphia Enquirer wrote about me and it really took off from there. A lot of the press that came out the first few years generated a really large audience.

Now I work at doing this full time, I’m not teaching anymore. I’ve used Instagram mostly, it’s a really great platform to share images and get to a really wide audience. The original works and prints have really taken off.

I’ve learned so much about cheese over the last 5 years, from cheesemakers, mongers, people in the business. I didn’t know anything at the beginning. When patrons and customers ask me questions, sometimes they’re kind of embarrassed to not know more. I honestly tell them, I knew nothing a few years ago and this is normal in America. But it’s not intimidating or scary. It works out really well.”

CJ: Tell me about the cheese scene in Chester County and Philadelphia. What can people on our upcoming Cheese Journey look forward to?

MG: In the beginning of my 5 year journey, there were just a few cheesemakers here, but there is a growing community of makers now just outside the city. When I first started visiting, I couldn’t believe how close they were. The connection with Philadelphia and Chester county is just so convenient.

The friendships started developing between all the makers and the mongers and Tenaya is a really great person for connecting people. She connects people with her writing, featuring local, artisanal producers as well as through events like her “Cheese Ball”. We’ve developed a nice community here that goes well with what the city has to offer. There is enough of an audience who buy and support these local makers. It’s a great and symbiotic relationship. You’ll see this when you visit, for sure.

DiBruno Brothers has this really great, ageless charm. It has history but it feels very contemporary at the same time. Getting to experience a private tour of the store where you can point to something, learn about it and try it right there is like one of those dreams when you win a shopping spree. What a great experience!

Visiting the Italian Market is incredible. It feels like you have a lot of history going there and the food that you enjoy will be excellent. Here at my studio, they’ll see the photos and also get to visit an award winning local distillery a block away from the studio. This town has a lot to offer.”

A few spots remain for the Philadelphia and Chester County Cheese Journey. Learn more about Mike Geno and his cheese portraits here.