Somerville painter Francisco de la Barra talks about painting portraits of Union Square chefs incorporating spices, the Square’s spice landscape—and the lasting influence of using spice as a medium.

Last year Chilean native Francisco de la Barra painted a series of portraits of Union Square chefs and restaurant workers as part of the Somerville Arts Council’s ArtsUnion project. He interviewed each subject—asking them about spices they like and use—and then incorporated those spices within his portraits. The portrait above, of Mario Borges of the Neighborhood Restaurant, incorporates oregano, cilantro and paprika; to see other spice portraits and Francisco’s more recent work, go here: Francisco de la Barra. We recently caught up with our favorite globe-trotting Chilean—just back from a week in Mexico City— and asked him a few questions. 

Nibble: How do you think spices reflect the culture of Union Square?
A lot: Spices are everywhere in the Square with so many Southwest Asian and Latin American restaurants—and all the international markets. In a way, spice is a marker of foreigners coming into the States, as their food tends to be spicier than American food.

Nibble: Which were your favorite spices to work with and why?
Turmeric and Annatto. They have strong colors, fine textures and lasting effects. [Editor’s note: Not familiar with annatto? Go here: “Chef in You” on annatto]

Nibble: When you met with your portrait subjects and asked them about spices they use, what was their response? Did they have strong opinions?
The response was actually very mild. I guess they don’t give it too much though. For them spice is second nature—like butter and milk for us.

Nibble: How would you direct a newcomer to Union Square when it comes to the area’s spice-scape? Are there certain stores, restaurants and dishes you would recommend?
I visit the markets first and then the restaurants. In this way, you can interact with the origin of food and then experience spice in the food—for a deeper cultural understanding. Usually in the markets, you get a more raw sense of the culture. The people who run markets tend to speak less English than the people who run a restaurant. I think Bombay Market and La International are the best and most typical markets. I get turmeric from Bombay Market and annatto from La International. For restaurants, I would recommend Sweet Ginger and La Taqueria la Mexicana. [The portrait above left is of Rungnapa Thawornkasem of Sweet Ginger. You can see two of Francisco’s spice portraits in La Taqueria Mexicana, of owners Roberto and Carolina Rendón]

Nibble: Your most recent series, “Sin Nombre,” has a lovely sense of texture, reminiscent of your spice portraits (see a “Sin Nombre” work below). Did working with spices have any lasting influences on your work?
In this new series I use clay, ashes and coal. So yes, the sense of texture has lasted—that was the reason I used spices. Although not as organic as spices, my new mediums also convey a sense of nature. They represent the land (clay), minerals (coal) and ancestors (ashes). They also resemble aerial shots of landscapes.