Furry Sushi? Artist Lucy Sparrow Creates an Adorable LA Supermarket Spilling Over With 31,000 Felt Groceries
Your chance to buy felt sushi, pork chops, avocados, and other cuddly groceries.
When British artist Lucy Sparrow took her beloved felt creations to New York’s Standard Hotel last summer, opening up a cuddly take on the typical NYC bodega, she had an instant sensation on her hands. The crowds arrived in droves, clearing the shelves of 9,000 handcrafted goods, which ranged from fresh produce and deli meats to cleaning supplies, cigarettes, and feminine hygiene products. Unable to match the overwhelming demand, 8 ‘Till Late closed nine days early.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Sparrow is at it again, this time at the Standard in Los Angeles. And she’s upped the ante, filling a 2,800-square-foot space with no less than 31,000 plush pieces, all available for purchase. The new work, her fifth large-scale installation, is called Sparrow Mart, reflecting the increased scale of the project. If London’s Cornershop was the neighborhood grocer and 8 ‘Till Late a bodega, Sparrow Mart is a chain supermarket straight out of the 1980s, replete with videotape rentals. (Sparrow has also done a felt sex shop and gun shop.)
Prices start at just $5 for bubblegum. The Standard has created a custom menu for the occasion, with the option of pairing actual edible treats with their felt counterparts—house-made moon pies, plus the stuffed variety, for $48; or a felt Corona with a real-life kimchi Michelada to wash it down for $73.
The fruits and vegetables have tiny smiling faces, but all the packaged goods feature painted labels, all done by hand by Sparrow herself. You can expect all of Sparrow’s greatest hits, plus new additions to her stock, some based on feedback from customers who wanted a felt version of favorite foodstuffs not previously in Sparrow’s repertoire.
Ahead of today’s opening, we talked to Sparrow about life in the Felt Cave—her appropriately named studio—her peanut butter preferences, and what sets Sparrow Mart apart from her earlier work.
How long have you been working on Sparrow Mart?
Since last August—literally right off the back of 8 ‘Till Late. Sparrow Mart is about five times the size. It’s actually inside the hotel because they didn’t have anywhere with a separate entrance. You have to go up the escalators to get there, so it feels very much like in a shopping mall. It all help lends to the ’80s feel, of mass production, the big chain store.
You spent nine months on 8 ‘Till Late, which had 9,000 objects for sale. Here, you have 31,000. How have you scaled up your production to get this all done in a year’s time?
A lot of organization. A lot more hours. It’s been pretty much twice the amount of time needed for New York. It helps because I had a lot of the master copies already made. Once you figure out to make that one bottle shape, it certainly goes fast after that. A lot of it was just making what was already was designed. But there’s a lot of new stuff as well, about half.
I had to take on more people to help me to sew, but I still have to paint everything myself, which I’m actually still doing [as of July 12]!
Nothing like down to the wire!
That’s how it is every single show I do. You think that you’ve got it every time. You’re like “no, no, it’s fine.” But I know that I’ll be sewing stuff together seconds before people come through the door. That’s always the way, unfortunately.
Did you ever imagine you would get the response that you got in New York?
I obviously hoped it would go well, but I had never done a show in the States before. Apart from a few art fairs, I had nothing to judge it by, and it’s always such a risk. It takes so much time and investment, it’s almost a leap of faith every single time that you do it.
What new items can guests expect in the LA Sparrow Mart?
One thing that I really enjoyed doing last time that people seemed to react strongly to was the meat counter. So I’ve got a fish counter, and it’s got octopus, lobsters, clams, oysters, fillets of salmon, catfish, that kind of thing. Whole tunas. I think it’s really going to make people laugh.
There’s a sushi counter where you can actually choose individual pieces of sushi. You can actually curate your own very small collection of art. The combination of what you can get in a sushi tray is almost infinite, so that’s going to be interesting.
There’s more variation, more sizes of stuff, lots of different products. There’s a lot more fruit and vegetables. We’ve got asparagus with tiny eyes. And there’s a lot more complicated stuff. There are trays of pork chops that I’ve filled with beans so they have the weight of a slab of meat.
It’s like a Beanie Baby!
What is the most complex and difficult piece you are making?
Maybe the checkout, which actually has a conveyor belt for you to put your grocery on, and it moves. Figuring out how to do that without electric is quite difficult. There is a counter with candy and stuff, I guess three checkout stations. I would love to have so many checkouts but they’re so hard to get a hold of. I found this one on the Mexican border, and I’ve covered it with felt. It’s a miracle that I managed to get it because they never come up on eBay.
Last time we met, we talked a little about how you prepared for 8 ‘Till Late and the different tips you received about what makes a bodega such a New York institution. Had you been to LA before, and did you get to do much research there in preparation for the upcoming show? Did you get any good advice on how to best showcase LA grocery culture?
I knew LA was going to happen about halfway through 8 ‘Till Late. After New York closed early, I flew straight to LA for about three days and immediately started thinking. I went to all the supermarkets, trying to find out what was quintessentially LA.
I know that avocados are very very important here. There are a lot more Mexican products here, so I’ve focused heavily on that. It’s quite regional, and I’ve tried to stick to that. But as I would like to have it as realistic as possible, there are some things that didn’t work. A lot of the health food designs aren’t very exciting, so I haven’t done them. It’s got to look good in felt and really pop before it gets on the list of things that are going to get made.
That makes sense. It’s all about the aesthetics. What was the most popular item at the New York and London editions of the project, and what is your predicted best seller in LA?
I think it was probably Wonder Bread in New York, but actually, I only made eight loaves, so they were very very quick to sell out. I’ve made 100 this time. Also, Jiff peanut butter; I think I’ve made 150 jars of that. I’ve actually made three brands of peanut butter for this one, so hopefully, everybody is going to be happy all around with enough peanuts. I’ve added Skippy and Goober, the one that’s mixed with jelly.
That will be cool in felt, but I’ve never eaten that because it kind of grosses me out.
I have eaten it because I love peanut butter. It’s a little odd, just strange—but it looks great! And then I’ve got Smuckers grape jelly and Smuckers strawberry jelly.
As far as bestsellers, I think the sushi is just going to go very quickly. I’ve done about 300 of each type of sushi. I was actually sewing it during the World Cup yesterday.
How many different kinds of sushi?
There are 27 different types, plus chopsticks, soy sauce in those little plastic fish, wasabi, and pickled ginger.
What is your work studio, “The Felt Cave,” like?
It’s very colorful. It’s wall-to-wall carpeted with multi-colored carpet tiles that cover every surface including the ceiling, the walls, and the floor. It kind of looks like a children’s playpen. There’s bright pink and lots of colors. There are lots of really strange objects lying around like inflatables. It looks like one of those trendy offices where people are encouraged to play with stuff, but actually, we do play with stuff.
How many people work in your studio at any given time?
It’s four now, and then I’m also outsourcing work to other people. All together, there are about 19 people working on this project.
And what is your typical day like right now?
My alarm goes off at 5 or 6. I get an hour of painting in before my assistants arrive. We start work at 7. For the last couple of months, I’ve just been painting because the backlog was so big that I have to just concentrate on that rather than doing any sewing. We finish at 4. I live on site in a caravan, so I will go back to my home and carry on painting until about 10 o’clock. That’s pretty much what it’s been like for the last year.
Four years ago, I was doing absolutely everything on my own. For a solo artist, having to be suddenly be managing people is often very out of your comfort zone. It feels very much like the Felt Cave is transforming into a factory. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because it’s opened up opportunities to do bigger and better projects. It’s really exciting—but I kind of miss the days when I kind of just watch telly and sew. It doesn’t happen like that anymore. I have to be really organized.
I love to go to different grocery stores when I travel and see what the local staples are. What are some cities with unique supermarket cultures that might inspire or lend themselves to a future project? I think you should do Tokyo.
Oh yes! I actually went there last year and it was incredible. Definitely somewhere in Asia, maybe Hong Kong or Tokyo, in the next few years. I think Chicago would be really interesting, or possibly Dallas or Melbourne. And maybe not just grocery stores. It could be anything, a hospital, or a hardware store—something like that.
But also I’d like to do some big installs at museums, permanent things where it could stay together forever. As much as I love it when people take away a bit of a store, part of me is like “aw, it will never be like this again.” I’d love for my work to be a permanent fixture somewhere.
See more photos of Sparrow’s felt goods below.
“Lucy Sparrow: Sparrow Mart” is on view at the Standard, Downtown LA, Paddle Room, 550 South Flower Street, Los Angeles, August 1–31, 2018. It is open Tuesday–Sunday, 11 a.m–9 p.m.
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