ARTIST INTERVIEW: Stephen McCarty of Solar Return
Company: Solar Return
Artist: Stephen McCarty
After 10 years as a savory cook in three of LA’s most beloved plant-based restaurants, Stephen McCarty has teamed up with his sustainable fashion visionary wife Tracy Conti McCarty to open Solar Return, an emporium of colorful and creative organic desserts offered beside a selection of cosmic gifts and Prism of Threads’ vintage and handmade finery.
Describe the path that led you to the work you do now.
There is a cycle in my life, one that has repeated at least three times. In expressing a desire to be something, whether that is a visual artist, musician, or chef, I first very humbly approach the tradition and learn all that I can. I follow all the rules, complete all the requirements, and even create some guidelines of my own. Somewhere in that process the seed of escape is planted, however, and just when I am on the verge of fully embodying the role that I have chosen to pursue, another discipline takes hold. This means that my work is informed by experiences far more disparate than those of someone who has just worked in kitchens their whole career. So a caricature I create of a witch’s face on a matcha ice cream popsicle comes with knowledge from figure drawing classes taken in the late 90s… and a psychedelic mandala poured over a 12 inch wide cheesecake pulses with the energy of over 500 live improvisations as the drummer in a rock band in the 2000s.
Do you have a favorite creation, artwork, or design of your own?
All of my favorite innovations have been the result of listening to what my clients want and responding to it. That may be a flavor profile I would not have imagined, or a juxtaposition of design elements that make for a fascinating composition. My favorite design to come out of having a shop the last several months is a twist on the classic yin-yang symbol, in which a full spectrum of rainbow colors exists between the two opposites of black and white. It is meaningful to me to remember that, in an increasingly polarized political and social landscape, none of us are completely true or false, masculine or feminine, right or wrong. At the same time, people can just eat it and have their own experience without giving my intentions any thought!
Do you think community is important to creativity? If so, how?
I love being a part of the rich tradition of artisans who have dedicated their lives to making food. Mastering a culinary craft takes as much time and dedication as any of the arts. It may not always be regarded as highly as an oil painting or ballet, but when someone makes the decision to eat, they welcome the culinary artist into a much more intimate space, one that is galvanized by trust and faith. A person knows immediately how they feel about food once they have had a bite or two, and when they love it, the feeling is unforgettable. Taste is born from a lifetime of preferences, but requires no formal education. My work is unique in this tradition because of my obsession with using only the highest quality plant-based ingredients, and dedicating a ridiculous amount of time to make the finished product express visually the unseen spirit in all things.
Did you have any mentors or important creative influences?
My grandfather Eldon Brown was a huge inspiration to me growing up. He was a child in the Great Depression, served in World War II, and spent his career working on practical things, working in factories during the week and building houses with my grandma Audrey on the weekends. But as soon as he retired, his creativity just exploded! There was no object that he could not transform into a charming sculpture; he made dragons and dinosaurs from spare car parts and bird wings from shovel heads. He made a guitar with a bedpan for the resonator and carved beautiful animal faces onto canes made from the roots of trees. He also tapped a grove of maple trees on the land to cook down homemade maple syrup. Watching Eldon stir the sap, surrounded by clouds of steam in a sugar shack he had also built by hand made my young mind reel with the possibilities of creating with powerful plants!