A Conversation With Jenny Acosta

Jenny Acosta is a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

Hannah Teoh Outreach Manager

Food is a universal language—this philosophy is brought to life through Jenny Acosta’s works.

Jenny is an illustrator and designer who focuses on works that cover culture and identity through the lens of food. A Brooklyn native, she graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2014 and has since been doing creative work, particularly centering around food, across different mediums.

As someone who is multi-racial, food is central to Jenny’s identity. Jenny is half Hainanese and a quarter Puerto Rican and Irish, and she found that food acted as a connector for her to learn about her ethnicity.

“I cooked a lot with my maternal grandparents in the kitchen. English wasn’t their first language, but we were able to bond, be there for each other, and take care of each other through food,” she shared.

To Jenny, food is an experience. From the most casual of interactions to the intimacy of home, food can be found at the heart of it all. “Honestly, I think it’s a great way to travel and learn about different cultures. Seeing how others nourish their bodies is a great way to start learning about a culture or a country that is different from yours.”

Jenny’s multi-racial identity has also greatly influenced her works and how she views them. She divulged that sometimes, she feels a conflict when it comes to celebrating or owning her work.

“Whenever I work on a piece, I think that it’s never really mine.”

“…But it definitely is mine because it was made by me and my unique process. Once you put your work out there, it only becomes a piece of art because of the people who interact with it, the things around you that it was inspired by, and how you experienced life that got you to create the work. I feel like everything I make is a collaboration between me and all the things that got me there.”

She pondered upon the question of how a creator can fully claim ownership over their work. For Jenny, she believes that being a multi-racial human and a child of divorce has positively influenced her creative process. “I recently started thinking about how I’ve always had to balance between multiple places at once in a sense. I’m slowly learning how to embrace that making art that is about me but also is not is one of the great characteristics of my work.

During the pandemic, Jenny was furloughed from her design job, and while going through this rough patch financially and emotionally, she discovered a newfound appreciation for food.

Home and safety are two words that come to mind. I was craving all the food my grandma cooked that made me feel safe and comfortable,” she said.

Caption: Jenny as a child with her grandparents
Caption: Jenny as a child with her grandparents

She hopes to capture and evoke these emotions through her work. “There’s more than just the biological aspect of food. You have the anthropological and psychological aspects too. If you feel unsafe and unhealthy at your very core, you can’t nourish yourself. You can’t cook and care for others. You can’t innovate and create. So, I think it’s really important to be able to create something that can help comfort people.”

Jenny spoke fondly about her time in MICA. After attending LaGuardia High School in New York studying visual arts, Jenny wanted a change of scenery. Baltimore then became her next stop in pursuit of an artistic career. “MICA opened my eyes to the possibilities of what art can be. It changed what I thought art could be. It empowered me to feel like my mind was also part of the artmaking. The ideas and the process is the actual work itself, not just the end product,” she gushed, “It was an amazing time for me to play and create, as well as learn about myself intellectually.” She pursued several internships in different artistic mediums— from textile to woodworking— before eventually returning to New York to do graphic design.

Jenny is a volunteer designer at Welcome to Chinatown (@welcome.to.chinatown)—a grassroots non-profit started by Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee to support businesses in New York City’s Chinatown and amplify voices of the community, especially at a time when several local businesses are facing economic hardship during the pandemic. Since many of these businesses usually rely on one revenue stream, Jenny—who is on the design team—helps out by working with business owners to design merchandise that they can sell in their shops. She added, “It’s a way of helping to raise awareness and also help businesses generate extra income through illustration and design.”

Joining the Welcome to Chinatown team was her way of paying homage to the neighborhood that helped raise her. She recalled memories of running around Chinatown with friends after school and trying out different restaurants.

Caption: (Left to right) Jenny’s Welcome to Chinatown merch design and content production for Double Crispy Bakery, Fay Da Bakery, Soft Swerve, and Bon Appetit
Caption: (Left to right) Jenny’s Welcome to Chinatown merch design and content production for Double Crispy Bakery, Fay Da Bakery, Soft Swerve, and Bon Appetit

“I also spent a lot of time in Chinatown during the pandemic. Being around Chinatown flavors, sounds, and sights when I could be there gave me a sense of comfort, familiarity, and rest during a time of uncertainty and stress. I’m very inspired by Asian grocery stores; if I don’t feel good, I’d spend the day grocery shopping. Looking at the shelves was very therapeutic for me, just seeing all the ingredients my grandparents would use in their cooking. Chinatown is really so special to me,” said Jenny.

Jenny’s latest project is “Comfort Foods”: a series of paintings on wood of various comfort foods across cultures. Following her previous philosophy, Jenny wanted to create paintings that represent warmth and comfort. Her choice of using wood as a medium was deliberate too. “I like using solid wood as a painting surface instead of canvas because the material becomes more sculptural; now, it’s not just an image, but also a comforting object. Also, the wood grain pattern blends with the art nicely, and the smoothness of the surface sits with my paint layering style better than more bumpy canvas textures.” She shared:



Caption: Commissioned “Comfort Food” paintings by Jenny Acosta: “Bacon, Egg, and Cheese” (above) for @newyorknico, “Lechon” (left) private commission.

As Jenny herself expresses,

“There’s a quote I heard in the film that resonated with me that goes: “There’s universality in the specific.” One of the beautiful things about how we talk about food is the more specific we are when we describe it, the more it reminds you of the sentiment. Even if no one has ever tasted it, they can feel the love you have for a certain food and connect it back to their own experience. They can almost feel exactly what you feel even if they’ve never tasted the same exact flavors.”

“Food, in all its forms, is a very loving way to interact with people.”

Her work is an obvious reflection of this sentiment, and she hopes to continue working on more projects that aim to bring warmth, comfort, and home to people. You can find her work at (http://www.jennyacosta.com/

Favorite Asian dish: It’s definitely Hainanese chicken rice. I often think about growing up watching my grandma make the dish in her kitchen, gently cleaning than boiling the whole chicken with smashed ginger, some salt, and water, taking it out and letting it rest, so the glistening skin fat gets coagulated and plump with the silky tender meat. My job as a kid was to get the chicken rice ready by using the chicken broth to cook the rice. The ginger dipping sauce we make—I could eat bowls of that stuff. I don’t know anyone who makes the sauce like our family; it’s so dang good! It’s a comforting meal for me.

Favorite food pun: It’s like the Jay-Z song where it goes “Brooklyn we go hard,” but more like Brooklyn, we go like Swiss chard.

Favorite place to visit: Singapore and Japan.

Jenny Acosta is a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She explores the beauty of the every day and the meaning of home through the lens of food and her multi-racial identity. Jenny has created projects for culinary tastemakers such as Bon Appetit, Junzi, Sir Kensington’s, Union Square Hospitality Group, Kora, among others. Jenny has a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), having graduated in 2014. Some of her food inspirations are her Hainanese grandparents, Asian supermarket packaging, and Chef Martin Yan

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