Meet The Artist Behind Our Holiday Catalog Cover!

by Isabel Vinton

Plant breeding has always been a global affair, connecting individuals, countries, and continents. And in the modern day, these interactions move faster and farther than ever. The Dwarf Tomato Project, a cooperative plant breeding venture between growers in the United States and Australia, has produced loads of new varieties in recent years. This year, we chose one of their creations, the Mandurang Moon Tomato. It's a small, tasty, gorgeously pale-colored fruit, and each plant’s solid stature and hardiness.

But how tasty, do you ask? And how hardy? So much so that our farm team called it the best tomato they've ever grown on the farm. We grew it this season and were impressed by its tenacity: its compact plants stayed healthy and green long after all other tomatoes had succumbed to disease and age. And they were perfect for snacking, with a slightly fruity, well-balanced taste. Although the fruit is lunar white, “Mandurang,” a town in Australia, means “Black Cicada” in the indigenous language of the area. They are equally enjoyable under the constellations of either hemisphere.

This is Mandurang Moon's first year in our catalog, and it's such a stellar variety, we knew it needed a celestial storytelling. We found the perfect storyteller in Sam Gray, an artist, illustrator, and graphic designer from Charlottesville, Virginia. She graduated summa cum laude with a BFA in graphic design from the University of Georgia in 2012. Since then, her work has been displayed in numerous shows and lauded with several awards. Her acrylic rendering on paper captures the luminosity of this enchanting tomato so well that we made it the face of our holiday catalog. We asked Sam a few questions about her work.

Tell us a bit about your art and why you make it.
My paintings and drawings are generally surreal allegorical works exploring the untamed feminine spirit and psyche. The figures in my work are often merged with the natural world, reflecting a psychological return to nature. These visions act as totems and guides for my own spiritual journey of stepping into my highest self and untethering my ego from the ideologies of our capitalist patriarchy. Although I denied myself the right to create and live as an artist for years I now know it to be integral to my spiritual and mental health.

Tell us about your medium. What should people know about your process?
People know me as a painter but I really just love to learn every way to create that I can. I am most comfortable drawing, but have been mostly painting for the last three years in order to teach myself. I typically paint in acrylic but this particular piece for Hudson Valley Seed Company was done in gouache, a medium that I first encountered when I went to university for graphic design. Sometimes I'm halfway through a piece and kicking myself for switching up my process yet again, but figuring out the challenges is a lot of fun in the end. I've also worked in ceramics, printmaking, and installation art.

What are your favorite elements of this artwork? Can you talk about the constellations you chose and their connection to the seed story?
I think what I love most is that the scene brings me into a moment of wonder and thanks- it makes me feel a warm summer night, the excitement of the first ripened tomatoes of the season, the gratitude for every cycling of the moon and the changes that it brings to our gardens and lives. I imagine my bare feet firmly planted in the soil and my heart connected in constellation with the heavens. The constellations are what one would find in a summer night sky in the Southern Hemisphere, since the variety hails from Australia.

We love the perspective trick in the piece. Can you talk about that and why you are depicting the phases of the moon?
When I was given the Mandurang Moon Tomato variety to work with I remembered my favorite moments in my childhood garden (a.k.a. my parents' garden; I'm sure I was eating and playing more than actually helping), snacking on the cherry tomatoes which were just the right size for me. I imagined little Sam receiving a MOON tomato and excitedly holding it up to eclipse and embody the moon hanging in the sky so I could pretend to devour that celestial body.

What do you hope this work of art says about you as an artist and about the variety?
I hope viewers may connect to feeling the magic of summer nights, the moon, and these beautiful sweet little moon tomatoes. For me, connecting with nature in the wild and collaborating with nature through the creative act of gardening is as important as art making to my spirit. That's why plants and natural organisms are so often incorporated into my artworks. Folks aren't wrong when they say our Creator is the greatest artist, and point to Creation as proof. There is so much beauty and so much to learn from the natural world if we just pay attention. Gardening is a fantastic way to bring that connection in close, to commit to co-creating some magic, and to experience the deep gratitude of nourishing oneself with the fruits of that collaboration.

When you harvest your Mandurang Moon tomatoes and pop them in your mouth like Sam did in her childhood, under the summer sun, we're sure Sam's art will remind you that the sweet burst of flavor isn't just international--it's interstellar.

You can find more of Sam's work on her website, on Facebook, and on Instagram @samgrayart.

How to Grow Mandurang Moon Tomato

Dwarf habit, suitable for containers. Start seeds indoors in a warm location with plenty of light. Transplant outdoors after last spring frost, when seedlings are at least 5" high. Provide light staking to support plants at fruit set. Harvest when fruits are cream-colored with a slight yellow blush and about 2" long ovals.