At University of Dayton’s Radial Gallery, Nebraska photographer Ella Weber finds meaning in monotony behind a Midwestern deli counter.
Ham. Honestly, it’s not for everyone. But for Nebraska-based artist Ella Weber, it has been an unlikely vehicle for artistic expression. In her ongoing tenure as a deli clerk at a large grocery store chain, Weber has created photographs about that sometimes surreal experience. In her exhibition This Feels Nice, showing at University of Dayton’s Radial Gallery with The Blue House Arts October 1–21, Weber chronicles the job, showing us everything from the ridiculous to the mundane to the kinda grotesque (see: her “meat smiley” series), along with interrogating the high-octane optimism required in customer service.
Says Weber: “I view the counter as this threshold between art and life and employee and customer and performance and reality.”
FotoFocus: How did this project start?
Ella Weber: It was supposed to be just a temporary job after grad school. I got accepted to this residency in Colorado and I had two months to kill. So I moved back home, into my parents’ basement. And I applied for this [job at the] grocery store. I wanted anything but the deli. I wanted the salad bar. And they sent me to the deli. I thought, It’s two months, how bad can it be? And it’s a pretty dirty, disgusting job. It’s all about touch. You have to touch all of this meat. And the smells are really horrible. I don’t even eat lunch meat anymore. Can’t do it. Out of boredom I started taking photos on the job and jotting down funny interactions with customers over the counter.
And then I got to go to this residency, and it was in beautiful Colorado with all these amazing artists, and the curator said, “Honestly, I feel that you’re more inspired by the deli job than you are here.” And he said: “Why do you have to go away? Why do you have to go to all these fancy places? Why can’t you pretend that the deli is your studio, your residency?”
FF: What’s your artistic background?
Weber: I studied printmaking. Lithography. Then in grad school I moved into digital work, which incorporated photography and video. One of the things you do in printmaking is you think about things in layers, and also sequencing. And because you can make multiple prints from one, you usually work in a series. I think my work still has this layering aspect. And I don’t know why I would do this, but I would take ham into the bathroom on my breaks and I would mask my face with ham. And take these selfies. And so I’m not just going to make one meat smiley. I’m going to make a lot of them.
FF: Do you agree that you’re more inspired by the deli (for example: ham) than by conventionally beautiful settings?
Weber: Yes. Definitely. I’m really inspired by mundane life. I like the idea that you have eight hours of clocking in. And finding freedom in the constraints of the eight-hour day. And I also love finding connections and interactions in real life with real people.
I was living in my parents’ basement in this surreal starter-kit suburban neighborhood where everyone my age was just starting out with two kids. All the houses look identical. I kind of had this personal revelation and then I started to see the beauty in it.
FF: What is it about the grocery store setting that speaks to you as an artist?
Weber: This grocery store in particular, it’s called Hy-Vee and their motto is A Helpful Smile in Every Aisle. They take smiling very, very seriously—at least pre-Covid. There are secret shoppers that come in and judge your performance, how you perform across the counter. And during a low point in my life I got a record-low secret shopper score, primarily for not smiling. A record for the store. I was devastated.
In the show there is a grid of all the meat smileys that I take. I couldn’t smile, so I thought: Well, I’ll make a smiley a day on the clock. And through this ritual I’ll get back into the good graces of HR. The job, it’s physically hard but it’s relatively easy. You clock in. It’s not a job you have to take home with you. We slice on automatic; I don’t even have to use my arm. Because it’s the same every single day, I feel like I have a lot of time to think.
Weber’s work is cheeky but also a fairly bleak account of consumerism in postmodern America. “I play with this line between comfort and discomfort,” Weber says. “I want it to be appealing but also repulsive at the same time.”