Gemma Leslie’s colourful works celebrate life’s simple pleasures, particularly when it comes to food. You might have spotted the Melbourne-based artist’s still-life compositions hanging on the walls of some of your favourite kitchens and cafes – she sells originals as acrylic on canvas, but is also the brain behind the Food For Everyone poster shop.

“I don’t find inspiration being in my studio. I have to go out into the world and bring it back,” Leslie tells Broadsheet. “I get inspired by going to exhibitions, eating out at restaurants or going to the markets. My local is the Preston Market, which I find so lively and beautiful.”

Fruit and vegetables, as well as seafood and seasonal florals, have become signatures of Leslie’s illustrated works. Compositions are thoughtful and bold – a product of her background as a graphic designer.

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Leslie has always been intrigued by the idea of family recipes, though she doesn’t have many herself. “My ancestors came to Australia with no money and the family never inherited any of those strong cultural identities that I noticed with some of my friends,” she says.

But memories of birthdays spent at Vietnamese restaurants on Victoria Street in Richmond or celebrations in Chinatown pepper Leslie’s childhood. “My upbringing was really a lot about celebrating Melbourne’s diverse cultures without me even realising it.”

Right now Leslie is deep in the process of surveying pantries across the city to piece together the puzzle of what Melburnians cook and eat at home. It’s for her next solo exhibition, Multicultural Melbourne: Pantry Items, which pays homage to the city’s famed melting pot identity.

The series of portraits offers a peek inside 15 pantries – from a second-generation Italian household brimming with pickles and preserves to a Bangladeshi-Australian family whose kitchen shelves feature popcorn and baking ingredients. When Leslie spotted their daughters’ traditional Bangladeshi dolls dotted around the room, she decided to incorporate them into the work, too.

“I’m finding so many stories throughout this project; it’s becoming a study beyond just pantries,” Leslie says. “But I’m really just scratching the surface”.

Community is a core theme in Leslie’s work. Her business Food For Everyone, with its vibrant recipe posters, was built around giving back. The concept launched in 2020 during Melbourne’s lockdowns when Leslie decided to draw four of her friends’ recipes and donate the proceeds to charity. Those first-edition posters featured meals by Julia Busuttil Nishimura, Clementine Day, Ellie Bouhadana and Suzanne Corbett.

Since then Leslie has collaborated with both foodies and fellow artists on an extensive range of recipes and designs. “As the business has grown, I’ve been able to give briefs to other artists which is really fun. I’ve worked with Indigenous artist Aretha Brown, as well as Max Blackmore, Libby Haines, Evi O and Nadia Hernández,” she says.

For every poster purchased, Food For Everyone donates the equivalent of 10 meals to charity. Over the past four years the business has donated more than $150,000 to a range of charities, including Second Bite, Oz Harvest and Fare Share.

The Food For Everyone shop also sells a small collection of limited-edition home and lifestyle wares, including playful key chains made with Adelaide-based industrial design studio Daniel Emma. The newest lucky charm features laser-cut acrylic motifs of an oyster and a wedge of lemon. “It’s such a joyful project and that’s really what I aim to do – bring joyful products into the world.”

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Gemma Leslie’s exhibition Multicultural Melbourne: Pantry Items runs from July 20 to August 3 at North Gallery, Fitzroy.

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.