Alissa Lonergan makes food. This week, it was a batch of tacos, heavy with guacamole; pizza, by the slice or the pan; and pancakes, complete with butter squares and glossy syrup. She measured everything to precision; rolled out all the ingredients by hand, according to colour; and baked each dish at 120 degrees. None would have been bigger than a 10-cent piece. Alissa Lonergan makes tiny food out of polymer clay, and it’s entirely captivating.
When we meet, she announces that today is the day she has set aside for sculpting. “I’m going to do pizza. I want to mess around with milkshakes, with cups made out of polymer clay,” she says. “And nachos. It sounds funny saying it out loud: ‘I’m going to make nachos today’. But that’s the plan.”
A 24-year-old Brisbane local, Lonergan is composed but vibrant and engaging. It makes sense, given her art is much the same. “I think the whole thing – polymer clay, tiny food – takes me back to being in awe of stuff as a kid,” she says.
After finishing university, Lonergan travelled to Asia to celebrate her graduation. Her priority was Japan, to see “the Japanese food models in the windows”. She had been interested in playing around with clay for a while, producing art “inspired by Studio Ghibli films”, but it wasn’t until she came back that she properly got into the mini meals. “The presentation of food there was next level,” she says. “When I came back, I started taking [the polymer art] seriously.”
She opened a shop, Chiisai (meaning “small” in Japanese), and began selling her wares. She also started taking orders, and demand went through the roof. “I closed it down because I got bombarded with orders and it got way too detailed – specific coloured sprinkles – and it was going to take me forever,” Lonergan says. “I tried limited runs of things, and closed the store when I sold out.”
With a bunch of different irons in the fire – including pottery, writing and working at a coffee roaster – Lonergan was at a crossroads. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m so busy’, and I’d been spending all my spare time playing with clay and I felt really guilty,” she says. “And mid-to-late last year, I realised that was a ridiculous emotion. It makes me happy.
Spare time, currently, is five hours per week dedicated to sculpting. Armed with her box of clay and four go-to tools (an Exacto knife, a toothbrush, a needle tool and a ball tool), she’s focusing her work around the theme of “fast food”: hot dogs, burgers and the odd bowl of ramen. “Last year, I was really into doughnuts,” she says. “Doughnuts were the only thing I wanted to make.”
Scrolling through her Instagram, @alissalu92 and the newly opened @studiochiisai, it’s clear there’s a conversation going on between Lonergan’s art and Australia’s food culture. As burgers, doughnuts and freakshakes take over the Internet, Lonergan’s miniature dishes document the madness, offering foils to overstated, overwhelming food trends. “Burgers and doughnuts are just everywhere. People have done so much to reinvent them,” the artist says. “I try not to do the over-the-top doughnuts because I don’t think they’re as relatable as classic Donut King iced doughnuts.”
On top of the reinvention, people are now wearing their food – intentionally. Many of Lonergan’s pieces are wearable: banana earrings, waffle rings or toast necklaces, say. “A lot of the stuff I make, I wouldn’t wear,” she says. “I can’t pull it off, but those that can I’m like, ‘YES! You wear that pizza hat!’”
As the demand for culinary innovation continues, the desire for the classics remains. “I should probably do more jam tartlets, lamingtons and stuff: people are always really into it,” she says. “And fairy bread. It’s the whole nostalgia thing, I think.”
For now, Lonergan is focusing on creating for the sake of creating. She hopes to open her store again later in the year, and potentially offer classes – both in person, creating pieces start to finish, and through technique-specific video uploads. “There are a lot of people who are into it, and the only thing is perseverance,” she says. “Everyone can do it.”
That perseverance applies to Lonergan herself. “I spent 45 minutes texturing one piece of toast, but it was worth it,” she says. “Even if I wasn’t making money from anything I was doing, I would do it anyway. That’s when you know you’re doing the right thing.”