“I’ve got her work hanging in my kitchen, in my mom’s kitchen,” Kelly Sweitzer of The Pepper Mill Shop says of folk artist Candy Pegram. Sweitzer, known for her food-pun-producing art, met Pegram in 2015 at the Carolina Beach Street Arts Festival—though, she was familiar with her work long before. It wasn’t until they started sharing studio space at Wabi Sabi Warehouse they began a friendship and working relationship, which will be highlighted in their first show together on Friday night, titled “Funny Folk Food Show.”
“When you look at Candy’s work, you automatically become happy,” Sweitzer says, “because you see a camper under the stars that makes you think of a wonderful childhood memory, or you see your very favorite food item and smile. Her ability to evoke that kind of happiness, instantly, is truly amazing.”
Pegram’s work showcases a bevy of simplistic drawings, emoted in all sorts of colors, primary or otherwise, on rustic wood. From a 3-inch-by-3-inch woodblock of a camera, to a 7-inch-by-10-inch of an old Joe smoking a cigarette, to a taco to a rocket ship to a monkey, the simplicity draws viewers back to the whimsy of childlike perception. In “Funny Folk Food Show,” Pegram will include imagery of fainting goats, summertime and food, of course. From a large KitKat to a big Dorito, go-to snacks are represented. But so is carnival fare and … Michaelangelo? And I’m not talking about the famed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
“On some pieces, I really stretched the imagination,” Pegram tells. “For one I decided to recreate a famous Michelangelo painting, except using corn dogs as my muse. My hope is crowds will flock and feel as if they are at the Sistine Chapel when standing under it.”
Pegram spends about five or six hours in the studio daily. It’s her creative world where she can get away and tinker to create work for the eight festivals a year she attends. She also has an art push cart she takes out on occasion for local pop-ups, and she runs an Etsy shop for buyers to purchase work at any time. “I also love it when people come directly to my studio,” she explains. “It’s honestly the best way to see all of my art.”
It’s the place where Pegram and Sweitzer fill their workdays with laughter. Such camaraderie will be apparent in their first duel show.
“Candy is a total goof, and if I spend too much time around her, I start to sound waaaay more Southern than I am.” Sweitzer teases. “We have fun in Wabi Sabi, constantly back and forth between each other’s spaces, and also the backyard. She put up a badminton net, which will 100-percent be up at the opening. Bring bug spray.”
Sweitzer’s Pepper Mill Shop has garnered quite the following in its four-year infancy. She and her husband, Charlie, make sure paintings, magnets, totes, and onesies are at all local festivals and out-of-town events. In 2016, they participated in 110.
“Sometimes we set up in different cities on the same day,” Sweitzer notes. “Charlie’s support, be it handling events or bringing me dinner late night at the studio, is crucial to my general well-being, and therefore helps me be successful.”
Whether doing local farmers markets or larger street fairs, the work is never-ending. Sweitzer can be found in her studio daily from 11 a.m. on; leading up to bigger festivals, she often pulls 13-hour shifts.
“Design, execution, accounting, social media—you name it, I’m doing it,” she says. “I have to stay organized to be successful. I just got my first planner that I actually write in with a real-life pen, and it’s been amazing.
“I totally respect her work and work ethic,” Pegram praises. “She is a hustler, always working—it’s impressive.”
For “Funny Folk…” Sweitzer will debut 16 new food puns. One was created for her good friends Stacey McPherson and husband Brian, who are opening Crust Kitchen and Cocktails, a grilled-cheese sandwich shop, on Princess Street in coming weeks.
“It says, ‘Another one bites the crust,’” Sweitzer quips. “I also have a large piece that combines Ms. Pac Man and a ‘90s hip-hop song reference. I mean, you can’t lose.”
Sweitzer has upped the ante on her art work, also sold on Etsy, by utilizing new construction methods. When hung, the work seems to float.
“Until now, pieces have been hung with aluminum swages, eye hooks and picture wire from the top, giving them a light industrial feel,” she explains. “All hardware being hidden on the new works, in addition to the new floating effect, gives them a more modern feel.”
Aside from tantalizing viewers’ taste buds with paintings—and quenching their thirsts with wine and beer—the artists will donate partial proceeds from the show to the Good Shepherd Center.
“Just so happens Candy’s partner, Katrina [Knight], is the executive director of Good Shepherd, so it was an easy choice,” Sweitzer says.
More important are the numbers coming out of the center’s soup kitchen annually: They serve more than 80,000 hot meals to the hungry, with up to 500 meals a day. Ten percent of art sales will go to Good Shepherd, as will 10 percent of Port City Que food truck’s sales. The truck will be parked outside of Wabi Sabi Friday night for folks to enjoy dinner.
“People can come out to our show, have some good laughs, take a piece of local art home, and actually help with feeding the hungry right in here in our town,” Pegram says.
Living in a town that has high capacity of artistic output and support, made up of people who also believe in cultivating empathy and community give-back, has Sweitzer and Pegram grateful to survive as full-time creators. The profession has its rewards despite its downfalls, like any other job.
“When the economy is thriving, people are more likely to spend money on nonessentials,” Pegram says. “So for me art sales go down when people feel they need to guard their money a little more. I do miss the robust film industry; it had a definite trickle-down effect on people like me.”
Sweitzer worked in the film industry as a scenic artist locally before it up and packed most of its crew and money to Georgia four years ago. While the lack of work was problematic at the onset, it also invigorated her new career as an artist.
“I actually started creating my first pieces in the Mill Shop, which is where the name ‘The Pepper Mill Shop’ came from,” she says. Fast forward to today and Sweitzer remains awestruck by her luck.
“I can’t believe I get to do this for a living: Make people laugh,” she notes. “I’ve got the best job in the world. The way I’ve gone about getting to do it some may say is crazy. We constantly travel for festivals and are part of this strange, wonderful gypsy vendor tribe.”