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Mary Frank

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Mary Frank 2005

New York artist Mary Frank pictured on left with her CooKit solar panel cooker

Wherever she goes, whatever she does, artist Mary Frank never misses an opportunity to talk to people about the small bit of cardboard she thinks could help better humanity.

"This little something is what could save millions of lives from waterborne diseases after the tsunami," says the painter and sculptor. She is speaking of the cardboard planes of the solar cooker, which she finds visually appealing. She unfolds the silvery wedges of her cooker like an origami puzzle, very carefully. Only this is simpler than any origami puzzle. "It's like a kid's toy," she marvels, "and yet it can pasteurize water. It can cook without wood. It's low-tech." Mary has unfolded the solar cooker on the ledge of her New York loft's south-facing windows, on the porch of her home in Woodstock, New York - practically any place she could get a few people together and demonstrate. She's a cook's activist and an activist's cook.

I first saw her delight a group of artists with the solar cooker last summer at Yaddo, an art colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Mary Frank is an artist of enormous stature, about whom books have been written. She's been collected by nearly every major American museum, including the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in England in 1933, she's been recognized as one of the most important artists of her generation. Thus she is an influential friend to the solar cooking movement, though she would undoubtedly say the benefit is entirely hers.

"You see all we need is a few hours of light and we can have a delicious fruit compote." She was making food outside her Yaddo studio as she painted. Artists and musicians and writers bicycled by for a taste of yummy plums and berries; I was one of them. But truth be told, of the dozen or so people who stopped by that day, none of them had ever heard of solar cookers or seen them deployed. And that under-representation is part of what drives Mary. I have been traveling in and out of war zones for National Public Radio since 1989, mainly in the Middle East, and I had never heard of nor seen a solar cooker; not even in Afghanistan, where I would think its need among the greatest.

It is, of course, the humanity which draws Mary to evangelize about this device - the saving of women's lives since by using it they don't have to hunt for scarce, precious firewood. They don't have to risk rape and injury in conflict zones where cook fires provide the means of heating food. Mary also likes the saving of scant resources. So many of these places - Afghanistan, Africa, Southeast Asia - are denuded and suffering erosion and crop failures because of extensive foraging for cooking fuel. I remember once being delighted at finding wood cutters all over Kabul (Afghanistan) so that I could provide heat for my home which only a month before had been a Taliban dwelling. Then one day I stopped to consider that the barren landscape had once been heavily forested. We were burning down our natural resources, like the Russian folk story of the man who uses his furniture for fuel. For Mary, the solar cooker equates with individual dignity, with the simple life-affirming qualities of clean, safe food and water. But what is extra delicious, if you'll forgive the pun, about her advocacy for this cause is that Mary can take the solar cooker to some intriguing places it's never been before.

For example, in recent years she's cooked at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, making brownies as part of a solar exhibition. She concedes that for many people, one must overcome a sense of disbelief that the solar cooker can actually cook.

"Since the discovery of fire," she says, "people have cooked with wood, or other combustible stuff. People don't think this will work."

I admit to being a skeptic myself - until she whipped up the compote and later, some mushroom fricassee. We didn't have time for fish or chicken that day, but she assured me it could be done. And hey; you can wander away from the cooker as much as you like because the food doesn't burn, and it remains very, very juicy! (I liked that part a lot.) But even in Woodstock, New York - a beacon of self-considered social enlightenment - she said it's hard to get people to take the homely little device seriously.

"When I'm invited to talk about my work someplace," said Mary, "I take the solar cooker along. I give a talk and show slides of my work, and that's expected. What's not expected is that then I show the pictures of the solar cooker being used in many countries. Half the world cooks with wood. Every family uses over a ton [each year]. People never think about it. India uses dung; South America too. All these things are extremely carcinogenic, and I believe that people don't consider this. When an artist comes to visit people are thinking they're going to hear about the work. But I want to talk to them about much more."

Mary first heard about the solar cooker while visiting friends Jean Louis Bourgeois and his wife Caroline outside Taos, New Mexico, about 15 years ago. Bourgeois, the son of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, was living without electricity. Caroline gave Mary some information, and she was off in search of the solar cookers. At the time solar cookers were commonly big boxes, capable of cooking 14 pounds of food but too big to be shipped anywhere. So Mary made her own small one.

She was met with lots of resistance. "Americans all wanted to know how long cooking would take," she smiles. "And Europeans wanted to know if the food was any good."

Now, out comes the cooker when friends come over. She'd cook salmon and wild rice. Last year, she cooked for a group of 14 Afghan women scientists visiting Woodstock. "I made dal, lamb, curry, tomatoes, onions, lemons - all the things I thought they would like. Being scientists, they grasped right away what the cooker is able to do and how important it is."

In Mary Frank's beautiful paintings, myth and mystery play such an important part in the transformation of life and dream life. Her passion for expanding solar cooking around the world mirrors her creative aesthetics. "It's like the sun," she says. "It's a huge wheel. So women (and typically it is women in these countries) can put the food in black metal pots in the cooker before noon. Children can go to school instead of gathering wood. Women do not have to stand at a cookstove stirring. They can be less subservient as a result. The food follows a natural cycle of light."

"I can't think of anything more revolutionary," she says. It would be nice if Solar Cookers International got more attention she believes, and more profile for its work and what it does. That's her hope: more money, and more profile. And then she talks about a tagine she's going to make in her solar cooker; with lamb or chicken and a cinnamon stick, lemons and prunes, dates and almonds. She'll do it on her window ledge in Manhattan. Or maybe on a bright spring day in Woodstock. That's the other thing about the cooker - she can cook ahead, and then go paint.

Mary Frank has been a strong supporter of Solar Cookers International (SCI) - and a vigorous promoter of solar cooking and solar water pasteurization in general - for more than a decade. She takes every opportunity to influence and educate people about the need for and benefits of solar cooking. She also is a wonderful solar cook and has graciously hosted SCI events in New York and helped to build a growing cadre of SCI supporters there. Jacki Lyden is a correspondent and host for National Public Radio. Currently she is working on a new book about a friendship that began in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, called Vox Babyonia.

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