ArtWorks News

Creating Community: Check out Erika Nj Allen and Maggie Lawson’s When Life Gives Us Lemons

Photo by Lura Bentley.

Frank discussions have the power to heal.

And creating the right environment for these types of conversations was what drove artists Erika Nj Allen and Maggie Lawson to create When Life Gives Us Lemons, a series of site-specific meal performances incorporating ceramics, installation, and an artist publication.

Lemons came to be after the two received a Jump Start Emerging Artist Award from ArtWorks last summer.

“ArtWorks allowed us to create these unique experiences based on food and community support during a difficult year,” Allen said. “Together with Maggie and the youth apprentices, we were able to provide a resourceful, encouraging opportunity.”

Jump Start aimed to launch emerging artists with additional resources too: studio space, and assistance from ArtWorks Youth Apprentices Lura Bentley and Ezra Cline.

Over four months, the Lemons team held gatherings of eight people centered around food and conversation. Allen created custom ceramic lemons for each participant, and Lawson designed a menu that accentuated the bitter taste of lemons with locally sourced produce. The team also received support from Mom n’em Coffee and Wine, Elm Street Social, the BonBonerie, and Old Dutch Hops.

The symbolism behind the ceramic lemons runs deep for Allen. “My goal as an artist is to create work that symbolizes the resilience of battling the aftermath of a hysterectomy,” she said. “My ceramic lemons work as such, leading to conversations about the vital relationship between a healthy diet, and mental health to help combat feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts.”

Those who participated included local women artists, immigrant families from Casa Paz, and Lawson’s extended family. These intimate events, held outdoors in places like Findlay Market and Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, included discussions and resource sharing among the guests.

Photo by Lura Bentley


The final meal was held on Zoom for 11 members of Lawson’s family, who were spread between four states and spanning three generations. Each received care packages containing taco kits, worksheets and ceramic lemons.

Lawson, who recently returned to Cincinnati, said being back reminded her she’s a “maker of community, food and opportunity.”

“I had no idea coming home to Ohio would open me up so profoundly to what grows in this landscape and what I have to offer our food system⁣,” she said. “The world feels very delicate these days. I’m so grateful that we’re coming together to build something more resilient and beautiful.”

By supporting the Lemons project, ArtWorks wanted to help create connections during the pandemic.

“In a year where free socializing was essentially forbidden,⁠ Erika and Maggie were able to create intentional communities through these small gatherings, despite the challenges of social distancing,” said Amy Scarpello, ArtWorks’ director of artist impact. “The spaces were a platform for healing.”

Bentley and Cline created 24 ceramic lemons, illustrated and designed the invitations and zines that included information on resources. They also helped cook and serve the meals and photographed the events.

Menu from October 12, 2020.

You can hear more from the When Life Gives Us Lemons duo from our March 2021 Viva Voce Artist Conversation.

About ArtWorks

ArtWorks is an award-winning Greater Cincinnati nonprofit that transforms people and places through investments in creativity. The organization collaborates with community organizations and residents, businesses, governments, foundations and nonprofits to build creative works of art that bolster the region’s global reputation as an arts destination. ArtWorks employs professional artists who inspire and mentor diverse teams of youth, ages 14-21, helping them build 21st century career-readiness skills. These teams have completed more than 12,500 public and private art projects in its 25 years, including more than 200 permanent outdoor murals.