While some might find animal carcass paintings unappetizing when they're about to cut into a thick, juicy steak, it's just the look the owners of Smithfields were going for when they hired artist Sarah F. Burns.

While some might find animal carcass paintings unappetizing when they're about to cut into a thick, juicy steak, it's just the look the owners of Smithfields were going for when they hired artist Sarah F. Burns.

Burns has created a series of vanitas-inspired oil paintings that will be unveiled today in the Ashland restaurant at 36 S. Second St.

"We just wanted to try to create something that would be challenging for my customers to look at — and not just a piece of art," said Neil Clooney, co-owner of Smithfields. "What we were going for was the whole life-and-death concept so people can think about the process the food goes through to get to their plate."

Business partner Dee Vallentyne is a fan of British artists Damien Hirst, who features dead animals in his artwork, and the late Francis Bacon, who portrayed anxiety and alienation, Burns said. "She's all about intense work," said Burns. "She wasn't shying away at all from the intensity of the raw meat and the carcasses. I was encouraged, in fact, to go there."

Clooney and Vallentyne commissioned Burns to paint three large pieces measuring 3 feet by 4 feet, one medium-sized piece that is 20 inches by 36 inches, and four small pieces measuring 12 inches by 12 inches.

"I enjoyed so much the process of making paintings for that specific location," Burns said. "I could go in the space, see what the lighting was like and know where they are going to hang. They will be positioned at the average eye-level."

Burns said she is inspired by 16th- and 17th-century still life, specifically vanitas, a genre featuring objects that symbolize the brevity of life and inevitability of death. Vanitas can be traced to the Latin translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2: "Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (Vanity of vanities; all is vanity)."

"I've been interested in vanitas for awhile," Burns said. "My training is classical realist, but I haven't ever consciously said, 'I'm making a vanitas work.' "

Until now. For one of the larger pieces, Burns used a 200-pound bear carcass in her studio to paint from.

"My friend Gilbert said he just killed a bear, and I asked if I could have the bones," she said. "I study artistic anatomy, so any bones are really valuable."

Burns said pulling the carcass out of her freezer every time she wanted to paint for a few hours was a bit of an ordeal because it was so large and heavy. She listened to books on tape written by chefs while she painted, she said.

"I couldn't get the bones exactly the same each time," she said, "so really what you see in that painting is the bear skeleton three times. It was pretty crazy. It would begin to thaw after a few hours. It wasn't rotten at all; it was really meaty smelling."

Burns said because she grew up on a small farm in Eagle Point, where there were cows, chickens, sheep and goats, she is accustomed to butchering animals for food — though she did admit to being a vegan in her teens.

"I think it's really interesting to get different people's takes on meat-eating," she said. "It is something that people kind of wrestle with. I know people who will only eat ground meat so they don't think so much that it's a muscle."

The paintings also feature some references to Smithfield, London, the namesake of the restaurant, such as a small painting inside one of the works depicting Sir William Wallace, one of the leaders of a Scottish rebellion who was executed in Smithfield in 1305.

Clooney said he doesn't want to turn his customers' stomachs before they are about to eat; he just wants them to think about the process.

"We didn't want to make it too graphic so they can handle eating, but we wanted them to think about the piece of meat that's on their plate so they appreciate that finished product," he said. "Some are simple like birds with just a few feathers. The bear is more graphic. One is just a tongue."

"Maybe some people might have an issue with it," Burns said. "I think it's pretty awesome. I don't know, it's pretty crazy. Pretty cool, though."

A reception to unveil the new works will be from 7 to 9 tonight at Smithfields Restaurant and Bar, 36 S. Second St. Hors d'oeuvres, wine and prosecco will be provided.

Reach reporter Mandy Valencia at avalencia@mailtribune.com.