Certain supermarkets these days overflow with whimsy and rare cheeses.

Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's stores especially market themselves as food fun houses in which humor and a passion for all things edible are meant to be part of the shopping adventure.

Enhancing the experience is the food art. Each Whole Foods and Trader Joe's employs artists who create signs, murals, chalkboards and graphics to communicate the corporate wit, along with the prices.

Katie Lanciano, a 28-year-old graduate of Moore College of Art and Design, is a full-time, in-store artist at a Whole Foods Market.

Funny, innovative and energetic, Lanciano does what she says just 25 percent of friends with fine-arts degrees do: work every day as an artist.

“I relate Whole Foods to the Medicis,” she says, referring to the wealthy Renaissance family that bankrolled great artists. “Art needs money, and Whole Foods provides it. I'm very lucky.”

For Lanciano – who started working at the market at the juice bar – luck means having the opportunity to draw a blue octopus squeezing a huge orange for a sign over the juice section. “A person who works here suggested it,” Lanciano says. “He told me he had a vision in his sleep.”

Your typical supermarket, Lanciano says with an exaggerated scowl, would not commission a depiction of an employee's bizarre dream.

Lanciano has license to make the store into her canvas.

Thus, there's an Asian art deco woman with a fan in the fish section; a chicken laying an egg that travels via tube from a farm to a city kitchen (another employee vision); a strong fellow picking sunset-red apples in a lush orchard.

“I like agrarian culture,” Lanciano says. “And I veer toward work, not slacking. I want to show people being industrious.”

She uses latex wall paint, ammonia-based chalk paint and black paint markers for much of the art. She tries to keep the same color scheme going throughout the store: green, red, brown and blue. “The colors remind people where the food comes from,” Lanciano says.

Occasionally, she will reflect citywide art happenings among the food. Thus, when the Salvador Dali exhibition was in her town, Lanciano created an homage to a painting by the master with a tiger leaping out of a fish for the seafood section.

Ameliorating matters when she can, Lanciano reproduced a man depicted on the package of Isigny Ste. Mere French brie. The guy on the label has no ears, but Lanciano generously provided him with a pair on a store sign.

Several employees have asked her to draw their heads onto the bodies of animals, but so far she's resisted. “Those would be some gruesome images,” she says, laughing.

Lanciano would like to use her husband, Michael – a store butcher – on a sign, but the favoritism “creeps him out,” she says. Too bad, Lanciano says. She had some fun ideas.

“Katie has a wicked sense of humor and brings that out,” says Sarah Kenney, director of marketing for Whole Foods' Mid-Atlantic region. “Store artists like her pick up on shoppers' vibes and what they'd appreciate, and then give it to them, like any commercial artist. We want to show we don't take ourselves too seriously.”

In a world where the big competition is Wal-Mart, more stores are realizing they can't win customers by lowering prices, says Bridget Goldschmidt, managing editor of Progressive Grocer , a publication that covers food retailing. Places such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, then, find new ways to compete, with art being yet another effort to lure shoppers.

“A lot of stores are looking into giving people a shopping experience you won't get anywhere else, or products you won't see anywhere else,” Goldschmidt says. “I haven't heard of any other stores using artists, but programs like that will create an ambience that sets Whole Foods and Trader Joe's apart.”

Working hard to look appealing in Philly's Market Street Trader Joe's, in-store artists Eric Long, Mandy Heck and Ellis Jones combine city images with the store's trademark nautical/Polynesian themes.

On a recent day, Heck, 26, of West Philadelphia, was drawing a blank trying to incorporate a New Year's theme with soy and flaxseed tortilla chips and corn-and-chile salsa.

“I have a little time,” she says, nervously. Whatever it is, Heck assures us, “it'll be fun.”

© 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.