by Caroline Siemers
When you think of exceptional wine, food and hospitality, if you’re in the US, you probably think of the Napa Valley. Not only is Napa the center of American winemaking, it’s also home to two of only nine American restaurants to receive three Michelin stars: Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry (Yountville) and Chef Christopher Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena). So it makes sense that “the Valley” would attract its fair share of artists, both visual and culinary, and that one of these artists would eventually bring the two worlds together. NOURISH, on view now at the Napa Valley Museum and curated by artist Nancy Willis, does just that.
Willis, a painter, printmaker, and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus, is renowned in Napa for her hospitality. “My parents liked to entertain and from a very young age my siblings and I were part of the prep team,” Willis says. “I developed an early appreciation for good service and for all the small details that go into a memorable social experience. Details that are important, but also easy to overlook.”
Indulgence, nurturing, and sharing food are themes that run through Willis’ studio work. “The dinner table has been a recurring subject in many of my paintings, prints and videos,” she says. “But it wasn’t until I began teaching at the CIA and saw how the chefs approached the process of cooking and presentation, that I began to think about the relationship between visual and culinary arts in a new way.”
|Nancy Willis, Hostess After Party, installation shot and detail, from NOURISH|
“I realized that artists and chefs share a much deeper connection than simply making things that are visually pleasing,” Willis continues. “We use many of the same creative and problem solving skills. What drives each of us could be personal and unique, but contributes to the same outcome, the nourishment of our communities.”
NOURISH is all about exploring this shared territory. “There’s a rich history of food and gastronomy as a subject in the visual arts,” Willis continues, “ but people either don’t know or forget about it. I wanted to remind the viewer that contemporary art practices around gastronomy come from a continuing dialogue through approaches in painting, sculpture and installation.
“Often what seems invisible is there,” she adds, “merely unnoticed, if you have the time or desire to look for it. “
Willis brings the unseen forward in NOURISH by opening up the back of the house if you will and exposing the chefs, artists and artisans engaged in feeding us.
This approach is what gives NOURISH its dynamic and distinctive point of view: Because Willis works in both the visual and culinary arts, the show has an insider’s flair. The work is presented from the point of view of the people who create the art and who create the food, versus from the point of view of the people who consume them. It’s a subtle but stunning distinction – the invisible wall that typically separates a viewer from a work of art evaporates, giving the show an unusual immediacy; visitors to NOURISH feel more like invited guests than voyeurs.
“The way the show is organized helps with that feeling,” Willis explains. “The dinner table is the show’s centerpiece, but not in a literal sense. Conceptually, it’s the hub around which all the other elements circulate.” The exhibition flows, through “rooms” that open one into the next. The viewer moves from the “back of the house” down a corridor to the main gallery, where a Picasso and a Miro hang amidst contemporary artists’ work.
Included is a ceramic table by NBC Pottery who also made the serveware that rests on it. “These are the kind of details we easily overlook. For many people, a plate is something used to take their food from the kitchen to the TV. So what takes something out of utility and turns it into art? Sometimes it is intention, sometimes the design of the object, sometimes its placement within a larger context,” she says. “But really, it doesn’t have to be that complicated,” she adds. “You can turn an ordinary dinner into a memorable one by breaking out the good china. It’s that simple.”
In curating the show, Willis purposefully took a “farm-to-table” approach in presenting local artists and chefs alongside more established names. You’ll find works by Picasso, Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as work from local Napa artists including Nikki and Will Callnan of NBC Pottery (who make the dinnerware for The Restaurant at Meadowood); Sue Bradford whose conical installation of waxed aprons presents a delightful allegory; and Robb McDonough whose photographs taken of a line cook and Thomas Keller before service create an iconic diptych.
Not only does NOURISH put a frame around artists, it also spotlights chefs. One fascinating aspect of the exhibition is a live feed between NOURISH and the kitchen of La Maison Pic, Chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s three-Michelin-star restaurant in Valence, France. Willis also took a unique approach to showcasing the local Napa chefs. “I wanted to represent them in a non-photographic way and show a different side to their creativity,” Willis explains. “I invited six chefs to my studio for a printmaking session to give them an opportunity to work in a new medium.”
The chef’s monotypes, which are hung next to traditional paintings, are an especially intimate part of the exhibit. “Working with the chefs in my studio was an amazing experience,” Willis says. “Making art often stirs things up. Unexpected connections are made; time slows down and allows a sense of shared discovery. For example, when working with Chef David Katz of Panevino, I learned that his mother was a successful East Coast artist. In making the monotypes, it was easy to see how the process connected him to his mother.”
It’s these types of connections, Willis says, that are the substance of true hospitality. Whether sharing a meal, preparing a meal, or making art together, it’s the connections we make when doing so (with ourselves, with one another, and with our communities) that are the heart of NOURISH. “The best hospitality keeps on giving,” Willis says. “I would love for people to take away from NOURISH a greater appreciation for the arts in their everyday lives. I’d also like for them to leave hungry,” she adds, laughing. “Hungry to see and experience more of the arts.”
“I think artists are natural ‘givers’ – we want to share our work and our ideas. Yet, as an artist, I often feel invisible in my community and in my culture,” she muses. “There’s a lot of thought, planning and labor that goes into making art, just as there is in creating memorable dining experiences.”
“To make art,” she continues, “an artist needs time and a studio. To make food, a chef needs time and a kitchen. Yet there’s so much more support for the culinary arts than visual arts in our culture. People go out to eat but many people don’t go to look at art let alone purchase it. My students often come from high schools that have industrial kitchens but no art programs. I think there’s something wrong with that.”
“It’s something my artist friends and I talk about all the time, how to make the arts more integrated into the culture. I’d love to see more of what I see in France, where art is a vital part of everyday life,” Willis says. “Here in the Napa Valley, the number of successful restaurants has grown significantly in the 26 years I’ve been living here, but the number of art galleries and places to see or experience art have not. I think that’s an unhealthy balance, one that threatens the wellbeing of our community.”
Correcting that balance, or at least highlighting it, is central to NOURISH. By showcasing the similarities and connections between food and art, Willis seeks to bring awareness to the fact that both are necessary to a healthy, meaningful life. “Ultimately, it was time to take the conversation out of my studio into the community.”
Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, CA. http://www.napavalleymuseum.org, through November 29, 2015. Wed–Sun 11am to 4pm; Wednesday Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Caroline Siemers is a Los Angeles-based writer, artist, baker and traveler. She’s also a management consultant who specializes in companies and helps employees manage their relationships. She managed her relationship with 20 years of corporate work by baking, which she became interested in at age 5 when she asked her mom to buy cookies but instead, her mom showed her how to make them. That moment, the magical transformation of ingredients into food, sparked a lifelong interest in creativity of all kinds. Caroline writes about food at www.ibrake4bakeries.com and business at www.welcometocorplandia.com.