In the heart of Paso Robles’ downtown, you can find a smorgasbord of gourmet goods. Take a jaunt about the main park square, and you’ll find both the exotic and refined—duck confit, ratatouille, range-fed bison, and something called “pumpkin spatzle.” There’s French, Italian, Thai, and fine ’50s Americana diner cuisine. Walk a few steps down the block to Studios on the Park, and you’ll find slightly more diverse fare. Saltine crackers, Oreos, cheese, pie, fish, ice cream, and Pizza, Australian Style line the walls of the gallery.
No, this is not the result of a drunk shopping trip to Costco. These are some of the subjects that form Eat Your Heart Out, the second annual juried exhibit at Studios.
- PHOTO BY JESSICA PEÑA
- DEERLY BELOVED: An imposing and whimsical window display designed by Eve Chartrand greets visitors to Studios on the Park.
Like most of us humans, food has always been an intrinsic part of Joe Thomas’ life. He’s an organic farmer with Thomas Hill Farms in Templeton. It’s a 10-acre, family-owned operation with more than 900 fruit and nut trees, seasonal vegetables, and a sprawling vineyard. It’s picturesque, which is perfect because Thomas is also a classically trained artist who draws and paints towering portraits of people, animals, and the like at Studios.
Last year, he had an idea to combine these two loves of his—food and art. For years now, Paso Robles has increasingly become a popular foodie haven for the gourmands of the world. But the art scene there is just as rich.
“Paso is such a unique area,” Thomas said over the phone. “It’s steeped in wine and also a food destination. I wanted to see all these different communities. How do we bring them together?”
The plan was thus: invite local artists from all over the county to submit art (in any style and medium) centered on a theme—love and food. Then, Thomas would call upon local chefs to judge the artwork.
This year, he received more than a hundred submissions from all over the county. The judges—including Chris Kobayashi, executive chef and owner of Artisan; and Laurent Grangien of Bistro Laurent—then selected the best of the bunch for display.
- PHOTO BY JESSICA PEÑA
- HEAD OF THE TABLE: Hellie Blythe’s 'Camouflaged Cone' is just one of the exhibit’s many pieces dedicated to the theme of “food and love.”
“I thought it would be really interesting if the judges were in the culinary field,” Thomas explained. “They’re artists themselves. … The thing is, the challenge I really want people to think about … is to reveal something about themselves and their relationship to food.”
Revelations indeed. Like few other exhibits, Eat Your Heart Out offers an offbeat variety that mirrors the diversity of not only the theme, but the artists themselves. On one wall, you have The Egg Makers by Nancy Vest—a seemingly simple painting of a hen that contains an inner complexity complete with a 3-D skeleton and little figurines.
Then, on other wall, you can see the intricate needlework of one Peg Grady. In Blueprint For a Sensual Feast, she’s stitched delicate, white outlines of Hershey’s Kisses, caviar, wine glasses, and quotes from the likes of Euripides and Maya Angelou.
Just a few feet down from Grady is one of the show’s highlights, a dollhouse fantasy nightmare from Lena Rushing. Her expansive, acrylic painting Eat Your Heart Out features two Alice In Wonderland-esque girls devouring pieces of a heart-shaped (the organ that is) cake. Blood drips out of the dessert’s layers; one girl, with a devious smirk, licks some off her thumb. The image’s dark potent, when combined with Rushing’s pastel palette, makes for a spellbinding affect—one that underscores the off-kilter, atypical aesthetic that Thomas intended for the event.“I’m always interested in what makes me uncomfortable, what rattles my cage,” he said. “I’ve had quite a few food experiences and eaten some really strange things. It kinda really breaks down barriers and my idea of what is normal. For me, art is the same way.”
Eat Your Heart Out caters to that vision, for the most part. Naturally, when you have a food-themed show, there will be the usual cornucopia of still lifes. And while the still lifes are skillfully wrought, the power of this exhibit derives from the weird stuff, the unexpected stuff—shoes adorned in salad leaves; a sheep framed by newspaper strips; or a sleek, geometric ice cream cone made of wood. These are a hearty testament to the same craftsmanship and imagination that makes great chefs great.
“For me, food and art is essential,” Thomas noted. “The senses are brought together in that moment. Food is heavily laden with memory. One of my favorite teachers from the Art Institute of Chicago said, ‘If you become a better cook, you become a better painter.’ I totally believe in that.”
Jessica Peña eats oils for breakfast. Fatty oils that is. Send her some fried Twinkies at email@example.com.