Art, soup, and family: Nepenthe

I sometimes tell people I discovered the artwork of Big Sur artist Erin Lee Gafill in a bathroom, which is true, but doesn’t really tell the story. I stumbled across her work one winter after an anniversary trip to Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn. Over that weekend, I was thinking about all the gorgeous photos I’ve taken of the area over the years –

and had an idea to construct a movie of sorts with my images as a backdrop. On the way home – in the interest of market research, of course – we stopped at the awesome Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe to take a look at their selection of Big Sur books and movies.

I took a lucky detour into the shop’s restroom and discovered walls covered with lovely Boticelli-esque murals. I was immediately excited – and about bathroom walls! There was just something about the color and line that immediately spoke to me. I felt completely ridiculous requesting permission to take a picture inside someone’s bathroom, but ask I did.

Good thing it was, too. It turns out the ladies behind the counter didn’t think it at all strange; I’m not the only one to have raved about the stunning artwork in that bathroom. And it was in that conversation with the Phoenix Shop salesperson that I heard about Erin Gafill, Big Sur artist and granddaughter of Nepenthe’s founder Lolly Fassett, and found out that bathroom walls are not her normal canvas of choice. She paints stunning landscapes:

And barns:

And lovely still-lifes. I’ve learned, in these intervening years following her blog and newsletters, that she is also a talented writer and teacher, a prolific artist, and an all-around inspiration.

And so I’ve admired from afar until last month. Another (wonderful) Post Ranch getaway. This time, on the way home, we had the opportunity to visit the Big Sur studio Erin shares with her husband, photographer Tom Birmingham. Ok, we basically invited ourselves over – yet they were completely welcoming and hospitable. Erin is as lovely and charming in person as her work made me think she would be, and Tom is equally gracious and dashing. She generously shared her time and her stories, offering up bit of the history of the studio, a hundred-year old handmade cabin, and patiently answered all my questions about her painting techniques and locations. We had intended to buy a small oil painting, and seeing Erin’s work up close made it hard to decide; her layers of color and brush strokes are so subtle, and each painting perfectly captures Big Sur in one of its many moods.

Decide we did. Now I have this sweet little Molera barn hanging next to my desk, where I can draw inspiration from Erin and Big Sur every time I sit down to work. Best of all, I went away that day feeling that I’d made a new personal connection in this world.

 

I think one of the reasons Erin’s artwork touches me so is because Big Sur is completely ingrained in our own family story. LL and the Kids and I love to drive down there, either for the day – picnicking and hiking the Partington Cove trail or climbing the rocks in the Big Sur River Gorge – or for a long weekend in a cabin at Ripplewood or the Big Sur Lodge. By day, we look for waterfalls, build rock totems next to the river, and breathe the fresh redwood and pine scented air.

One particularly blustery afternoon at Pfeiffer Beach, Kid One took my notebook and wrote:

The windy armies march,
Rip the cliffs asunder
Destroy the Sandman’s golden arch
Us caught in the thunder

By night we eat, and that always means a trip to Nepenthe, especially after we discovered they make The Best Soup Ever. My Moleskines are filled with notes like “Dinner at Nepenthe. Lentil soup with ham – in a chicken vegetable type of broth. Agreed we never had lentils like this. Awesome.”

Here are the entire contents of a page from another trip; transposed, it looks something like a poem by Emily Dickenson:

(Nepenthe)
Soup –
celery root
bacon
curry
chicken stock

yellow onion & bacon –
render fat –
peeled celery root –
white wine –
stock –
curry powder –

I remember that visit well; we were so overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of the soup the server went to ask the kitchen on our behalf if there was a recipe to share. The chef came out at the end of our meal, happy with our pleasure, and went over the steps while I made those notes – another example of the graciousness of Big Sur folk. Food, art, and family, all mixed up in one place.

I’ve posted my own re-creation of that soup here in a separate post. In the meantime, see more of Erin Lee Gafill’s work here online at her website, and take a peek at her inspiration by clicking here to see the view from the Nepenthe webcam. For more Nepenthe, you will enjoy Romney Steele’s book My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur. (The book is also a great gift!)


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