Art Is Delicious!

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about finding art that quietly lives in the neighborhood.  I’m still always looking for places that celebrate art without turning it into just one more expensive object to acquire or desire.  It’s been a long time since modern capitalist culture turned artistic expression into “the art world,” a high-priced market-driven ego fetish, severing art from its traditional, mythic function of reflecting and strengthening the bonds of community.  The trend only continues to worsen.  Finding places to experience an authentic encounter with art, one that isn’t mediated by corporate, top-down values, is increasingly rare.

One place where art continues to thrive is Sweet Elena’s, the popular cafe in Sand City.  Many coffeehouses and restaurants display local art, but at Sweet Elena’s there is a palpable commitment to artists and a sheer love of art that sets it apart.

On a recent visit, paintings by Sand City artist Suzanne St. John offered views of the old sand plant, now long gone.  A puzzle-like jumble of industrial architecture transformed by the rich colors of memory, these paintings explore an unlikely source of art and are an invitation to reconsider the meaning of beauty.

In a side room, cafe owner Elena Salsedo-Steele has assembled a personal shrine to art and the creative process.  Small portraits by Johnny Apodaca and Michael Snodgrass present humble fruits and vegetables as worthy artistic subjects; my favorite is the buoyant leek, set against a cheery blue sky background.  Elegant and evocative cut-paper works by Kevin Miller share shelfspace with bits of shell, a downed mobile, stones, ceramics.  A lower shelf features old paintbrushes and two oddly delightful assemblages constructed with blue-painted pieces of wood.

Old paintbrushes also hang over a doorway, fashioning a distinct threshold that reminds visitors they have entered a place where art lives.

Works by Robin Winfield also straddle a threshold: Are they photographs?  Are they paintings?  Winfield mounts photographs onto a wooden board, creating a unique canvas for her paintbrush.  The effect, as in “Chop Suey, Salinas” (at right), is dreamlike, the work’s gently rippled texture almost liquid with ambiguity.

Next month, Sweet Elena’s celebrates its 20th anniversary, and to kick off the celebration, the cafe sponsored a children’s art contest, whose results are currently on display.  The $100-winning piece, a posterboard of cupcakes and other sweet treats made by the children of an art camp in Gonzales, is a grand declaration of the goodness of dessert.  The beautiful ceramic pastries made by Carmel Valley 4th-graders are also a delight.  Postcards featuring the children’s art will be on sale to benefit Hamilton House, an emergency shelter for displaced and battered women.

It is possible that not every patron to Sweet Elena’s will pay attention to the art that fills its corners and covers its Van Gogh-ochre walls.  People may be in a hurry, or be distracted, or be too busy eating, reading, chatting or daydreaming to notice.  At a museum, we drop our outside concerns and turn our eyes and minds to the painting on the wall, the sculpture on the pedestal.  At a cafe, we sit down to eat lunch, our backs to a painting, and we may not notice it.

But another way to think about places like Sweet Elena’s is that these are places where art is in the air, like the aroma of fresh-baked bread.  Simply being in such an art-filled environment may be just as nourishing as the delicious food on the menu.  Even without examining every brushstroke, we feel and absorb the energy of creativity, partake of the sweet ingredients that have made Elena’s a success for twenty years, and are subtly transformed.

Sweet Elena’s Bakery, 465D Olympia Avenue, Sand City.  20th Anniversary Open House Celebration benefiting Hamilton House, Sunday, March 4, 2:00-5:00 pm. (831) 393-2063.