By Meredith Wagner | Arts & Life Editor
For creative thinkers and feelers, artwork is hardly limited to the paintbrush.
Local businesses and nonprofits joined hand-in-hand Saturday night to host an event titled “Palette,” the only art-to-table experience of its kind in Texas. The air at Cultivate 7twelve, a recently opened art gallery and event space in Waco, echoed with live piano and the chatter of nearly 50 guests, all of whom awaited a night of fine cuisine and immersive, creative inspiration.
The name “art-to-table” succinctly describes the premise of the dinner: Juanita Barrientos and Toby Tull, co-owners of Happy Harvest, selected four paintings hanging in the Cultivate 7twelve gallery, and proceeded to create an edible, high-end dish to represent each chosen work. Barrientos and Tull brainstormed, prepared and served four courses in total, each of which portrayed, abstractly or realistically, one of the displayed paintings. The guests, happily conversing over mineral water, received postcards displaying the artwork that inspired the course they would be served shortly thereafter.
Dinner guests dined among the works of nationally acclaimed Waco artist Charles Wallis, a painter who uses his craft to express his journey as a deeply compassionate, intuitive individual. The elements of light and color in his paintings made for a night of creativity on multiple accounts – edible or otherwise. Wallis also attended the dinner and spoke about each painting before the course representing that work of art was served.
The first postcard depicted the profile of a woman with serious eyes and blue hair staring intently to the right, the word, “hmmmm?” moving away from her lips. Served alongside the photo was roasted wild mushroom swimming in a seasoned umami broth, balancing the mild, cool color palette of the painting with a bowl of mostly neutral hues.
Owner of Cultivate 7twelve Rebekah Hagman said Barrientos and Tull created dishes that reflected a sense of courage similar to that in the paintings.
“You’re really getting a big window into a human being,” Hagman said about artist Charles Wallis. “Not only did Juanita and Toby’s dishes reflect the content of Charles’ work, but … I saw them much more exposed. They were talking about themselves as introverted, as over-thinkers, as creatives. It was really personal.”
Hagman said the vulnerability and authenticity displayed in the paintings caused a chain reaction among both the chefs and the dinner guests.
“Toby and Juanita’s willingness to share who they were in the dishes I think inspired similar conversation among the [guests] — their past, who they were, where they came from,” Hagman said. “I heard so many rich discussions around the dinner table. It was the perfect result.”
Conversation and laughter hung as unapologetically in the air as Wallis’ many paintings did on the walls. The second postcard was served promptly, and guests glanced around the room to locate the original work. An orange, fiery human figure labored to escape a cloud of blurry, blue heads in the background, fiercely breaking from the conformity of the crowd. Alongside this postcard was a fresh ricotta galette, encircled by kale that had just moments before been hand-charred with a fiery torch, the flame mimicking the burning figure in the painting.
As the night continued, Barrientos and others worked rapidly yet steadily in the back-room-turned-kitchen. Preparation for the dinner had begun weeks in advance, when Barrientos and Tull together selected which paintings they would use as inspiration. The process from there is one of complexity, patience and a special form of creativity.
Tull said head chef Barrientos draws from multiple elements of the painting to build her own masterpiece. “Emotion, color, style, actual content — There are so many places she can take it,” he said, adding that, no matter the creation, “People have responded so well.”
Barrientos furthered this by describing her culinary-minded, creative process in detail.
“For me, a feeling can be cinnamon — I know that sounds weird — but it reminds me of warmth, of comfort. If [the artwork] talks about something being aggressive, I think spice. I think citrus. I think burnt,” she said. “I really just play around with different components.”
The main course, which drew inspiration from Wallis’ piece ‘It Is Not You. It Is Us.’, encompassed slow-cooked pork, escabeche and mole blanco, wrapped snugly within a glowing banana leaf.
The warm oranges and yellows depicted in the lighting of the painting, which peered through a central, pane-glass window, were captured using brightly pigmented vegetables and sweet potato puree. The green of the banana leaf, encapsulating all other ingredients, directly mimicked the greenery surrounding the lone human figure in the painting, as if nature was the primary support for all else in life, and in dinner.
“Each dinner is very nerve-wracking because it’s so personal,” Barrientos said later. But, she said, “After every dinner, I learn to be a little bit more fearless.”
No evidence better captured her fearlessness than dessert. Vanilla stout ice cream accompanied a cinnamon honey cake topped with burnt meringue. Pear compote and salted caramel added extra flavor, and the explosion of color on Wallis’ canvas was recreated with an explosion of toasted pecan brittle on the plate.
Tull explained the similarities of the dish, and the painting, to his and Juanita’s habits of thoughtfulness. “This dish highlights the benefits of overthinking,” he said to the crowd. Proceeded by a spurt laugher from the dinner guests, Tull added, “We really over-thought this dish for you guys.”
Chicago native Nicole Stark is the store manager of Happy Harvest’s pre-made health food store. Stark said Tull and Barrientos are the reason she stays in Waco, instead of moving around the country working at various organic farms, as she used to do.
“I am able to be happy because I’ve met them,” she said. “I met [Toby] right away when I moved to Waco. It’s because of Toby and Juanita and what they do — that’s why I stay here.”
As the night wound down, head chef Barrientos said she was overcome by a sense of relief, followed by an immense gratitude, both for the opportunity to create and for the hands that helped. “I feel very full inside. It’s just very humbling,” she said. Addressing the crowd, she added, “We could not do this without these hands right here. They are my backbone.”
Hagman reinforced the purpose of the event as a whole: “It’s a tactile experience of beauty, intentionality and reflection that we never make time for, and we need to,” she said.
Hagman said her hope is that everyone in Waco will, at some point or another, feel drawn to the event, which occurs once every month.
“I want everyone to be able to have this kind of experience. I hope in three years we cycle through every person living here.” After all, Hagman said, “We’re here for Waco.”