The 40-Year Lunch
Local artists and art lovers make a lasting tradition of meeting at Fifi’s for lots of talk.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
In the back corner of Fifi’s Bistro, aging artists gather over red wine and French bread. The weekly gathering, which they’ve named “Fifi’s Salon,” started in the late 1960s, but the individuals at the table measure their time together not in years (39 and counting) as much as in the number of restaurants they have frequented (about 10) before finding a home at Fifi’s 27 years ago. Though they have met under similar circumstances more than 2,000 times, each week they still find something - make that lots of things: art, politics, local gossip, personal memories - to talk about.
So there’s longevity and talent - note members like abstract painter Dick Crispo, whose works have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institute and Bibliothèque nationale de France - but it’s the chemistry that’s most striking: Banter peppers each meal. At a recent lunch, the topics veer from Seven Sisters schools (“I dated a girl from Sarah Lawrence once”), to rich personal histories (Don Mathews, a retired naval officer, says he brought the first nude model to Fort Ord). Each ephemeral subject spawns side conversations; facts are up for grabs and members regularly correct and elaborate on each other’s stories - creating a communal memory.
“Each person has a little bit, and eventually it’s all pinned down” says Mathews, a 22-year Fifi’s vet who also founded the nonprofit The Creative Edge: The Way of the Arts.
Member Ilene Tuttle recalls early lunches at the now-defunct Rings on Cannery Row when they met almost every day and were joined by local businesspeople, spouses, friends and even restaurant patrons. The lunches came to occupy a significant place in everyone’s lives, she adds. “We began to depend on each other,” Tuttle says.
Still, even though the group has been meeting since Watergate, it had never collaborated on an art show until last month. Now the expansive walls at Pacific Grove Art Center are filled with pieces that range from Mathews’ dream-inspired wood and stone sculptures to fellow member Martha Casanave’s cameraless frames made with plant cuttings, photographic paper and UV exposure. On one wall appear former Monterey Museum of Art director Stephen Brown’s abstract pen-and-ink renderings of his grandfather’s watch and an acrylic of a pond surface at night. In another room, Eva Lothar’s films about Cannery Row play.
Brown half jests the group is notable precisely because of this diversity. “It’s a gathering of artists with very disparate definitions of what art means,” he says, “[who haven’t] killed each other.”
The “table,” as the members often refer to it, has little structure. Members aren’t required to be practicing artists. Tuttle, for instance, pulls out air quotes to say she no longer “does art,” but she still curates art in alternative spaces such as the Monterey Regional Airport. Anyone is welcome.
The group doesn’t discriminate by geography, either. David Bayles, a photographer and writer, joined at the urging of his girlfriend and stops by when visiting from Oregon. A filmmaker from France stops by for lunch during her annual trip to the Central Coast. A collection of postcards from members near and far, addressed to Fifi’s Art Table (the Pacific Grove Post Office knows the drill), has piled up over the years: St. Petersburg, New York, Australia, every capital of Europe. Mathews points out one of his own from Colorado. “When you are away [from the ‘table’],” he says, “you make contact from a distance.”
The conversation eventually meanders to participants who have passed. One of the natural-but-unpleasant symptoms of such a long-lasting society is members’ mortality, and - with the next generation of local artistic minds underrepresented at the table - the mortality of the group itself comes with it. The recent death of Gerald Wasserman - a modern artist, longtime resident of Carmel and well-loved table regular - presents a fresh reminder of the group’s impermanence. His photo sits on an inset shelf next to the salt and pepper shakers, and he’s the sole conversation topic that halts the seemingly unstoppable side conversations.
While the PGAC show was the brainchild of table member, contemporary artist and art center board member Misha Pavlov, Wasserman was one of its loudest advocates. His works are displayed alongside the pieces of the current members.
They’re together again, through art, and not just on Tuesdays.
FIFI’S SALON gathers at Fifi’s Bistro and Cafe, 1188 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, Tuesdays around noon. The show at Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove, runs from July 20-Aug. 30. 375-2208, www.pgartcenter.org