A Nepenthe Childhood

I was born in 1963, in Big Sur, California, and grew up at my family’s restaurant, Nepenthe.

I remember so many moments from childhood, like stills from a film.

Peeking through the curtains to see everyone dancing down below.

The cake table at Nepenthe’s monthly Sign party

Astrology parties with free birthday cake and champagne and dancing under the stars.

Beating tin can lids with a ball peen hammer until the tin shone that we pierced with a nail and strung with wire from the branches of the Christmas tree.

Before we could work at the restaurant with real jobs, there were always tasks we could do. Soaking the labels off wine bottles – my grandmother would display the bottles in the windows to add a little color. Hammering nails out of old reclaimed boards so the wood could be salvaged, and sometimes the nails too, for a new building project. Bringing in kindling for the fire, and making tight balls of newspaper for kindling.

Lolly Fassett, my grandmother, at Nepenthe

My first job at the restaurant was buttering the French rolls we used for the Ambrosiaburger. Melting cubes of butter in a pot over an open flame and dipping in a three inch brush to slather the butter over the soft white bread – perhaps my first experience with the physical pleasure of painting anything.

Everyone who worked at Nepenthe was creative. Even the school bus driver taught ceramics. Candle dipping and macrame, knitting and crocheting – invariably there was someone teaching yoga or ballet on the terrace, or making a Halloween costume in the sewing room, or designing and making garments for the Phoenix Shop. For years a bestseller was a floor length “Little Red Riding Hood” hooded cape of boiled red wool, that seemingly everyone who was anyone wore – a nod to the theatrical streak in many people that Big Sur, and Nepenthe, seemed to unleash.

Creative people of all stripes were attracted to Nepenthe. I remember Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor when they were there filming The Sandpiper – Richard gave me a kiss and I was so terrified Elizabeth came out of the restaurant to console me, returning me to my speechless mother who was watching from the bleachers, knitting in hand.

Even before it was a restaurant, the place itself captivated people. In the 40’s, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth bought the log house on the hill as a retreat from their Hollywood lives. Later, the infamous author Henry Miller, shut out of Paris because of the war and cut off from his funds, took up residence in the house, and after the restaurant opened returned often to drink with my grandfather, and to play Ping Pong.

My grandfather Bill Fassett used to talk about all the famous people he’d seen out the window of the cabin. While we were all trained to leave celebrities alone, my grandfather would rush down to greet our most luminous guests like long lost friends.

Bill was an avid reader and fascinated by new ideas about religion, psychology, and what he called “the man/woman problem.” He probably stole that from Freud. His side table was always overflowing with the newest books. One of my games was to read the back of the book jackets upon first arriving in his Carmel home, so that I would always be ready for his inevitable quizzing about the newest bestsellers and trending thoughts of the day.

At Nepenthe, people could come from anywhere and be themselves. They could live out their fantasies, dabble in poetry or acting or art, while making some money waiting tables or tending bar. Artists and writers who lived in Big Sur, down the coast, deep in the woods, or up on a remote ridge, congregated at the restaurant at the end of the day to relax, share stories, and drink. Electricity was sporadic then. No one had a tv, some used kerosene lamps for light, and many went down to the hot springs at Esalen just for washing clothes and bathing.

Another game was to simply sit in the waitress chairs that lined the path to the bathrooms then and watch the people go by. It was like watching a movie, or a modern play, in which no one knew they were on stage. To this day it’s hard for me to eat in a restaurant without being completely drawn into what is going on all around me.

Even as these glimpses of a world and culture beyond Big Sur were alluring and inspired me to imagine traveling some day, it seemed as though all the many and varied corners of the world did, in fact, come to Big Sur – even more than that, as though all roads did, to paraphrase the old quote, lead to Nepenthe.

To this day, I have only to take five minutes to sit on the bleachers on the terrace to experience this phenomenon again. In one morning I can hear German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese – it’s wonderful, and heart warming.

Nepenthe inspired me – compelled me – to write. Ideas seemed to be teeming in the air, and to ignore them was sacrilege. Poetry, plays, short stories, novels – I poured myself into the page as soon as I could write.

Looking back on those early efforts, I see now that within the writing was a painter struggling to find a way out. It was only after my son Chi suggested I take an illustration course for the children’s books I was writing that I found myself, gradually, bit by bit, working my way into becoming a visual artist.

Between my writing years and become a full time painter, I experimented with textiles, making swatches for community quilts, knitting garments for my children, sewing quilts, eventually designing and making my own sweaters. Even when I was following a pattern I seemed incapable of NOT altering to more reflect my own taste and ideas. Though my mother and grandmother Lolly taught me to knit, it was my uncle Kaffe Fassett who introduced me to multi-color knitting, needlepoint, making hooked rugs from rags, and mosaics. I experimented with all of these things, and for over a decade offered classes in my community for children and their families to pass on the pleasure of these time honored crafts.

But eventually the call to paint was too strong to deny. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have found this focus earlier. But I believe all of these things – all of these disparate discursive creative elements of my life before painting – have made me a better painter.