"I feel like I'm at my prom!" Chapel Hill photographer Lori Vrba whispered to us Wednesday night as her "Southern Comfort" photography exhibition at West Midtown's Jennifer Schwartz Gallery inspired the first-ever ArtFeast dinner. "Only I'm not 17, stupid, there's an amazing chef in the kitchen and I got to help plan the menu! Could it get better than this?!"
A few feet away in the gallery's kitchen, Wisteria owner chef Jason Hill and Wisteria executive sous chef Walker Brown were whipping up the evening's first course: Georgia coastal shrimp and grits. The ArtFeast concept created by Schwartz herself will pair each artist on exhibition in the gallery throughout the year with an Atlanta chef to collaborate together on a menu inspired by the works in the show.
Before the Inman Park chef first walked into Jennifer Schwartz Gallery two weeks ago to meet the artist and see Vrba's work, he concedes he wasn't enthused. "I don't do great in well-lit places," Hill joked. "But as soon as I met Lori and saw her work, it became a no-brainer for me. "Her work is rustic and Southern and has a beautiful old world charm to it. That's exactly what we're going for at Wisteria. It was great to be able to put this together with her."
Combining foodies and art lovers a few times a year for ArtFeast fulfills Schwartz's larger goal as a gallery owner to introduce younger people like herself into Atlanta's visual arts community. "This is about getting people my age excited about art," she explained. "Sure, you can buy art to match your throw pillows but it should be about more than that. The younger generation today is intellectually curious. We want to know where our food comes from, where our coffee is roasted. Why not apply that curiosity to art and provide an opportunity where they could be someone's collector?"
As Hill and Brown rolled out a gorgeous Cornish hen-sized version of Wisteria's iron skillet fried chicken, followed by massive slabs of grilled center cut beef tenderloin and an avalanche of Hill's classic braised greens sharp cheddar macaroni and cheese, patrons participated in lively dinner conversation with Schwartz, Verba and the chefs.
After Hill discovered the restaurant's linen service accidentally left out napkins for the ArtFeast dinner, he materialized from the kitchen with a roll of paper towels. Wisteria general manager Randy Parks then distributed a paper towel to each of the 13 diners. Hill placed the paper towel roll on the table and cracked, "Now, it's a true Southern experience."
Atlanta chef Joe Truex just might want to ready his whisk as well. On February 3, artist Jeff Rich's latest exhibition debuts at the Marietta Street gallery. The title? "Watershed."
Vrba's "Southern Comfort" exhibition runs through January 28 at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery.