By Jenna Purcell
Arts Reporter

Drafty showrooms with insufficient lighting and uncomfortable furniture, somber intellectuals donning turtlenecks and a uniform aloofness, and slashed canvas whose artistic purpose is difficult to discern.

For many people, this is what “art” has become.

But the “Around the Kitchen Table” exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) takes a playful swerve away from these conventional associations, featuring winsome pieces revolving around a theme well-known to all: food.

Upon entering the exhibit, there is a sense of warmth and comfort. A delicate antique apron hangs in the corner facing a beckoning archway constructed of stovetop grates, images of spatulas and ladles running pleasantly amok over the surrounding pastel walls. Among the ceramic creations made by local artists are teapots and cups ranging from the classic to the eccentric, all housed in a quaint space befitting the best of Betty Crocker and exuding domestic 1950s charm.

“It’s a way of bringing out local ceramics in a fun, whimsical theme,” said Theresa Myers, public relations and marketing manager of the MAH.

Kathryn McBride, one of the artists featured in the exhibit, currently teaches ceramics at Cabrillo College. McBride, who grew up in the 1950s, uses memory as her artistic guide.

“Rich, delicious, humorous childhood memories are lifted from the pages of my family photo albums and served up as narrative teapots,” McBride said of her work. “I can still taste the pies my grandma made from blueberries we picked that morning. My porcelain teapots are carefully made, like delicious home-cooked food.”

The kitchen theme of the exhibit highlights unique and often-overlooked aspects of the food world for viewers. Michael Lambert, another artist whose work is featured at the museum, highlights the fun and functionality of kitchenware in his quirky pieces.

“I try to design functional pieces that are both very personal and which reflect some of the tradition of ceramics — not always in the most serious way,” Lambert said. “I hope that my work lifts the spirits of those who see it.”

Lambert, like many of the artists on display at the museum, is an accomplished, internationally shown artist, yet he retains a humble concept of the pieces he creates.

“Although I make work that is often displayed in galleries on pedestals,” Lambert said, “it is essential for me to be able to imagine my pieces in use, how fun it would be for someone to have tea out of [one of my] teapots on a special occasion with friends.”

While the ceramic pieces are among the more prominent ones in the exhibit, they are accompanied by prints, lithographs, and historical artifacts following the central culinary theme.

Among the artifacts from the MAH permanent collection is a tablecloth that once belonged to the Arcans, one of four families stranded in Death Valley during the great western trek of 1849. When the family was eventually rescued, they were forced to leave almost everything behind. Abigail Arcan managed to smuggle away this prized linen tablecloth, which she had woven herself, and carried it with her to Santa Cruz where the family eventually settled.

The exhibit includes many artifacts, like the tablecloth, with distinct historical links to the Santa Cruz region.

Marla Novo, assistant curator of the museum, feels that including such artifacts helps to create a unique experience for museum visitors.

“‘Around the Kitchen Table’ presents [our] collection in an accessible, and hopefully creative, way,” Novo said. “A [visitor] can learn about the art and the artists that created it while getting a glimpse at Santa Cruz County’s past through objects. I’ve curated a few intersection exhibitions before, but this one might be my favorite. I think everyone can relate to the kitchen theme.”

According to Novo, the ultimate goal is for visitors to walk away both informed and uplifted by the beauty that can be found in comfortable, familiar kitchen objects.

“I hope the [visitor’s] experience is enhanced by the way I designed the gallery, and I hope they are inspired by the stories that relate to each art piece and historical object,” she said. “Hopefully they will enjoy the exhibit, and learn [something] too.”

“Around the Kitchen Table” is showing through Nov. 23 at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.