Several months back, I was ordering a cappuccino at SFMOMA’s new rooftop sculpture garden, and I noticed a dessert offering that uncannily resembled a Piet Mondrian painting. Another looked a lot like a Wayne Thiebaud cake. Looking closer, I saw that all of the desserts had ties to artwork.

“These are beautiful, and look delicious,” I thought. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And I was right; these unique sweets are the creation of resident pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman and can only be found in this singular location. And though the idea of making art-inspired treats came to Caitlin in a flash, the full-circle journey to this took a decade.

I sat down with Caitlin at the rooftop garden on a recent sunny day to discuss how she went from being a photography student at UC Santa Cruz and pastry shop counter girl to developing her own baking and pastry niche.

Caitlin Williams Freeman holding a Wayne Thiebaud-inspired cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Chérie Turner: Can you tell me about your art background?

Caitlin Williams Freeman: I was at school in Santa Cruz in the photography program, and we would come up here [to San Francisco] a lot to see various gallery shows. And we would always come to the museum. That’s when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s painting [Display Cakes], and I was captivated. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I just really, really loved that one particular painting.

CT: And how’d you get started with baking?

CWF: In college, I worked at this pastry shop. I was just a counter girl, but I was so obsessed with pastries. Years later, I ended up meeting the woman [Megan Ray] who became my business partner.

She had just gotten laid off at a dot com and had never worked at a bakery. But she decided she wanted a cake shop, and so, the two of us were enthusiastic enough that we would just work all hours. We would do farmer’s markets. Then we were offered a space in the ferry building. That was October 2003.

Working at Miette [the cake shop] is how I met James [Freeman, owner of Blue Bottle Coffee]. He was my next-door neighbor at the Berkeley farmer’s market. It’s a long story–then in 2008, I sold my part of Miette; it was actually the same day James and I got married.

The Ellsworth Kelly ice-cream bar (with Kelly sculpture on rooftop garden in background)' courtesy SFMOMA

I took a few months off after that and made pastries for James, for Blue Bottle. I figured I’d do that for a while, and then I’d go do my own thing–open a pie shop or something. Shortly after that, the museum [SFMOMA] asked James to open a coffee shop here [at the rooftop garden].

 

I thought it was really cool, but I hadn’t really thought about any connections–but we were up here and suddenly I was like, this is the reason I’m a baker! Because I was obsessed with this painting in this building. We were in this meeting, and I grabbed James and said, “Can I make Thiebaud cakes here?” He said, “Sure!”

So that was the plan: I was going to make Thiebaud cakes in the place where I became inspired to become a baker. It felt so perfect. It had taken me ten years to get here, but it couldn’t have happened better if I had planned it.

CT: But you did more than just Thiebaud cakes.

CWF: Yes. To figure out what else I was going to make, I went and soaked in every piece of art that was on display and tried to figure out what to do. And it’s fun because, with the exception of the Thiebaud cake, which we always have on the menu whether or not the painting is hanging, we really keep the desserts limited to reflecting what’s actually on display in the museum. So when a new show comes up, we make a new dessert based on what will be showing.

CT: Can you talk about the process of coming up with new desserts?

CWF: It’s generally something I’m really inspired by. But you also have to be in tune with what are the popping pieces, the pieces you just can’t miss.

We have this Agnes Martin piece right now that we’re working on, but I really wonder, “Is anyone going to get this?” It’s such a subtle piece, and it’s such a subtle product that we made, and I think it’s just perfect and delicious. But I have no idea if people are going to connect to it. In that case, then, we try to come up with something that is interesting in another way. We have both the artistic angle and the food angle, so if we have something that’s a little more abstract, we can try to make it a more beguiling flavor combo.
I’ve been inspired in many different ways. Like the Mondrian cake. I distinctly remember going past the Mondrian painting, and I kept thinking, “What can I even do with that?” I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what.

The Piet Mondrian cake; courtesy SFMOMA

Then I happened to be looking through this old cookbook of Victorian cakes. There’s this old cake called the Battenberg cake; it’s an old British cake. When you cut it, it’s a checkerboard. And I was like, “There it is!” So that ended up happening by finding a cake that was an inspiration and seeing the structure and figuring out how to turn it into art.

We’ve also been really liking these do-it-yourself art/dessert pieces, like the Richard Serra piece. We’re just about to do Alexander Calder build-your-own mobile cookies.

CT: So, what is your overall general approach to developing these desserts?

CWF: We keep two worlds in mind [art and food] and see where they can cross over. Some are really obvious, like the Thiebaud and [Richard] Diebenkorn, and those we feel like we have to have because people can connect with them really easily. But I don’t ever want to recreate a piece of art. It’s our interpretation of it.

The Jeff Koons "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" dessert; courtesy SFMOMA

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Ever since Bay Area painter Nellie King Solomon had her first solo show in San Francisco fresh out of graduate school in 2001, her work has met with positive reviews, even from the hard-to-please SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker. (She’s also a three-time SECA nominee, up again for the award this year.) The final words of his glowing appraisal of that first show also issued up a challenge that many shared: “Her show is a powerful debut that will be hard for her to follow.” Solomon laughs about the gauntlet Baker threw. Her reaction? “I was like, you do not know who you’re messing with.” Almost a decade later, the work is stronger than ever.

As Is, 2001, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

Solomon makes luscious, ephemeral large-scale abstract paintings on Mylar, addressing issues of space and environment, control and movement. They are created in her light-filled Hunter’s Point studio, on a table using handmade tools or sometimes just gravity to maneuver the paint. The imperfect surface contributes to the creation. Her early works were bright and fluid; puddles and rivulets meandered over the opaque surface resulting in meditative, organic paintings. On some, oval marks stamped with one of her homemade wooden tools, are also evident, harkening back to the point at which Solomon started her artistic journey–with the dot.

Solomon’s path to painting was indirect. Raised in San Francisco by an architect father and philosopher/dancer/writer mother, she’s known the creative life since birth. But it wasn’t clear until she’d already pursued several different avenues, including sustainable agriculture and architecture, that painting would be her primary focus. The decision to pursue art–Solomon earned a master’s of fine arts degree from California College of the Arts–coincided with a shift in momentum. “The reason for the dot was to stop traveling. Every two years I would leave some city and move to another. I needed to stop. The line, which was architecture, was also travel; so I took it away. I was in dots for four years before I touched representation and then another four years before I touched color. Then it moved to these ovals because I wanted a little bit of speed, but I still wanted it to stay slow.”

Niagara, 2000, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Nellie King Solomon

With this new work, Solomon is beginning to move. Whereas past paintings were almost self-created by the undulations of her work surface, in these, Solomon is the primary guiding force. A common feature throughout are large, thick rings that don’t quite close; the shape is created with a graceful full-body gesture, a nod to Solomon’s early training as a dancer. “I have hidden that strong arm behind my back for a long time,” she explains. “I’m just letting it come out. That’s one reason I work so large. I want it to be to some degree out of my control. If it’s too big for me to be able to handle, it keeps me from getting glib. It keeps me a little scared.” Solomon’s increased boldness is also evident in her changing palette. Pretty pinks, reds, and yellows of the past are replaced by toxic neon oranges and magentas and dark browns, black, green, and blue mixed with glitter; the edges, caked with soda-ash, have a corroded texture. The influence of Solomon’s interest in the environment, and the increasing degradation of it, is increasingly obvious. Gone are the delicate niceties of early work; these paintings are brave, brazen, and intense.

Boom Bloom, 2008, by Nellie King Solomon; courtesy Brian Gross Fine Art

“I always knew I had something to say,” says Solomon, reflecting back over her career to date. “I just didn’t know what I was going to say. But I knew that nobody was going to do it if I didn’t. I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Grace McCann Morley

If you haven’t gotten swept up in the exuberance of celebratory zeal emanating from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), it’s time. The museum is utilizing the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary to look back on itself. In doing so, it provides us the opportunity to get a better sense of how rich and influential this art institution is, and has been since its inception in 1935.
The umbrella tagline for all events associated with the anniversary, “75 Years of Looking Forward,” couldn’t be more appropriate when describing SFMOMA, beginning from day one with the appointment of Grace L. McCann Morley as the first director. She set a tone for the museum that resonates to this day.
Born in 1900, Morley was raised in the Bay Area. Her early academic training was in language. She earned a master’s degree in French from Cal Berkeley and went on to become a teacher—one of the primary professions educated women pursued at that time. As fortuitous opportunity would have it, she was asked to also teach art history, which led to Morley studying Museumology at Harvard University for a summer. Out of this influential department—it was then a new field of study—came a whole generation of museum curators and administrators. Morley went on to become a curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Art and then director of what was then the San Francisco Museum of Art. 
Morley’s forward-looking museum philosophy positioned the institution as a community and educational venue. At the time, most museums were aimed at scholars, serving more as research institutes to the already initiated and repositories of precious objects. And typically those objects were old, already indoctrinated into the cannon of art history. Opportunities to see contemporary work were few. SFMOMA was only the second museum in the country to focus on art of the time; MOMA New York was the first having opened just six years previous, in 1929.
Morley’s populist view led her to offer a huge variety of exhibitions; she interspersed traditional art with more challenging work. Her belief was that she would offer something for everyone and entice people to stretch their art-appreciation boundaries. She also began to offer educational lectures and classes.
Reactions to her efforts varied to the extreme. While researching the current exhibitions, the curatorial staff unearthed a stash of hate mail, which spoke out against her showing unconventional and nontraditional styles, such as Surrealism, Dada, and Cubism. At the other end of the spectrum, on the final day of the hugely popular Pablo Picasso retrospective in 1940, an adamant crowd of over 1,300 visitors refused to leave when the museum was closing; they stayed until they were done absorbing the magnificent show. Morley inspired passions that no doubt matched her own; something everyone would agree on is that she was unwaveringly dedicated. For example, working with a very limited budget and a tiny staff, the museum presented 75 to 100 exhibitions per year for the first five years (in comparison, the museum today puts on 30 to 35, in a larger space, with a larger budget and much larger staff).
Over time it would become increasingly evident that the strong-willed and determined Morley was keyed in to the pulse of the rapidly changing art world. During Morley’s tenure, many artists who would become seminal figures received their first solo exhibitions at SFMOMA, including Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. That eye for emerging talent continues today; SFMOMA has also been the first museum venue to show Edward Ruscha, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, and Olafur Eliasson. Under Morley, the museum became the first to create a television show; run in the 1950s, it was the first television programming to focus on art. This was just one more creative and innovative way she brought art to the masses.
The museum has ever since been on the forefront of utilizing and embracing media and technology. It was, in 1987, the first to establish a media arts department, and with the creation in 1994 of the Interactive Educational Technologies program, SFMOMA has remained a leader in developing computer based, interactive educational features on art.  
Grace Morley led the museum until 1958. She earned the deep respect of the art world and general public the world over. On the occasion of the museum’s twentieth anniversary, she was featured in Time magazine. She also worked as a consultant for UNESCO.  From SFMOMA, she moved to India to help set up the National Museum there; Morley remained in India until her death in 1985.
Her legacy lives on in San Francisco. In addition to the many influential initiatives already mentioned, Morley is responsible for starting the museum’s permanent collection (it had no holdings when she began, which makes her ambitious and prolific exhibition programming all the more impressive), and making a commitment to supporting and showing the work of regional artists.
The current exhibitions, featuring in large part selections from SFMOMA’s outstanding permanent collection, give us all a unique glimpse at the history of the museum as well as an opportunity to understand, through experience, the innovative and progressive vision that began with Morley and continues to the present. The vibrant and inspiring dialog continues, and it’s open to us all.

Special thanks to Kara Kirk whose research and thesis project provided many of the facts and information on Grace McCann Morley included here.

This story appeared in the May issue of the Nob Hill Gazette.

“Der Architekt” by Luc Tuymans

See the recent review of the Luc Tuymans mid-career retrospective at SFMOMA on Visual Art Source.