Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Babette's Restaurant Now Serving Art: No Reservations, Please

by Joan Baum


East Hampton - April 23 is William Shakespeare's birthday, and an excuse to riff on Francisco's response to Bernardo who's come to take over the midnight watch in Hamlet (I, i) - "For this relief much thanks." If Francisco were around today, he'd surely warm to the relief in Babette's on Newtown Lane - the bas relief, that is, five tactile clay sculptures by Sag Harbor artist Dorothy Frankel, displayed on the walls of the restaurant. Of course, the English-speaking world's most quotable and inventive genius also wrote that "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin" (Troilus and Cressida, III, iii), a line that in a way sums up Dorothy Frankel's artistic vision - crafting terra cotta themes from nature for "peace, harmony and connections."

"Food is art, art is food. Love, art, food, politics are the joys of living," pleasures that invite "freedom of creative expression," says Babette's proprietor Barbara Layton, who saw in Frankel's work earthy colors and organic textures that would "enhance" the restaurant decor and be of a piece with its emphasis on vegetarian cuisine. Though sculptors have a more difficult time than other artists getting venues in which to show their work, the match between Frankel and Babette's would seem a good one. Layton reports that customers have noted that the place looks "absolutely beautiful," a comment she attributes in part to the presence of Frankel's reliefs on the walls. Indeed, such comments also reflect the fact that East Hampton diners do not unthinkingly regard restaurant art as mere background effect. Layton adds, however, that it would be nice if customers were then prompted to visit Frankel's studio garden in Sag Harbor where they could see her 3-D pieces, some modeled in terra cotta but cast in bronze. Meanwhile, Frankel's website displays some of her better known larger work, such as the sign-language hand sculpture that flanks the promenade at Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side.

On the East End since the early 1980s when she left a high-end job in the City as an exercise physiologist (she has a Masters in the field) to settle in Sag Harbor, Frankel has steadily honed a craft that began with woodworking and embraced a number of different materials but finally found full expression in clay. At a time when women were hardly visible as sculptors, particularly in woodworking, Frankel persevered, encouraged by various mentors, including the legendary sculptor Peter Lipman-Wulf. But she also continued to learn on her own, finding out how to bend the scrap wood she would get from a woodworking shop and shaping it into a rowboat. She broadened her exposure to other methods and materials at Southampton College, The Sculpture Center, and Urban Glass in the City, eventually earning a Masters from the National Academy of Design. About this time it dawned on her that working with clay, as opposed to wood, decreased her chances "1,000 percent of getting hurt." She extended her studies in Pietrasanta, a town not that far from Ferrara, the fabled source of Michelangelo's marble, periodic visits that confirmed her move to clay. She has heard it said that, "It takes 10 years to perfect technique and then 10 more to get your own voice." She believes it.

Surely, however, the experience and strength that made her a sought-after physiologist in the City and Sag Harbor stood her in good stead sculpting clay. The Babette's reliefs show her controlling power: finger pressings that create multiple layers of branches and leaves in a forest landscape, trees elegantly slipping into satisfying curving linear patterns, or raised petal-like emanations from a central mandala-like sun. Each of these works, if caught by light, also evidences subtle color changes. It's unfortunate, however, that the largest work, a fine branching-tree design, limbs sequenced as bones in human anatomy, the whole pressed onto wood painted in various hues of green and blue, hangs in the rear of the restaurant, near the bar, where crowds may block it. Then again, crowds can also mean more potential viewers.

For Frankel, the connection between physiology, the study of mechanical, physical and biochemical systems, their function and form, and sculpting in clay has to do with emotional as well as bodily health - "living your passion," as well as connecting with others. Obviously, those who own her work, having seen it in it in various East End galleries as well as at The Nature Conservancy, Guild Hall of East Hampton, and at the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons (ARF), appreciate the significance of art that links people, and people to nature. So stay tuned for even bigger projects, Frankel promises, such as a huge monument of two interlocked lands "to walk through, as under a bridge," sculpture, perhaps like a bridge over troubled water that can ease the mind.