Kaffe and I were both born and raised in California, twenty-five years apart.
He was born in San Francisco in 1937. I was born in Big Sur in 1963.
He has lived most of his life in London, and I have lived most of mine in Big Sur.
Though we are from two different generations, we have inherited the same artistic and familial legacy, like two rivers that flow from the same source.
Our family restaurant, Nepenthe, and its extraordinary and eclectic milieu influenced both Kaffe and me deeply, as it was his home during his teens and where I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.
Big Sur’s dramatic coastline and the people it attracted influenced the way we look at the world. We also inherited a legacy from our ancestors who were deeply rooted in the creation of California.
You will find all of these influences — the people, the place, the history — not only in our work, but in the way we have lived our lives. Making do with little, living in close proximity to nature, and the examples of artistic souls all around us taught us the importance of creativity and inspired in us the pursuit of beauty.
Big Sur is a place that stirs the imagination. Its rugged mountains, sheer cliffs, and secret beaches were our playgrounds, where we were allowed astonishing freedom to run wild.
Kaffe’s parents, Bill and Lolly Fassett — my grandparents — came to Big Sur in 1947 and set about building Nepenthe 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean.
Lolly was born in 1911 to a prominent San Francisco family with roots in the California Gold Rush, the Bay Area art scene, and the artist colony Carmel-by-the-Sea. When the Great Depression knocked the legs out from under the family’s finances,
Lolly was sent off to Europe to live with her grandmother, Jane Gallatin Powers. Jane, a socialite and award-winning painter, was dubbed the “artist-grandmother” by French critics, and gave Lolly quite the spin through Europe. Their travels infused Italian and French culture into the sunny California girl, along with an appreciation for the decorative arts and a taste for “la dolce vita.” Lolly returned to San Francisco in 1935, and married the boy next door, Bill Fassett.
Bill was the original “free spirit,” the son of suffragette and numerologist Kevah Griffis and oil man Edward Lee McCallie, who explored Mongolia with Roy Chapman Andrews. Their marriage produced two children but was short-lived. Before the ink was dry on her divorce from Ed, Kevah had married another Cornell man, Newton Crocker Fassett. Though that marriage ended in divorce as well, Newton, an heir to the California Crockers, left Bill a small legacy that came in handy when he and Lolly built Nepenthe.
With their five children assisting, from digging ditches to making adobe bricks, Bill and Lolly built an “open-air pavilion” designed by Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.
An instant success, the “little hamburger joint down the coast” as Bill liked to call it became the must-see place for tourists and the locals’ go-to spot for a drink after a long day’s work. For both Kaffe and me, the restaurant’s open-air terraces and grounds were like our own personal stage set.
Even after moving into the country, Lolly had her clothes custom-made from bolts of colorful fabric stacked in her sewing room. Decades apart, Kaffe and I made costumes from Lolly’s fabric scraps and played dress-up. On warm sunny days, my cousins and I would raid Lolly’s closet and twirl down to the terrace below to entertain the restaurant’s guests. Nepenthe’s terrace was our stage, and the clientele our captive audience.
Lolly was a bold, beautiful, and generous woman, opening her living room above the restaurant to artists, writers, poets, and bohemians of all shades and stripes. Her spirit of giving affected both Kaffe and me deeply.
I remember once a man coming to the restaurant hungry for a meal he couldn’t afford. The host rang upstairs to ask for guidance. Lolly, in the midst of making dinner, asked, “Does he eat meat? If so, send him up!” Many such penniless travelers found their way to her “family kitchen,” some have gone on to make their home here.
Lolly valued creativity in people above all else, and looked for it in everyone she met, nurturing it when she found it. Where Bill would set the other children to digging ditches or chopping firewood, Lolly, keenly aware of Kaffe’s budding talents, would assign him the task of painting the annual Christmas cards instead.
Her influence on my life was most profound in my late teens, when together we discovered a trove of oil paintings by her grandmother Jane. That discovery set me on my own quest to understand my family’s history, a task that led me to study painting in earnest. Big Sur and its wildness and solitude; Lolly with her great heart and impeccable sense of design; the stories of her years in Capri with her free-spirited grandmother — all of these things shaped Kaffe’s life and sensibility, as well as my own.
Kaffe was inspired to go beyond Big Sur, into the bigger world, where his talents led to success in painting, knitwear, and textile design. But he returned every year to visit Lolly.
When I was a child, I remember him hanging a bedsheet from the rafters of Nepenthe and projecting slides of his knitwear to the collective “oohs” and “aahs” of the audience — dinner guests, employees, and family members all.
In my twenties, I stole a few weeks away from work and motherhood to shadow Kaffe in his London studio, knitting, embroidering, writing, and painting little watercolors in my travel journal.
In 1993, I made my way back again to see the Northern Ballet perform in Bath with Kaffe’s folkloric costumes and Odilon Redon-inspired backdrop. I couldn’t help thinking about Lolly and how much she would have loved it all.
A few years later, I wrangled an invitation to the Chelsea Flower Show in London to assist Kaffe in building a magical mosaic garden for Hillier Garden Centre. He set me to work mixing grout and mosaicking a wall between the black-and-white worlds he was creating. On one side he planted a deep palette of jewel-toned flowers, using black coal as latticework between, while on the other side he concocted a diaphanous shell grotto. Again, it was an immersion in creativity, inspiration, industry, and self-expression. This time, his audience was the world at large, with none other than Martha Stewart stopping by to compliment his work. Kaffe’s design won Hillier the gold medal that year, and rightly so.
In 2000, I traveled with my family to Stratford-onAvon to see the curtain go up on Kaffe’s sets and costumes in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It.
The morning after the preview, I watched Kaffe repaint the huge candy-colored clouds in order to amp up the drama and make the sets read better from the cheap seats.
By the time the show made its London debut, Kaffe’s sets had been stripped down to a white box, but we got to see the show in all its original glory — the Forest of Arden interpreted in needlepoint, knitting, patchwork, and Elizabethan whimsy. It was glorious.
Watching him hard at work in this collaborative setting was thrilling and instructive, and I felt immensely proud. We were a long way from my grandmother’s living room. And yet the seeds surely had been planted there in that very living room. Lolly had introduced both of us to the Old World through her own deep-seated love of the beautiful and the antique, her appreciation of textiles, and her family stories that verged on the Shakespearean.
And in the rigor of working at the restaurant and managing country life with unreliable electric power, scarce neighbors, and the closest grocery, museum, or theater an hour’s drive away, we learned a kind of tenacity and resilience that has come in handy in our work as artists.
After each visit with Kaffe, I came home inspired. I wrote and painted and tackled my own textile projects. In 1998 I founded the nonprofit Big Sur Arts Initiative and spent a decade producing arts programs for children and their families, including a summer theater program, Stagekids, that continues to this day.
But the call to create my own work was very strong. During an artist’s residency in Hamada, Japan, in September 2001, I woke to news of the horrific attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. “What am I doing with this precious life?” I asked myself. It was then that I decided to go all in and commit myself to the life of the artist that I had been dancing around for so many years.
Over the years, Kaffe has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend. For Kaffe, perhaps I am the little niece who hung on his every word, tugging at his sleeve, wanting to be let in on the secret.
On this last visit to paint together in London, I was deeply touched to hear him say it is because of me that he returns to the easel every year.
It is this annual return to the easel, when we sit together and simply paint, that inspired this book and the exhibition it accompanies.