Panzanella restaurant to go out with employee art show

December 12, 2013 

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The night that Pepper’s Pizza served its last slice this past March, Virginia Sloop was there with her camera.

“I worked at Pepper’s in the early 1990s,” Sloop said. “Pepper’s was more like a family or a cult than a place to work.”

Sloop took her old Pentax camera to work regularly.

A few of Sloop’s favorite shots from her Pepper’s days will be at Panzanella restaurant in Carr Mill in an exhibit that opens Dec. 17.

Along with these older photos will be one taken as those last pizza pies were served. It is a close-up, black and white shot of the torso that greeted Pepper’s customers. The torso, adorned with a bow, reads, “Please wait to be seated.”

“I had the great opportunity to be close to some very beautiful, inside and out, people at Pepper’s Pizza and again at Panzanella,” said Sloop, who has worked at Panzanella as a server, bartender, and host for the past two and a half years.

“Working in the service industry is like going on a corporate ropes course team building exercise every day,” she said. “You have to work together to get through each shift, and you develop a unique camaraderie that often extends outside of the workplace.” Sloop said Panzanella offered more stability than many service industry jobs and featured strong but understanding management.

When the news broke recently that Panzanella would be closing this month for financial reasons, Sloop and several other employees approached Mary Votta, the coordinator of the art shows at Panzanella, and asked if they could have a group art exhibit.

“I wished they had asked me a year ago,” Votta said. She said that there are so many talented, creative people that work at Panzanella, she would have liked to have given them a show that lasted for nine weeks, the typical time other shows last.

“Farewell: Panzanella Employees’ Final Week Art Exhibition,” will include work from Mary Maloney, Leslie Caia, Soleil Konkel, Kate McCracken, Ellis Anderson, Jenna Schwartz, Kelly Turlington, Melanie Greem, Jacques Menache, and also Votta. It will be on the walls for four days, coming down after the last meal is served at Panzanella on the evening of Dec. 21.

Lost venue

Not only will the area have one less restaurant to choose from when Panzanella closes, artists will have one less place to show work.

Since 2005, Panzanella has put a new show up on its walls every nine weeks, promoting the assets of local artists.

When Votta began working at Panzanella in October 2003 as a bartender, she noticed that there was nice art on the walls but nothing was being done to promote it. “I didn’t think it did much for the artists,” she said. In 2005, Votta approached Weaver Street Market to set up an organized art exhibit schedule, hold receptions on Monday evenings when the restaurant was closed, and be given time to write press releases and brochures to bring more attention to the artists.

“This goal was accomplished with the generosity of Weaver Street Market and with the support of the WSM Marketing Department,” Votta said. “That commitment was continually made in a spirit of support for local artists that went far beyond a self-serving need for restaurant decoration.” Artists who exhibited these past years were only asked to donate 10 percent of any work sold. This went into a fund that helped pay for postcards advertising shows and reception food for future shows.

Call for artists

When Votta got the go-ahead, she mentioned to her fellow employees that she was going to put out a call for artists.

“One of the waiters, Erik Niemi, said he was an art teacher at Meredith and he would like to have a show. So he was the first,” Votta said. “My main goal was to get some attention for local artists. It seems there are so many who are accomplished and not many galleries for them to show in. And when they do, they never get a one-person show. You can’t really see what an artist is doing until you stand in a room in the middle of their artwork. It tells more of a story.”

Weaver Street Market is a huge supporter of local farmers and inspired by this, Votta organized six, annual, juried exhibits whose theme was local farms, bringing attention to the beauty of small farms and the work that goes on there.

Jacques Menache, who has been the electrician for Weaver Street Market as well as a long-time member of the co-op, had his first retrospective at the restaurant. He has two small pieces in the upcoming show, including a painting of an Alizarin microscope slide.

“It is proportioned after a real microscope slide with colorful amoebae oozing out from under a cover slip as a sloppy school boy’s slide in the lab would look like,” Menache said. “I got involved with my first amoeba looking through an electron microscope at the UNC medical school in the early Seventies.”

When Votta got the request from the staff for their own goodbye art show, she had to approach the two artists whose show is currently hanging to see if they would mind taking their work down early. She is very grateful to photographer Ron Jautz and painter Nerys Levy for understanding the poignancy of this request.

Votta said, “This show by the staff is a good way to say goodbye.”

Deborah R. Meyer writes about the arts each month. Contact her at

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