Book Reviews | Visual Arts

At Pilar’s Kitchen: A new book by Pilar Pobil out from the University of Utah Press

As a friend and I entered Michael Berry’s gallery for the November Gallery Stroll, my friend turned to me and said, “I’d love to know where these artists get their inspiration and ideas.” And then, there was an answer, right in front of us, Pilar Pobil’s new book, My Kitchen Table: Sketches from my Life.

It’s a book of stories, like those shared around Pilar’s kitchen table as her children were growing up; stories of Mallorca, where Pilar was born and raised, of the cousins, friends, and servants who peopled her life; of her romance with a young American from Salt Lake City; of her 23-day voyage to America on an Italian freighter; and stories of her creative life as cook, gardener, sculptor, fashion designer, and painter. Interspersed with images of her colorful art, the stories answer my friend’s question, for they describe the experiences that have inspired, and continue to inspire, Pilar’s work.

That night at the Gallery Stroll, I purchased a copy of My Kitchen Table for a Thanksgiving hostess gift, but I was determined to read at least part of it before giving it away. I found I could not put it down. Written in Pilar’s own voice, with minimal editing by the University of Utah Press (a condition Pilar insisted on before beginning the project), the book opens with Pilar’s verbal picture of a small girl growing up in a privileged family on the Mediterranean Island of Mallorca during the Spanish Civil War. With prose as colorful as her painting, Pilar helps us see and feel the events of her life.

She describes, for example, summers at her grandmother’s home, Son Vida, which is a luxury hotel today. But in her childhood, she describes, “Son Vida’s dining room was a huge room with a long table that could seat a hundred people. French doors led to the courtyard on one side and a long balcony on the other that looked over the wooded hills and mountains. We had supper at about nine in the evening and, since it was usually very warm, all the windows were open to the nighttime breeze. Occasionally, a couple of bats would fly in and all the ladies would put white napkins over their heads so that the bats wouldn’t get their claws into their hair and hold on.”

The stories seem almost random, moving us back and forth between Spain, Portugal, Utah, New Mexico, and Mexico. Only at the end of the book does Pilar reflect on the sequence of her life, neatly dividing it into three lives – her Spanish childhood, her life as wife and mother, and her life as the independent, energetic artist (answerable only to her dog Kiva) that she is today. No matter where you enter her life story, you feel her exuberance and love of life. She has no regrets that she devoted so much of her time to raising children or caring for her ill husband, while having little time for art. She tells us, “I had my husband, my children, my house, and a happy life. And later, when my art could not be suppressed any longer, it became one of the most important parts of that life. But during all those years, because I was a woman, a wife, and a mother, I took care of everyone’s needs over my own. That was as it should be, and I did not want it any other way.”

Because I’ve always disliked someone revealing a plot before I’ve read a book or seen the movie, I will not retell Pilar’s stories here. Instead I will take you backstage, to share a conversation I had with Pilar about her book. Sitting in her comfortable living room, surrounded by her paintings – on chairs, columns, and doors, as well as on framed canvases – I wanted to know why and how she came to put down her paint brushes long enough to write a book.

The project, she explains, evolved over a couple of two years. She had written an article about the Spanish Civil War several years ago and shared it with someone at the University of Utah Press. She received a call asking if there were more stories. She invited them to her house, where anyone walking through the door can see that there are stories, stories, and more stories! They began talking about a book.

Encouraged by her daughters and friends, Pilar had thought about writing a book before. She had even sent a proposal to a publisher but received no response. The University Press, on the other hand, “was great to work with,” says Pilar. Though she insisted that the writing be her own and essentially unchanged, she did agree to the possibility of a translation (she would do the Spanish translation herself), and movie rights.

Pilar even envisions another book someday; perhaps one based on her most ambitious exhibition, The Burial Chamber, which was on display at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center from August 10 – September 26, 2007. Using paintings and artifacts, Pilar let viewers experience the ancient tradition of surrounding a deceased loved one with the important objects and tools of their life so that they could be used again in the next life. Considered a gift to the departed, Pilar’s Burial Chamber was also a gift to visitors who – while experiencing the angels, painted shoes, sewing machine, painted suitcase, cooking pots, and photographs important to Pilar’s life – were inspired to think about their own life treasures and tools.

For more creative inspiration – for living as well as creating art – I highly recommend My Kitchen Table, by Pilar Pobil. You’ll find it this month at the Michael Berry Gallery, along with a room full of Pilar’s original paintings. Or visit your favorite locally owned bookstore, such as The King’s English or Sam Weller’s Books. This would also make a great gift for the art lover in your life!


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