OCEAN PINES — Although we often think of it as a passive idea, “ambience” is an active one. It suggests how our surroundings make us feel and deepens our general experience. Ambience is the “it” that is a kind of Holy Grail for restaurateurs. In an age where the dining public is better educated and in an area where only high-quality chefs can find work, the feel of the restaurant is what can separate it more effectively than any other from the rest of the competition.
It is no real surprise then that when Bill Herbst decided to take over the old Village Inn and open a second La Hacinda at the South Gate, local muralist John Iampieri was one of the first on the scene to help with the transformation.
Restaurants in the building have struggled in recent years, even though there is a wonderful view. Eateries with all sorts of different price ranges have come and go and — and this is likely a critical difference — menus aside one wasn’t really different from the last.
Created as a blank palette, with tans, whites and off-whites, it remained that way through several owners waiting, apparently, for someone with a vision.
If you’ve been to the La Hacienda in Ocean City, you may have gotten a bit of a sneak preview. Iampieri was commissioned to touch up different parts of the dining area and the improvement was such that Herbst gave him the artistic run of the house and Iampieri didn’t disappoint.
But before he went to work with the paint, the artist hit the books to find a theme that would be appropriate to a mexican restaurant but so original as to be striking. The notion was to find the sweet spot where the walls complimented the food and the overall experience without being so intrusive. In fact, throughout the building Iamperi has left graphical Easter eggs so that the rooms continue to show depth upon multiple viewings.
During his research Iampieri happened upon just the hook to give the works the kind of breadth he needed in the form of a hybrid art movement from the early 20th Century.
Hopi/Pueblo artist Awa Tsireh, made a name for himself by taking the traditional native paintings and allowing them to be influenced by the up-and-coming Art Deco style.
The result is a striking blend of the two approaches and it was to this school that Iampieri paid homage in the major themes of the various murals.
Among the more striking are the Koshares — black and white spirit clowns sacred in the Pueblo culture. These stripped pranksters adorn the walls and corners in the kind of fun yet mildly shocking way festival jugglers might.
The resulting work could is like a tour through the history of early 20th Century Pueblo art. Beyond the actual subjects — Iampieri included an artist statement plaque crediting Tsireh’s work as well as its influence — the colors and the textures give the once bland space as spicy a feel as can be conjured in the kitchen.
“I wanted to share this,” Iampieri said. “The influence of how they crossed cultures to make something new.”
Many of the murals were completed half in the restaurant and half in Iampieri’s Bishopville studio where he runs his Bella Designs company. He uses a sponge method wherein he conceives of a design and draws it on an industrial sponge then cuts it out, seals it with a soldering gun and it becomes an almost comically large stamp.
He then paints the sponge and pushes it against the wall. This not only gives some of the works an extra-detailed look, it also somehow ages them as well making them appear older and more worn than they actually are.
In fact, between the sponges and his other methods, Iampieri may be one of the few muralists who can paint an entire restaurant with barely a brushstroke.
In order to give the walls texture, he added powder to the paint and hand-troweled the color onto the walls. On top of the base coats Iampieri troweled on some of his “Easter eggs” a tree here, a cactus there, the odd sombrero — all sculpted with paint onto the walls giving them the kind of texture that a roller just can’t achieve.
“It was seven weeks of bliss,” he said of the work. “It’s completely different from any other place, I have to give Bill the credit for having the confidence in me to let me conceive and implement the project.”
The work extends to the decorative columns, which, agin, were previously cream-on-cream accents. Now that they stand out against the walls, Iampieri painted them as if they were part of a Pueblo temple, with Mexican godheads superimposed upon the tops.
All throughout the project his main focus was on creating and maintaining that balance, allowing the viewers eye to drift to a spot, notice and embellishment, and focus on it. Moreover, he wanted to be able to recreate that feeling again and again as patrons returned and took different seats.
And while he hopes and believes that people will return for the food more than the atmosphere, he is probably justified in his wish that people ask to sit in different sections each time just so they can enjoy the view.