eNewsletter Sign Up

Bookmark and Share


Photo by Steve Roberts

Cat Peña : Artist found her place in Memphis

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

A self-described “plate spinner,” Cat Peña is accustomed to balancing a myriad of tasks. Currently, she is a working artist, an art administrator, a public art consultant and a business co-owner.

Born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Peña came to Memphis to attend graduate school at the Memphis College of Art (MCA). 

“When I was in school I thought I would be here in Memphis for two years and then leave,” explained Peña.

Upon graduation, Peña and her husband, Nick, both had job offers that made them re-think their relocation plans.

“It can be hard for couples who are art partners to find jobs in academia and in their fields,” said Peña. “Memphis was an unexpected opportunity. Nick accepted a position as a fine arts educator at Christian Brothers University (CBU) and I began working with the UrbanArts Commission. Now we’ve been here 11 years.”

“It was great to see multiple installations of public art, including a number of murals and sculptures, in Overton Square,” recalled Peña. “The deeper focus on art and culture, as well as the performing arts, really brought public art to life in a much broader sense.”

Peña continued, “My work in the community happened first through the UrbanArts Commission, then I started doing more independent projects. My work evolved from studio work to a focus on public art or socially engaged art. For a while I also taught public art at MCA. I’ve always been interested in public art, but have viewed it through a different lens than what we typically see in Memphis. For example, there are lots of developing trends in public art with artists playing a higher role in community development.” Peña’s crosswalk in the Medical District, on Manassas Street, is a prime example of the public art she has a passion for. It is designed in a geometric pattern that creates an illusion and provides multiple prospectives for those walking or driving through it, versus those viewing it from above in adjacent buildings.

“It’s not typically a place where artists would be part of the conversation, but it has a natural fit,” explained Peña. “It involved design elements and ways of including aesthetics in a common public setting.”

Another example of Peña’s public art can be seen in the big blue streamers forming a canopy along Marshall and Monroe, commissioned by the Downtown Memphis Commission. That work came out of a larger project called, ‘Collaboratory,’ a public art platform Peña created that expands public art practices through collaborative and social practices. 

Additionally, Peña has been working with the City of Germantown as a consultant to help create a Public Art Commission.

“The commissioners have been named. Now comes the process of determining how the artwork is to be commissioned and where the money is going to come from to support it,” said Peña. “Most public art is commissioned as part of capital improvement projects. Germantown has the opportunity to focus on newer approaches to public art, like having artists embedded in city departments, doing art festivals, and more.”

Peña’s work continues to be socially engaged, giving a voice to issues. And in addition to her own artistic endeavors, Peña was hired about a year and a half ago to manage the Beverly and Sam Ross Gallery at CBU.

“My goal was to revamp the gallery and make it more student-friendly,” said Peña. “I also curate shows for local and regional artists.”

And last, but certainly not least, Peña and her husband, along with Eric Clausen, co-founded “Wonder/Cowork/Create” in the Edge District.

“We’ve established a non-competitive space for creatives and business entrepreneurs to meet and work together,” said Peña. “We host events at our space and help our members get comfortable reaching out to the business community. We also manage some public art programming for the Memphis Medical District Collaborative.” 

To learn more about Peña’s artistic ventures, visit wondercc.org or catpena.com.



Photo by Steve Roberts

José  Gutierrez: Owner and Chef at River Oaks Restaurant

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

There are many talented chefs in the Greater Memphis area, but José Gutierrez is the only French Master Chef in the Mid-South (the next closest is in Atlanta, GA or Charleston, SC). It is no surprise that the designation is so rare. Certified French Master Chef status is only awarded after candidates successfully complete a multiple-day marathon, comprised of a series of tests covering a wide range of cooking styles and methods. The title is conferred by The Association of Maîtres Cuisiniers de France and represents that a chef has reached the pinnacle of professionalism and skills in French cuisine.

When asked what influenced Gutierrez to become a chef, surprisingly, he said it wasn’t his first career choice. 

“I grew up in the Provence region of France and thought I wanted to be a fashion designer,” explained Gutierrez. “I liked the creativity of sewing clothes. But I was rejected when I applied to a design school, so I redirected my path and went to school to learn to be a maître d′ or a chef. It was there that I received the greatest service that anyone has ever given to me. My instructor called me out because I was getting low marks, especially in English. Basically he said, ‘How can someone so smart be so stupid!’ That simple challenge made me turn red. I was humiliated, but it made me work much harder to prove myself. Ultimately, I finished in the top of my class. However, since my English was not strong, I chose to work in the ‘back of the house’ and become a chef.”

When asked what’s his favorite thing about being a chef, Gutierrez said, “It is so many things. People look at you differently when you are a chef. You have the opportunity to put people together. At my tables, the more diverse, the better. We all become friends and family. As for my favorite thing to do as a chef, it is finding out how to please people and their unique tastes.”

Gutierrez likens cuisine to fashion, saying that tastes in both are changing all the time. For instance, he recalls that when he came to Memphis in 1982 there was only one French restaurant, Justine’s. And very little of the food that was served was fresh, most was flown in from Atlanta or the Gulf Coast. Because of that, chefs had to plan menus 2 - 3 days in advance. Now they can pick up the phone and have same day delivery.

Over the years, Gutierrez has helped expand culinary tastes by training hundreds of people, mostly during his 22 years at Chez Philippe at The Peabody to branch out beyond traditional Southern fare. In fact, Gutierrez is credited with creating “Nouvelle Southern Cuisine,” a blend of Southern classics and French technique. As for the challenges that he sets for himself, Gutierrez says the most important thing is to continue creating.

“It is equally important to keep up with the quality and consistency, both of the food and the service,” explained Gutierrez. “I take classes about new techniques, like sous vide where food is put in a plastic bag, all of the air removed, and cooked in the bag, or the kayo concentration method used to give a sauce more flavor. The technique involves making a juice and freezing it, rather than reducing it over heat.”

Gutierrez continued, “Curiosity is probably one of the best tools a chef can have. Following a recipe is one thing, but having great technique is another. I try to keep my staff as excited as I am about trying new things.”