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No spoons necessary 

The SLO County Historical Society stews up an exhibit blending portraits and the mission

click to enlarge MR. GRADY: - IMAGE BY RICHARD YACO
  • MR. GRADY:

History has many faces. Often, it’s the stodgy cardigan-clad geriatric or the stern, unsmiling visages of a family long since deceased. It’s steeped in sepia, and mothball scented. Except when it’s a rich cacao-infused purée of portraits capturing the faces and personalities that colored downtown 
San Luis Obispo during the ’70s.

The San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum will be displaying 32 of the 36 drawings by Richard Yaco, which once comprised Chocolate Soup’s Citizen Gallery. “Yaco’s Chocolate Soup: Picturing SLO’s Downtown Revival” also documents the decades-long process of transforming the mission into the city’s cultural and historic center, described by Cal Poly history major and curator Trevor Walker as “the culmination of San Luis Obispo’s desire to beautify itself.”

Yaco drew people he knew or found interesting, including a short-order cook, flower vendor, radio DJ who went by the handle Captain Buffoon, World War II vet, a candy maker who was none too fond of children, and a man identified only as Mr. Grady, a turbaned evangelist and treasure hunter armed with a sword. Restaurant owners paid Yaco $15 per drawing and called the collective portraits the Citizen Gallery. When the business’ third owner, Forrest Watts, decided to close the restaurant in the mid-’90s, he donated the portraits to the Historical Society.

Yellowed with age, and stained where water seeped below their protective glass, the actual images have already seen too much damage to be displayed under bright lights. According to Kimberly Alfaro, Executive Director of the Historical Society, museum guidelines dictate that original drawings be displayed for a period not exceeding three months, and then in dimly lit spaces only. Plus, the cost of archival quality framing for each of the portraits was prohibitive. Instead, the exhibit will feature high-quality photocopies.

Yaco’s Chocolate Soup is Walker’s first effort coordinating an exhibit, and posed unexpected challenges to the third-year student, even with the benefit of the society’s resources. When Walker first expressed interest in an internship with the Historical Society, and specifically in coordinating an exhibit, he anticipated that the Chocolate Soup repast would require a mere three months to prepare. The reality was more like three times Walker’s approximation.
Unlike a more standard experience curating a museum exhibit, the student would have a hand in every phase of the effort. The knowledge and experience fields he worked within were eclectic.

From Alfaro’s perspective, having Walker assume responsibility for the show was a significant boon; Historical Society exhibits often take years to turn over, as compared with the nine months to a year that is more standard among mainstream museums. In fact, Chocolate Soup could represent a shift for the 56-year-old organization, toward exhibits with a more modern and artistic flair.

“In most museums the things that are on display are the things that belong to the wealthy,” she explained. “I guess that’s one of the things that’s nice about these portraits. They’re all just everyday people.”

One of the factors that has limited Historical Society exhibits in the past is the fact that the museum occupies a historical structure. Curators can neither paint nor put screws in the walls. But society members have finally discovered a route around that particular unpainted wall. They rigged mammoth window covers onto the walls, structures that are painted in muted turquoise and brown and lend an unaccustomed modernity to the space.

But Chocolate Soup is only one half of the historical and artistic treasures. By giving Yaco’s portraits and paraphernalia tied to the mission equal attention, Walker and Alfaro hoped that the two would play off each nother.

Photographs of San Luis Obispo document rapid suburbanization, but also a rural town where vehicles traveling down the grade would frequently lose control of their brakes and careen into various structures, including the mission itself. Besides the more standard photographs, local painter Joan Sullivan created a 15-minute oral history video of the mission, comprised of interviews with six different people familiar with the subject matter.

- SLURP:  “Yaco’s Chocolate Soup: Picturing SLO’s Downtown Revival” is on display at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum, 696 Monterey St. The museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information visit or call 543-0638. -
  • SLURP: “Yaco’s Chocolate Soup: Picturing SLO’s Downtown Revival” is on display at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum, 696 Monterey St. The museum is open from Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information visit or call 543-0638.
The mission wasn’t always heralded as the heart of the city, according to Walker. In fact, it wasn’t until the early ’70s that a project to beautify the walkway around the mission was completed, a two-decade effort. It all started when an art instructor at a community college asked students to create a plan to beautify the city; one of the plans concerned the mission. The actual plans for the main design of the plaza came from a trio of Cal Poly architecture students. But the city council fought the effort for years, until a 1968 election when the city council and mayor were replaced by politicians more friendly to the project. Within three years of the election, the plaza was in place.

“There’s a certain irony to it,” admitted Walker. “Something that was so virulently fought for 20 years has become one of the most loved parts of San Luis Obispo.”

That said, Walker endeavored to remove all political bias from the exhibit. His goal was to merely explain what happened, and give both sides of the issue a voice. But the effort underscores the limitation of viewing history as one truth after another, colored by black and white. Reality is a lot messier.

“History is made up of people’s memories. It’s really difficult to say what happened,” said Alfaro. Yaco’s portraits, at least, are memory-fueled and not at all bound by the goings-on of small-town politicians. Art is their religion, their egalitarian political structure. The faces speak for themselves, and not at all.

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has always wondered how proselytizing the natives passes for cultural heritage. Send revisionist history to


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