For years, customers at Joey’s Pancake House have waited for a table under the watchful eyes of Joey O’Keefe, whose portrait hung in the lobby. But the late owner has a different vantage point these days overlooking the always-bustling dining room. And in his regular place is a large painting of Cataloochee Valley, an idyllic valley in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Joey’s owner Brenda O’Keefe commissioned family friend and Asheville artist Christopher Holt, who grew up in Waynesville, to recreate the iconic Smokies landmark specifically for the restaurant. The painting was just put in place a couple of weeks ago.
O’Keefe asked Holt to paint a view of Cataloochee Valley last year. He started by painting three small-scale versions of what the artwork could be before taking on the final, large-scale canvas.
He doesn’t work from photos, which can make it difficult when recreating landscapes. Instead, he sets up his easel in the place itself, which can pose a challenge. It doesn’t take long for a landscape to change, for rain to soak a sunny scene or for the sun’s rotation to make the shadows dance in a new way, so holding onto one moment in time is a challenge.
“You are always kind of chasing something that’s not there anymore,” Holt said.
Holt lugged the 6-by-5.5-foot canvas out to Cataloochee Valley six or seven times as the sun began to rise to get a feel for what exactly he hoped to encapsulate in the painting.
“That really made all the difference for me,” Holt said. “I had one specific moment that I captured in the beginning.”
The painting was done in watercolors and is a mixture of mostly greens and blues, used to depict the plant life in the valley and the giant mountains that hover over it.
O’Keefe had thought about placing the painting on the wall above where cooks can peer out into the dining room, but she was worried that grease emanating from the kitchen would ruin the painting. In the end, the best place for it was on the large swath of wall in the lobby where Joey’s portrait and a multitude of plaques had hung for so long.
“I think it says everything that Brenda hung it on the Joey Wall of Honor,” Holt said.
When the piece was installed, it took a couple of men to lift it because of its size and weight.
When she commissioned the piece, O’Keefe simply asked for a painting of Cataloochee Valley — a place she loved to hike in her younger years and where many of the founding families of Maggie lived. Then, she let Holt get to work with few other instructions.
“She is how most art patrons should be,” Holt said.
O’Keefe and Holt’s family have a long history together. Decades ago, O’Keefe lived in an apartment owned by the maternal side of Holt’s family. Later, at the age of 15, Holt’s mother started working at Joey’s Pancake House. O’Keefe has known Holt since he was born and remembers his penchant for art at a young age.
“When he was a little boy, he always sent out these beautiful cards,” O’Keefe said, recalling hand-drawn cards that Holt would give to family and friends.