By Erin Pesut
The soundtrack in The Cork Room, the boutique southern-style farm-to-table restaurant at Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery in Elizabethtown, cycles through the Temptations, Michael Jackson and the Beach Boys. The atmosphere is casual. Relaxed. When you walk in, you feel right at home. It doesn’t have the pin-drop silence and footstep shuffle of a museum, but, in fact, the collection of art hanging from the cypress walls is a worthy one.
People may come to the Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery for its tasty wines, delicious food and beautiful grounds – which are patrolled by llamas and stately peacocks – but where the heart of the enterprise truly shines is in Alex Munroe’s eclectic collection of art, featuring works by famous rock ‘n’ rollers alongside those of modern masters. It’s one of a kind – and mesmerizing.
A Modern Collector
Munroe, the owner at Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery, has been collecting art since he was eight years old and became fascinated with celebrities soon after. While on a plane to New York City with his mother and his father, Munroe caught sight of Dean Smith, the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in first class.
“I went up to him,” Munroe remembers, “and he gave me his autograph. I was just so happy. After we got into the airport, he said, ‘Have a nice trip in New York, Alex.’ I never forgot that.”
This first run-in with a celebrity stayed with Munroe. And not just because they had seen each other and spoken briefly. Munroe was struck by the fact that Smith had remembered his first name and also by Smith’s down-to-earth manner. These famous individuals, Munroe realized then, were just ordinary people after all.
Fifteen years ago, Munroe found himself collecting celebrity art, quite frankly because it was what he could afford. But his love of autographs and memorabilia ultimately translated into a collection of fine art with a continued appreciation for the magic, the je ne sais quoi, in the artistry and the pieces that celebrities created themselves.
Munroe estimates the one hundred pieces hanging on the walls in the Cork Room are only a quarter of his complete collection. He features works by such rock ‘n’ roll legends as John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash as well as works by some of the greatest masters of modern art, including Picasso, Henri Matisse, Chagall, Miró and Salvador Dalí.
Even Dr. Seuss has a place! Whimsical “taxidermied” characters by the ever-inventive children’s book author are mounted on the wall above a description that reads, “When Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) was a young boy and a fledgling artist, his father was superintendent of the nearby Springfield Zoo.” When Dr. Seuss grew up and moved to New York, his father sent him horns, antlers, beaks and the like from zoo animals that had died. Dr. Seuss combined them with papier-mâché and clay to create bizarre taxidermy-type sculptures, such as “Anthony Drexel Goldfarb,” “Sea-Going Dilemma Fish” and “Goo-goo Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast,” all on display at Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery.
Nearby is an early photograph of the members of the Eagles, the bandmates all squinting into the sun, taken by rock ‘n’ roll photographer Henry Diltz. Near it is a series of drawings by Picasso of bull-fighting picadors, including one from a collection that Picasso took with him on his honeymoon in 1961 and marked up with a pack of crayons – 23 colors –that he’d found in his hotel.
“It’s the fabric that pulls it all together out here,” Munroe said. “You can go to a thousand wineries in the world and they all have wine, but it’s rare to see such an eclectic art collection and also to enjoy your wine while looking at it.”
Why Art Matters
After 9/11, when all of New York City shut down, the city’s inhabitants flocked to art museums, Munroe said. Why? “Research shows that looking at a piece of art stimulates the same part of the brain that is stimulated when a child looks at their mother,” he said. “Art, in general, transmits that feeling of intimacy, security and love.” Munroe wanted to bring that same kind of connection here.
There is art from Mr. Brainwash, a play-with-form, mischievous Los Angeles pop street artist. And there is art by Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali, Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones rockers Ron Wood and Bill Wyman, and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. An illustration by Eric Clapton shows what the guitarist thinks about when he’s performing live – he dreams of being with family, fishing and the like.
The list continues. Munroe has a Norman Rockwell. An etching by Renoir. Near the entrance to the restaurant, there are pieces by Chagall and Matisse. And an original by David Lee Roth of Van Halen. “It’s nothing grandiose,” Munroe said, pointing to the piece, “but David Lee Roth did that.”
There’s a James Dean painting entitled “A Tribute to Sal.” (“A lot of people didn’t know that James Dean was an ‘artist,’” Munroe said.) Handwritten lyrics by Waylon Jennings. The only published piece by Johnny Cash. A pair of Elvis Presley’s loafers near a description that reads, “For years, Elvis was primarily concerned with comfort. He wore these shoes mostly with sweat suits.”
Hall of Famers
Besides the framed art and artifacts hanging on the wall, Munroe has a Hall of Fame – rows and rows of autographed head shots of celebrities, some with personal notes to Alex and well wishes for Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery.
Munroe also has quite of collection of outfits worn by celebrities. A suit worn by James Brown. A coat that belonged to Michael Jackson. Madonna’s white silk pajamas from the 1993 film Body of Evidence. Robin William’s trench coat from the 1998 film What Dreams May Come. There are also pieces worn by Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Reynolds, and Lauren Bacall.
Removed from the big screen, these outfits and costumes reduce from their larger-than-life appeal to ordinary size. Robin William’s trench coat looks as if it could fit just about anybody. Madonna’s pajamas have a small bullet-sized hole near the hem. There is a small smudgy stain on Burt Reynold’s white smoking jacket. These people, as the artifacts suggest, are just people. Perfection, frankly (and thankfully), is a myth.
An Enticing Visit
Munroe is proud of his curated collection. “People don’t get to see things like this unless they go to a museum,” he said. “Suddenly I had all this stuff.” He figured, “I might as well do something with it.”
It’s an instinct we have – to be fascinated by the famous – so whether you are a fan of rock ‘n’ rollers or the precise joys of fine art, enjoy a visit to Cape Fear Vineyard and Winery. Savor a glass of wine – and the hidden surprise of finding a compendium of art that is unlike any other collection anywhere else in the world.