Parallel lives: Santa Cruz’s Stephany Buswell and Helene Simkin Jara share stories in new memoirs

Helene Simkin Jara (left) and Stephany Buswell take a spin through each others' memoirs.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The California counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s is the thread that connects the pair of local writers appearing Monday at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Helene Simkin Jara’s memoir centers on her time as nude-drawing model, while Stephany Buswell’s latest traces a journey that included her fateful introduction to the alchemy of baking.

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Both are longtime and well-known faces on Santa Cruz’s creative scene. Both have been around long enough to accumulate stories and experiences from now-distant cultural eras. And both have written engaging themed memoirs about their life and times.

And now both Stephany Buswell and Helene Simkin Jara are presenting their newly published memoirs, side by side, in one event at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

The free event takes place Monday at Bookshop, and it marks a coming-out party for Buswell’s “Tasting Life Twice,” centered on her yearslong devotion to the fine art of baking and fine food, and Jara’s “Life on the Stand: Memoir of an Artist Model,” drawing from her years as a nude figure-drawing model.

Buswell, 71, and Jara, 76, didn’t know each other back in their youth, but they both arose from the same milieu, the tumultuous artistic/political/spiritual California counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. And, in their distinct ways, their respective memoirs reflect that wild ride.

Each woman is an accomplished figure in her own realm of influence. Helene Simkin Jara is known for her work on the stage as an actor and director, and off stage as a writer. Her new memoir is her fourth book, and she’s published short stories, poems and plays. She’s long been a stalwart on local theater stages. And she’s currently at work in the ongoing “8 Tens @ 8” festival at Actors’ Theatre, as an actor in one short play and a director of another.

For 50 years, Stephany Buswell has been consumed by the art of baking, earning renown on both the local and national levels. She learned her craft as a young baker in the formative years of three famous Santa Cruz County institutions: Gayle’s Bakery, The Buttery and Staff of Life, the beloved grocery store that began as one of the West Coast’s first natural-foods bakeries. Beyond Santa Cruz, she’s been an admired teacher in the culinary arts, and in 2017, she made it all the way to the season finale as a contestant in the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship.”

Buswell’s new book covers a lot of ground, but a central focus is her presence in the Haight-Ashbury in the legendary “Summer of Love,” 1967, as a 16-year-old runaway. Buswell grew up in the Bay Area with alcoholic parents, both of whom died before she was an adult. When her father died, she opted to escape her mother and disappear in the hippie enclave of San Francisco.

For a short while, she was living the idealistic flowers-in-the-hair life of a ’60s star child in the Haight. But that magical vibe quickly evaporated and soon she was living in deprivation and desperation.

“In hindsight,” Buswell said, “it was tough. When I was living it, I didn’t really know how tough it was. I was just too young and naive. There was this freedom that I loved. Nobody was telling me what to do or how to live. But then there was always, well, where am I going to sleep tonight? What am I going to eat?”

A bit later, while still a teen living with a half-brother in Los Gatos, someone at a barbecue told her about a place called The Catalyst in Santa Cruz. “There’s a bunch of kids there that look like you,” she was told. The very next day, she hitchhiked to Santa Cruz to visit The Catalyst, which was then a coffeehouse/restaurant that served as the white-hot center of Santa Cruz’s counterculture.

“I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “In fact, I met two people there that day, the very first day I got there, and they are still friends of mine today.”

Another happenstance charted a course for her life, though she could not have known it at the time. She was living in a commune in Soquel when another woman who lived in the same place had to quit her job at a local bakery because she was pregnant. Buswell, desperate for a job, jumped at a chance to take her place. That bakery was Staff of Life, which had started just a few years before selling bread from whole-wheat flour and using honey instead of sugar — then very much a rarity in the food business.

From there, she learned from scratch the alchemy of baking. “We didn’t really have recipes,” she said. “We had to make our own recipes. We had to come up with stuff, so I really got a good solid base of understanding baking converting all those white-flour recipes to whole-wheat and honey.”

Helene Simkin Jara (left) and Stephany Buswell take a spin through each others' memoirs.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jara’s book “Life on the Stand” is also steeped in the same bygone counterculture era. Her book is episodic tales of her journey, especially her life in the ’60s and ’70s in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Big Sur. A dominant theme throughout is her long career as an artist’s model. It’s a story that she actually began writing as early as 1975. She was living in Monterey at the time when her then-husband and “it was really boring there,” she said. “I was still modeling at the time but I thought, my God, what am I going to do? Hey, I’ll just write.”

Many years later, in the teeth of COVID pandemic, she found all those stories in a shoebox, written on onion-skin paper with a manual typewriter. She dusted them off and dragged them into the 21st century. And added some more material from interviews of other models.

Most of the book, however, stems from her experience modeling for about a decade, roughly covering her 20s. She was an aspiring actor in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, participating in an improv group. “A friend talked me into modeling,” she said. “She had a job and she couldn’t show up for it. I had gotten a parking ticket, which was $10. And [this modeling job] paid $10. I didn’t even know what an artist’s model was.”

By definition, posing for artists and art classes involves nudity, which, said Jara, was never a problem for her. “The nudity was never an issue,” she said. “I was like, OK, whatever.”

What she soon learned, however, was that posing nude as an artist’s model demanded of her exactly the opposite of what her career as an actor was demanding of her.

“You could be round,” she said, “and that was fine. Round people are easier to draw than really muscle-y people. It had nothing to do with that magazine image of what women, or men, should look like. Whoever you were was OK. And that was wonderful. I mean, I had curly hair, and that was OK — and it definitely was not OK when I was trying to get acting jobs. Nobody [as an artist’s model] told me to get my nose done. If I had a big nose, they were like, ‘Wow, that’s very interesting to draw.’”

“Life on the Stand” is full of stories and anecdotes about a wide range of colorful characters whom Jara encountered as models, from fellow models, to artists, to various eccentrics. But mostly, it’s the writer sharing her experience of being so exposed and yet so opaque at the same time.

An artist once said to her, “‘Oh, I didn’t even realize models thought about anything up here.’ I was like, ‘Well, we do have a brain, and we think about things.’ People seem to forget that we’re anything other than an object to draw.”

Helene Simkin Jara and Stephany Buswell appear together at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Monday. The reading starts at 7 p.m. It’s free, but registration is required.


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