People find their culinary inspiration in all sorts of places: a grandmother’s recipe cards, a television show, a memorable meal.

Stephen Durfee’s baking and pastry students at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone had another source for a recent assignment.

A week ago Monday, he told them that in the morning, six teams of two were each scheduled to meet a Napa Valley artist. Then they would have about 24 hours to create a dessert inspired by the artists’ works.

And they weren’t just going to sketch something on paper. No, they’d have to make and plate enough to serve the artists and guests on Wednesday night.

The artists the teams visited on Tuesday were a diverse assortment: painter Beverly Wilson; percussionist and painter John Hannaford; florist Jaime Giorgi, co-owner of The Monkey Flower Group; painter Steven Gordon; glass artist Ed Edwards, and Mikey Kelly, a Napa artist whose work — this is from his website — “explores his interest in spirituality hacking by using language and polyalphabetic ciphers to create algorithmic programs that direct the paintings. Each piece is painted one line at a time to exacting angles to create woven layers of paint creating fields of interference patters and vibrations.”

Kelly, a former New Yorker, was also chosen by Napa’s Public Art Steering Committee for a public art installation “Begin and Continue” on the Napa Valley Vine Trail. He is putting the metal silhouettes of men, women, children and pets amid his algorithmic stripes on 710 feet of fencing surrounding the city yard near Jackson Street.

Kelly’s website also notes: “The paintings truly need to be seen in person to fully experience them.”

This is true. On Tuesday morning, I went with two of the students, Tess Shore and Kassandra Monroy, to Kelly’s Napa studio. The paintings are things of exquisite, intricate beauty, line after line, in soft pastel shades. What kind of dessert would they inspire? The best I could think up was those old-fashioned, long paper strips of candy dots, probably not an idea that would warrant a passing grade.

Ergo, on Wednesday, I went up to the CIA to see what all of the students had come up with.

— Beverly Wilson: Her vibrant colors infuse her studies of the people and places of Napa Valley. Brianna Gruber and Corinne Dewey had created a passion fruit mousse, sitting atop a blueberry cremeux, a dense soft pudding; and this was sitting on a circle of lime cake. But that was not all: this was topped with a square of white chocolate dabbed with purple, orange and yellow. Wilson’s assessment: “I am amazed. This is truly beautiful.”

Jaime Giorgi. The florist was unable to attend the event. But there was no doubt among the others that she’d have approved of the delicate arrangement created by Elena Thomas and Sam Cieniewicz, who explained that one of their artist’s guiding principals was “no waste.” They made a lemon curd tart with a rosemary shortbread crust, drizzled with apricot sauce and vanilla bean-apricot ice cream, and finished it with twists of lemon.

John Hannaford: This had an extra challenge because Hannaford is a musician as well as a painter. So they had to incorporate sound. Amanda Andrade and Heather McCaffery did this by creating a dome white chocolate, sprinkled with colors and containing macadamia nuts. This perched on a wine glass that held a creation of lime cremeux, basil cake, gin foam and basil ice cream. “I thought it was brilliant,” Hannaford said, noting that his students had honored his vegetarianism and avoided using gelatin.

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— Ed Edwards: Two of Edwards’ signature pieces are dishes woven of glass, and dishes with circles of contrasting colors worked into the glass shape. Daniel Mora and Katie Stone created a web of tuile, (French for “tile”) a dough that makes a thin, crisp wafer that can be shaped. This arched over a lime mousse and mango-raspberry sponge, decorated with circles of colored gelatin, which also were scattered over the plate. This not only won praise from the artist, who called it wonderful, but from Durfee.

“Just because it’s a good idea, doesn’t always mean it’s going to work,” Durfee commented. In this case, he noted the students had made their gelatin circles of a perfect texture that “married with the mousse” so you cut through the dessert and not bounce off when you hit a circle.

— Steven Gordon: Gordon’s fine use of pastels in a landscape of a tree in autumn inspired Christopher Keck and Olivia Jose to try to make “a painting on a plate” using not only his colors but the flavors of autumn with a chocolate cookie topped with spice ganache, cranberry compote, rosemary ice cream with a garnish of caramel-colored spun sugar, that suggested the bare branches of a tree — all on a painted plate. “Beautiful,” Gordon said.

— Mikey Kelly: What did Tess Shore and Kassandra Monroy come up with? They decided to showcase Kelly’s work in progress, the Napa fence. “You wouldn’t know that there is meaning behind the lines,” they told the group. They had captured the colors with a passion fruit and pink guava mousse wrapped in coconut sponge cake and embellished with — yes — many tiny stripes. “I’m blown away,” Kelly told them.

It’s an exercise Durfee does twice a year with a pastry concept and design class. This one was made up of students in the four-year program based at the Hyde Park campus in New York who had come to Napa for one semester. He didn’t announce any grades at the end of the exercise, but it’s a good guess they all passed — with vibrant colors.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.