Survival Tip: "Act as if you have nothing to lose."
In the third interview in the “Survival Guide” series, Raina Benoit talks with artist Bob Snead. Snead moved to New Orleans in 2010 and has since established himself as a mainstay of the St. Claude neighborhood, both through his work with Press Street’s Antenna Gallery and his family bakery, Shake Sugary.
For those of you in New Orleans, you can sample treats from Shake Sugary on Saturday, September 8 at our launch party celebrating THE DROP at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Stop by between 6-8 pm on your way to Second Saturday openings.
Raina Benoit: I enjoyed reading your blog posts from 2010, when you first moved to New Orleans. You describe so clearly the awful scrambling it takes to make it in a new city. You somehow, despite all the suffering, maintained a positive outlook. How does it feel now two years later?
Bob Snead: It’s a lot better now. I had a job lined up at Loyola when I moved but it was not enough to live on, so I had to scuttle to find other jobs. A couple of jobs fell through and before I knew it I was hammering concrete to make ends meet. I decided to post an ad on Craigslist titled “Ivy League Remodeling—Hire an Ivy Leaguer to Fix Your Shit” and I got some calls that helped us stay afloat. Afterwards I got a gig with artist Lin Emery, a recognized sculptor in town, and also some web designing work. In addition to juggling all of these various jobs, our first year here my wife Dawn, my son, and I were all living in the space that we were using to start up a bakery. When you start your own business, you have to wait at least five years to see if there is any money to be made. We are still living a little bit beyond our means but we just moved our family next door to the bakery and are placing our bets that everything will work out.
RB: You and your family seem pretty well-versed in risk taking, for example starting up the Redux Contemporary Art Center in South Carolina or the veggie-oil-powered bus project Transit Antenna.
BS: I started Redux in 2002 with a group of friends, including Seth Gadsden, Jamie Self, and my wife Dawn (This core group would later form the basis for Transit Antenna). For the first few years, we ran the center on personal credit cards, and we had to struggle for every penny. By 2005, we had a pretty respectable budget. Now it’s nearly $500,000! At one point I was Redux’s Executive Director, a FedEx courier, and a printmaking professor at the College of Charleston all at the same time.
It was after graduate school in 2007 that the Transit Antenna project was born, which wrapped our lives, work, and art all into one big project. Transit Antenna was certainly a “have faith and it will all work out” type of thing because we were pretty broke and in debt from school. Luckily I had a handshake deal with Deitch Projects, which gave us the money to get things going. We used that check to buy and outfit an old city transit bus to run on vegetable oil. With the basic comforts for all seven of us to live and work together, we drove through Mexico, Canada, and most of the US visiting a varied group of communities and collaborating on art projects either with the locals or inspired by them.
We intentionally set out on the road with no clear direction wanting to be wide open for anything, often letting someone’s recommendation in one place guide us to the next. That was the major appeal for me artistically. My work has always focused on experiential narratives. Transit Antenna was constantly being redefined by each new place, person, and experience.
Dawn, my son, and I ultimately ended up settling in New Orleans because it felt like home. The architecture is so similar to Charleston but it also has a distinctive creative energy all its own. It feels like when we were living on the road: there was no end in sight and so much still to discover.
RB: Did you and Dawn have plans to start the bakery before you moved to New Orleans?
BS: Yes. We picked this spot (a former barber shop). We opened Shake Sugary last summer on weekends just to bankroll the place because we had no money. Whatever money we’ve made has been spent on bakery equipment. We’ve avoided loans at all costs.
RB: Were you also testing the market by opening up incrementally?
RB: Do you and your wife ever sleep?
BS: Dawn never does. She sleeps on Sunday nights, other nights about three to four hours. It’s been a real hustle being a transplant here. I’m hoping that next year won’t have to be as chaotic. That’s my goal for year three.
RB: The bakery is located on the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Congress Street right next to the Holy Angels Convent where the farmers’ market happens on Saturdays and also in the middle of the St. Claude Arts District. Did you know you were picking such a prime spot?
BS: That was dumb luck! We opened up one weekend in August of 2011 and then two weekends later the farmers’ market started up, so that blew up our Saturdays. We did know about the galleries being in this neighborhood. We initially opened up for the Second Saturdays art walk, so people would come after the gallery openings to get pastries and the word about the bakery spread that way.
We picked this area because of the art community and there was no bakery. So even if we were pioneering out here for a while, we thought we should open in the St. Claude neighborhood. It felt like you could do what you wanted and make it happen. Plus it was the only place we could afford. It’s a double-edged sword because our bakery has become a sign for people that the neighborhood is changing. It increases the prices for everything. We just saw an ad on Craigslist a couple of weeks ago describing the apartment as being across the street from Shake Sugary. It’s crazy to see the property value in this neighborhood sky rocket over the last two years.
RB: I’m interested in how your work moves fluidly between art and life. There are many other artists merging aspects of life with their art practice, bringing the experimentation required in the studio out into the open and engaging more with the community. Would you say the New Orleans art scene is conducive to this do-it-yourself way of working?
BS: This do-it-yourself ethos probably starts with trying to remove oneself from a commercial superstructure. All the galleries in the St. Claude neighborhood operate on a shoestring budget and the artists are paying out of pocket. It’s sort of the antithesis of the commercial model. I was particularly interested in moving to this neighborhood because of all the creative startups. I’m a member of Press Street’s Antenna Gallery, which is an artist-run space with an organized nonprofit component. It’s great working within these artist groups because everyone just wants to make something awesome. One person’s idea of awesome may be way different than yours but you end up embracing that and learning from it.