ab: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for joining us. You have worn so many creative hats over the years, but you started out as a professional ceramic artist. Can you share a bit about that? Did you go to art school? What sorts of ceramics did you create? How has that first career as an artist influenced your other endeavors (and do you still create with clay today)?
so: I originally enrolled in Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky for International Business. As a liberal arts school, I had to fulfill a few requirements and quickly preferred being in the studio more than my economics, accounting, and statistics classes. My ceramics mentor, Fong Choo, is an excellent example of a working artist who is very active on the craft circuit and who taught me what it meant to be a professional. I learned how important it is to master a technique or skill before having the confidence and aptitude to make my own impression on any medium. This, along with learning how to maximize resources and accept failure as opportunity, was a fundamental lesson that would serve me well as a horticulturist and later as a baker.
Last year I taught a college hand-building course at Kentucky College of Art and Design and really enjoyed being a mentor for the incredible students I had the opportunity to teach. It was the first time in eight years I had spent any considerable time in the studio but was surprised how quickly I felt comfortable with the medium again. I believe the tactile memory of working with clay has just been reimagined in sourdough. So many of the foundations are the same: time, temperature, humidity, and observation. Although I do prefer working with dough now, I have a true fondness for handmade ceramics and they are featured prominently in my new book due out next year called Toast & Jam.
so: My ceramic work was very informed by organic form and texture. I grew up in a rural environment where the streams, woods, and fields were my principle forms of entertainment and fueled my imagination from a young age. My family always farmed as well so our food was very much a reflection of the seasons. It followed suit that my first job was on a landscaping crew and I continued this on and off for almost fifteen years, alternating with restaurant gigs in between. I have always felt very comfortable with the elements of nature influencing my daily activities as an artist, a gardener, and in the domain of the kitchen.
After moving back to the area where I grew up in east Tennessee and building a studio, I quickly realized how isolating production studio life can be and felt very much at odds with the economic uncertainty of working as a creative. When I chose to return to school for horticulture in 2007, it was a decision based on what seemed logical – a related field that would provide a steady source of income and benefits without sacrificing passion.
ab: It was during your time at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden where you specialized in the organic care of their roses that our paths crossed on Instagram. I’d love for you to tell us about your time there. Was it a hard transition from artist to horticulturalist? You always seemed so passionate about your roses; are they your favorite plants and flowers? Do you still tend a garden today?
so: Transitioning to living in New York City was one of the most challenging things I have done as an adult and included some experiences in that first year that truly tested my character and strength. So when I was hired at BBG, it was a relief even though I was taking on a new directive with an incredible amount of responsibility for this very historic and unique collection.
Roses were never a plant I thought would be my specialty. My mother was quite the rose grower and collected many of the showier cultivars over the years. But her garden was where I was sent when I had misbehaved, often at the hottest, muggiest, weediest, buggiest times of the year. So my association with roses was one of discontent. When I was assigned to the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden renovation at NYBG however, I realized what a diverse group of plants they are with so many beautiful characteristics and historical considerations beyond their flower including gorgeous foliage, unique and edible hips, and various growth habits. My personality has an aptitude for specialization and it was easy to transfer this new investigation into an all-consuming career.
Although I left the Brooklyn Botanic Garden two years ago, I have continued to work as a freelance designer who oversees installation of mostly private gardens. It is not nearly as rewarding as public gardening however and I have been increasingly turning my attention more to baking and cooking professionally. I have always had a personal garden though and am looking forward to stewarding a larger, public space next year full of culinary curiosities! It is part of a larger business plan that includes opening a wholesale bakery in the Rockaways where I currently live by the sea.
ab: While you were working at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden you founded your bakery, BK17, a community supported subscription service which, as you state on your website, was “a way to bring back real bread to Brooklyn”. Can you elaborate on that?
so: I came to baking with natural leavening as an alternative to eliminating bread completely from my diet. At that time in New York, gluten free products were all the rage and it was very difficult to find a naturally leavened loaf of bread made with long fermentation. When I founded my business, it was in response to demand for this style of baking and filling a need for bread made with mindful ingredients and technique. It isn’t always the best way to maximize profits but that isn’t a dominating consideration of my approach.
ab: There’s a long road between starting a bakery and writing a book – how did your book project come about? Had you always wanted to write a book? How did you handle the demands of your job at the Botanic Garden, your bakery and your writing?
so: It wasn’t long before my small business gained its own momentum and was taking more of my attention. As more people had a chance to try my bread and also understand the digestive and flavor advantages of sourdough, there were a number of articles written about my story. Coleen O’Shea, an amazing literary agent who came to represent me, saw my publishing potential and nudged me toward writing a proposal. Coleen was the perfect coach for the proposal that was also visually informed by Ngoc Minh Ngo, the talented photographer that I ended up collaborating with for Sourdough and also my forthcoming title Toast & Jam. The idea for Sourdough was a non-traditional cookbook drawn from my experience as both a gardener and baker inspired by the seasons. The key was finding the right publisher who could appreciate and embrace this. Having a literary agent who understood my motivations was paramount and she connected me with an editor at Roost Books. In our first conversation, I remember thinking ‘YES! This publisher gets it!’ which was not the case with several others with whom I had interviewed.
After I signed the contract and began writing and photographing the book, it was difficult to balance this new creative journey with a full-time job, my subscription baking business, and freelancing as a horticulturist. That year definitely took its toll but also forced me to evaluate my priorities. The professional atmosphere I was working in had become very heavy and it was not long before I decided to go freelance full-time and give more priority to baking. It has not been an easy or clearly defined path since but I am a much happier and healthy person. This self-directed strength allows me to more positively affect the lives of others, something that is very important to me.
ab: Because my focus is on choosing joy over darkness and because I believe there’s so much we can learn from one another, one of the questions I like to ask in my interviews is how you deal with stress, bad moods and negativity. You convey such a sense of calm; you’re a very down to earth and rooted person. What are your favorite techniques for keeping a positive outlook and finding joy in difficult situations?
so: The answer has always been the same: seek solace in nature or gain perspective by sacrificing your time and resources for others.
Returning to the elements of the outdoors and the practice of natural fermentation pulls me out of whatever dire straits I think I’m suffering. In reality, most of us have few worries when we consider the larger context of the world. The concerns that preoccupy our thoughts such as bills or boyfriends, are often fleeting. It is important to dedicate yourself to something bigger than you are and practice that surrender on a regular basis. For some this practice is yoga or meditation. For me it is interacting with nature through foraging for edibles, scuba diving (the only hobby that hasn’t become my job yet!), or acting as an agent for the rhythms of natural fermentation.
ab: You now live in Louisville Kentucky and are working on your second book. How would you describe the book you’re working on? After that, what’s next on the horizon for you?
so: After I resigned from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I moved back to Louisville for less than a year to launch a project that was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was an incredible experience but in reality, I think that I had this romantic vision of what it would be like moving back to the South. Louisville was where I built my foundation as a creative but I evolved into an adult in Brooklyn, where my opinions on lifestyle and priorities have been influenced by an integrated, multi-cultural aesthetic. After about 6 months and many pilgrimages back north, I decided NYC was truly where I needed to be.
It was during this transitory phase that I wrote Toast & Jam, my forthcoming title that is informed by my experiences in Kentucky, the ingredients of my travels, and the cultural diversity and pull of New York City. It is a book of baking and vibrant flavors and is a call to personal empowerment through scratch cooking. Visually it has a very different feel than Sourdough and I wanted it to be a bridge between that project and my third title that is now being crafted.
Living in the seaside village of the Rockaways has allowed me to foster a deep connection to the power of nature but with accessibility to the creative stimulation and economic engine of the city. I have felt more at home by the ocean than anywhere I have lived and am very inspired to continue building community here. I am working with a business partner to solidify a humble wholesale bakery and event space and am super excited to reach more people through wholesome, naturally fermented breads and seasonal foods. My third book will be a direct reflection of this experience, the spirituality of following an uncharted course, and the culinary garden I am building to service the business. Learning to listen and accept your destiny takes time and trusting the path takes guts. When you do, there is no doubt you will fulfill your true potential and this next year will be an intense leg of that journey!
Thank you, Sarah, for chatting with me today.
Dear readers, I hope you've enjoyed today's interview, meeting Sarah and learning more about her creative endeavors. You can learn more about Sarah, her book and her bakery on her website. And be sure to check her out on Instagram, too.
*Photos in this post © Ngoc Minh Ngo (1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 11) and Sarah Owens (2, 3, 7, 9, 10, 12). Used with permission.