“Oh my god – how cool would it be if we let people pick where they want to sit and put the tables together themselves? They’d be self-directing their experience!” That’s Amy.
“Yes! It’s like, ‘We’ve already envisioned the beginning for you – now we’re giving the tools to make it yourself!” That’s Kate.
It’s Superbowl Sunday and the snow is falling fast, but in the loft above the Mexicantown Bakery on the southwest side of Detroit, neither the weather nor Vince Lombardi are on anyone’s mind. Instead, Kate Daughdrill and Amy Kaherl are huddled in the middle of the loft pondering the logistics of lo-fi decorating. The space is littered with chairs, dusty tables, throw pillows, bundles of shredded newspaper, and mysterious pieces of wood, and in less than three hours more than 100 people are expected to arrive for soup.
More precisely, they’re coming for Detroit SOUP, a monthly soup dinner started by Daughdrill and musician Jessica Hernandez, whose parents own the bakery building, as a way of bringing together friends, fellow artists, and community organizers to talk, make connections, and raise a little bit of money for worthy projects. Guests pay $5 for a bowl of soup, a plate of salad, and some bread (beer and wine cost extra), and at some point at every SOUP night a handful of creative types stand up and pitch their current projects – and explain how they could benefit from a couple hundred bucks. The diners step into a custom-built voting booth and cast ballots — and the project with the most votes takes home the door. In 2010 Detroit SOUP raised about $4,500, in increments of $300 or $400 at a time, and funded everything from an initiative to manufacture sturdy, thermal “sleeping bag” coats built by and for the city’s homeless to a hand-drawn, limited-edition Detroit coloring book.
One year later, SOUP is at a turning point. When Daughdrill and Hernandez invited Detroit to the loft a year ago, perhaps 20 people showed up. Now, the monthly events draw enthusiastic crowds, and organizing them has become a full-time, unpaid job. After tonight, they’ll be scaled back to quarterly meals (the next one’s in May) and Daughdrill, an MFA student at the nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, is stepping away to focus on her own artwork. Kaherl, a seminary student turned grant administrator, is stepping in as the primary organizer.
“Every time I do SOUP,” she says, “It feels sort of like what ministry is supposed to be. I mean, you’re bringing people together and creating community around something beautiful, and asking really good questions. What could be better than that?”
People in Detroit talk like this a lot: Forging strong new communities in their embattled ruin of a city is in the forefront of many minds. But Detroit SOUP is just one of (at last count) 27 such artist-driven soup projects around the country – and the world.
Chicago artists Bryce Dwyer and Abigail Satinsky credit their friend and co-collaborator Ben Schaafsma with seeding the idea, basing it on a soup subscription service in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. When Schaafsma moved from Grand Rapids to Chicago to go to art school, he joined up with Satinsky and another student, Roman Petruniak, to start the arts collective InCUBATE; Bryce joined them a year later. In 2007 they launched a program called Sunday Soup out of their storefront space next to Chicago’s historic Congress Theatre.
Sunday Soup happened once a week for about a year – a casual event get-together that raised perhaps $125 to $250 a week for local, small-scale art projects. But as anyone who’s thrown themselves into a labor of love will tell you, they’re a lot of work.
“We started Sunday Soup because we were working against the professionalizing atmosphere for grant-seeking artists and organizers,” Satinsky reflected in a 2010 essay for Chicago-based Proximity magazine. “We wanted to create an immediate and simple source of funding for creative projects. Yet this project is also dependent on the volunteer labor of the organizers who must have their own jobs to keep these micro-initiatives afloat…. What is our responsibility to keep the thing going, even though it can sometimes feel like another full-time job? Is it really sustainable if it depends on us in this way?”
In 2008, just after InCUBATE swapped the weekly events for a monthly Sunday Soup brunch, the group collaborated with the arts collective Material Exchange to install a soup café in New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, as part of Creative Time’s “Democracy in America” project. In a space outfitted with repurposed and scavenged furnishings, they invited a handful of artists and fellow travelers to cook soups and give talks for a week. The New York soups raised $1,500 to fund a large-scale installation by artist Robert Snowden at the border of Tijuana and San Diego, but the impact of the show rippled far past that one project, as artists and budding arts administrators who’d been at the show toted the model home with them. InCUBATE also staged Sunday Soups in Houston and Buffalo, and Creative Time published a “Democracy in America” book, featuring Sunday Soup, as well.
“By going to these exhibitions we met a lot of people,” says Bryce, “and the book circulated widely, and it sort of instantly made legitimate this weird meal thing we did in Chicago.”
“It was an exciting way of building outward,” says Abby. “We weren’t saying, hey here’s this model, take it on.’ We were sort of openly struggling with a bunch of stuff — questions, like, ‘What does it mean that we’re doing all this volunteer labor as artists in this exhibition, making you food to raise money for other artists? What is this weird structure we are operating in? What kind of careers are we going to have?’ Having other people take up those elements and do their own projects is has been really awesome.”
From Seattle to Dubuque to Kiev these initiatives vary wildly in scope and structure – and they’re not limited to just soup: Brooklyn FEAST (“Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics”) serves meals for 2000 out of a Greenpoint church basement. Baltimore Stew is a collaboration between an artists’ collective and an anarchist bookstore, serving four-course meals cooked from locally sourced produce, and raising money for social justice projects. Philly Stake (get it?) is funded by a grant from the Pew Foundation; the Hartford FEAST was founded by a city councilman.
In the last year or so, as interest in cooking and alternative food systems has spiked, they’ve started to get attention from the mainstream. In August 2010, Detroit SOUP was profiled in the New York Times; in April of the same year St. Louis Sloup turned up on the NPR program “Marketplace.”
Ben Schaafsma didn’t get to see his idea take off – he died in October 2008, a month after the Armory show, after he was struck by a car in New York City. In the wake of his death, InCUBATE retrenched, and reassessed. In late 2010 they launched a website — sundaysoup.org – that serves as a clearinghouse for information about similar food-based fundraisers nationwide, but Chicago’s Sunday Soup is on hiatus. “’I’ve never felt that someone should credit us, necessarily,” says Abby, when asked if she feels any sense of ownership of the idea.
“Just letting it go is kind of the only thing that ensures that it perpetuates itself,” adds Bryce.
And, adds Abby, “On an emotional level, this was something that we worked on with Ben – it was something he worked really hard on, and to see it have it’s way out in the world is really meaningful in a really, really deep way. I don’t think any of us have any interest in being proprietary. Something really great has started, and what’s important is that I feel a meaningful connection to people in different places that I would never have had the opportunity to have.”
Kate Daughdrill started hearing about Sunday Soup and other soup doings in 2009 – and after checking out Brooklyn Feast and Portland Stock she and Hernandez decided to launch their own. “We were looking for something that would bring creative people together to connect and support each other,” Daughdrill says, “and have conversations about the creative and often community-based production happening in the city.”
By 7 PM on the night of the anniversary party, the loft had been transformed. Under the direction of an artist friend, Dan Demaggio, strings of tiny white lights sparkled around the bar and draped over tents on the stage. “Trees” topped with pompoms of shredded newspaper anchored piles of throw pillows, creating what Kaherl dubbed “pods of community” around café tables stacked with crates of thrift-store dishes. A dozen doors donated by a local architectural salvage firm leaned against one wall, waiting to be turned into long, low tables by the crowd, per Daughdrill and Kaherl’s afternoon brainstorm.
And then, the crowd tromped in from the snow. Cute 20-somethings in oversized glasses mingled with beardy artists and a handful of well-turned out types in pumps and pencil skirts, waiting for that night’s soup – a veggie, tomato-based “stone soup,” complete with rock in the bottom of the pot, cooked up by artist Phreddy Wischusen — to be served. But first Daughdrill gave a little speech, and brought seven of the 2010 grant recipients up to the mike to give quick updates on their projects.
“I was running on empty,” said Veronika Scott, the College of Creative Studies student who devised The Empowerment Plan, the “sleeping bag coat” project. She was broke, burned out, and about to give up when she won a SOUP grant last year. The money gave her the fuel to pitch her plan to Carhartt, which signed on to fabricate 25 initial coats. In January, she was on CNN.
During the meal, other diners got up to talk about the soup projects they were starting at home: In Hamtramck, in Dearborn, and at a semi-abandoned Corktown apartment complex called Spalding Court.
“We just want to give this idea away,” said Daughdrill, from the mike. “Just as we were inspired by other soup projects to do our own, we want you to feel free to take the idea home with you and do what you want with it. Because the real work always gets done in small groups, in our neighborhoods and our communities.”