Starving artists find sustenance in local restaurant scene

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River Hawkins is The Bebedero’s co-owner and bar manager as well as an artist who found a perfect pairing for his creativity by making a living in the restaurant business. His striking mural dominates the decor and compliments the Veracruz, Mexico, cuisine at the restaurant. Photo: Tom McGovern River Hawkins is The Bebedero’s co-owner and bar manager as well as an artist who found a perfect pairing for his creativity by making a living in the restaurant business. His striking mural dominates the decor and compliments the Veracruz, Mexico, cuisine at the restaurant. Photo: Tom McGovern

Many artists in Charlottesville who don’t have the privilege of pursuing their art full-time have found that employment in the food service industry allows them the flexibility to pursue their creative muse. We scouted around town, found four artists who work in the restaurant business and asked them about their experience in both professions, whether they see any parallels between the two and if one experience informs the other.

River Hawkins

Part-owner and bar manager at The Bebedero, Hawkins started drawing when he was a child. As a bartender in Eugene, Oregon, he would doodle on napkins. And one day, the bar he was working for had an art show.

“I put up one piece, a random, bizarre painting, and someone offered me $100 for it right there,” says Hawkins. “I thought, ‘I should be focusing on this.’”

He’s now worked in bars for 20 years while continuing to create art. And although he’s called Charlottesville home since 2012, he spent part of the last year managing a bar at a boutique resort in Mexico. He returned with a wealth of knowledge just as his boss from The Whiskey Jar was planning to open The Bebedero and needed someone to manage the beverage program.

“It was serendipitous,” Hawkins says.

Not only does he manage The Bebedero’s bar and craft its colorful cocktails, Hawkins also painted the mural there (above), as well as some other pieces. His partners allow him the freedom to be creative, he says, and he even has an art studio in the office space above the restaurant.

“It’s fun because I can paint for my restaurant, a labor of love,” he says. “There is nothing but inspiration to paint for my bar.”

Leah Peeks

A visual artist who manages the bar at The Whiskey Jar, Peeks started working at her family’s restaurant in rural Tennessee at age 13 and has been in the food service industry for most of her life.

“I was always picking up catering gigs or bartending,” says Peeks. “If you’re lucky, you can work three nights a week and make enough to live on, with a social life built in, and have time to work on your art.”

“My major interest in art is all the colors and the interesting things they can do when you fuse them together,” says Peeks. “The emotions they can bring up.” She’s fascinated by a color theory term known as vibrating boundaries.

“Specific colors next to each other cause stress in your eyes as you have trouble perceiving the colors at the same time,” Peeks says. “It’s cool and exhilarating to see what color can do.”

Last summer, she was awarded a two-month residency in Key West. She says it’s a nod to The Whiskey Jar team that she was able to go at all. “They bent over backwards to make sure I could go. And I was able to come back to my job.”

Ryan Manegold

Manegold, a part-time cook at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, has been playing guitar since he was 15. He started out in punk and heavy metal bands, then became interested in jazz and attended Shenandoah University to focus on jazz studies. He moved to Charlottesville to work at Blue Mountain Brewery and joined local band The Design as a guitarist, playing funk, soul, hip-hop and rap.

He traveled out West for a while, returned to Charlottesville, got a job on a local farm and started playing bluegrass. He then met local violinist Chris Johnson (who used to tour with The Hackensaw Boys), guitarist Jacob Bennett, mandolinist Alex Bragg and stand-up bassist Kevin Torpey. Together they formed a bluegrass project called Fermata Mafia, and will have their inaugural gig at C’ville-ian Brewing Company on July 30. For the first time since rapping for The Design, Manegold will be doing vocals.

“I just recently started to find my voice when it comes to singing,” he says.

Working as a cook at the Tea Bazaar has also allowed him to explore creativity in the presentation of food and, like Peek, he appreciates the accommodating schedule.

“If I have a gig I can usually get my shift covered,” he says.

Sam Cregger

An Americana guitarist and vocalist who first picked up guitar in the fifth grade, Cregger is currently recording his third album while working as a server at The Whiskey Jar. His experience in the food industry ranges from raising and slaughtering chickens at Bellair Farm to tending bar at Yearbook Taco.

He credits his supportive bosses throughout the years with allowing him flexible hours.

“I get all the availability I need and work only lunches, which is pretty hard to get,” says Cregger.

And while Cregger sees a distinction between his two professions, he notes that he tends to encounter many artistic people as a server. “It seems that a lot of people who want to pursue art in some capacity end up in the restaurant business,” he says. “There’s a community there. I play a lot of bars, and we’re cut from the same cloth. We all understand living paycheck by paycheck.”

Cregger will soon leave Charlottesville for Seattle, where he will continue pursuing music. He thinks he’ll likely work in a restaurant there, too, to help pay the bills.

“If my music never takes off that’s fine,” he says. “I just love doing it.”

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