By Kyle Kirby, contributor
In the last decade, downtown Harrisonburg has nurtured a thriving and eclectic culinary scene. International flavors. Locally-sourced ingredients. Lots of jobs for cooks, chefs and wait staff. But behind the kitchen doors and amid the ranks of food workers, are contributors to another burgeoning part of Harrisonburg’s cultural identity — its vibrant art and music scene.
For instance, the chef behind the meals at the Golden Pony is also a musician, taxidermist and an all around creative soul.
Blake Cramer is one of many local artists who supports himself in the service industry. He has performed upright bass and vocals as a solo act under the name Troutmouth for about six years and has been making music since his late teens. As a chef, he enjoys bringing a bit of creativity into the kitchen as well.
Cramer prefers to use local and in-season foods, which can mean thinking outside the box with more limited ingredients. At a former kitchen position, he created one of his “best-selling and weirdest dishes ever.” It consisted of two crostinis as the base — one with tomato jelly and one with pistachio butter — and topped with field greens, pickled red onions, smoked beets, brown butter, and sautéed trout as the centerpiece.
Cramer made clear that that dish, however well-received by the customers, bears no relation to the name of his solo project.
At age 35, he now performs on and off with several bands, including Troutmouth, Inlaw Country, Tucker Riggleman and the Cheap Dates and Tom Hanks Coverband. He expressed gratitude toward Paul Somers, owner of the Golden Pony, for being flexible with hours and allowing him to travel frequently for music. Cramer said his main focus at the moment is being on the road as much as possible, and playing farther west in places like Kentucky and Ohio.
“Performing is the best part of the process. It’s a high that some people will never understand,” said Cramer, who travels and plays despite chronic spinal pain. “The only time I don’t notice it [the pain] at all is when I’m playing a show…I’m so focused [on the music] that everything else fades away.”
Down the road from the Pony, Denise Kanter Allen works as the grocery team leader at the Friendly City Co-op. She is also a mother and a painter, who specializes in portraits that lean toward surrealism.
Allen said she likes working with the Co-op, because it supports a lot of practices she likes implementing in her own life: buying locally-grown and sustainably-sourced products, composting and recycling.
She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from JMU, and after graduation made a goal of doing a show every month for a year. She also worked as a receptionist for the school board, and every moment she wasn’t working she was making art.
“I would go to work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., nap ‘til 8 p.m., wake up and paint ‘til 4 a.m., then nap again ‘til 8 a.m.,” she said. “After a while, that schedule made my health deteriorate a bit, so I limited myself to four shows a year.”
Allen told The Citizen she had to do a lot of footwork to get her artwork out there. About the time she was trying to create en masse, First Fridays took off. Allen made a point of going to as many showings as possible to get to know other artists and their spaces.
While she gained a lot of knowledge and passion from her experiences in college, Allen wishes that there was more emphasis on what kind of jobs one can get with an art degree.
“The choices as presented seemed to be digital design, teaching, or starving artist…but there’s so much more than that!”
Allen said Harrisonburg is a great place for artists of all walks to find success as they define it.
“Community is part of the essence of how we’re successful, we lift each other up and all go to each other’s events,” she said. “[When I started] I made a point of showing up at their shows and asking them questions, giving credit where credit is due…word of mouth is so important.”
Kyle Grim, one half of the duo that makes up local band Dogwood Tales, shared similar sentiments about his music and his employment at Bella Luna.
“I’ve always felt that Harrisonburg has been a great place to play and create and base ourselves in. It’s full of strange and beautiful niche music that will connect with at least one person in this town,” he said. “I feel there is room for lots of different kinds of art and non-definitive genre music, which is exciting, and we are fortunate as a town to have infrastructure that supports that.”
Grim said balancing the service industry and music takes organization and discipline. Of working in food service, Grim said, at times, it can be easy to take the day’s baggage home with him, but ultimately “…the community that surrounds food service can be full of vibrant and creative people which I cherish and am glad to be a part of.”
Another service industry-artist hero can be found behind the bar at Rocktown Kitchen.
Logan Gabriel has been making jewelry for the last 15 years. After starting in the realm of beads and wires, she has settled into silversmithing since 2017. Alongside her jewelry making, she has worked at a hardware store, a frame shop, as a customer service rep, and now as a bartender.
Though she says service can be rewarding, Gabriel said she feels lucky that she can support herself with only a part-time job at Rocktown Kitchen, allowing her to focus more energy on creating jewelry.
“I’ve always loved jewelry. I started off because I wanted to be able to make my own pieces, to make something specific to my own style, so I don’t have to seek it, I can just create it on my own,” she said. “It’s a cool art form because it’s beautiful and functional.”
Gabriel said she appreciates Harrisonburg’s support of the arts via its many craft festivals. In her earlier years, she had tried to get a smithing apprenticeship at a local business, but was turned down and told just to find her own materials and go for it.
“And that’s what I did,” she said. And that is what she recommends others in similar position should do. “Just keep going, and don’t give up.”
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