We had the good fortune of connecting with Melissa Yes and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Melissa, maybe we can start at the very start – the idea – how did you come up with the idea for your business?
I have spent most of my life in Alabama, but moved away from Birmingham to pursue grad school and other professional opportunities. I moved back in 2018 after being away for 6 years and was thrilled to see that Birmingham mad grown a lot; there are so many new restaurants, bars, and shops. I was disappointed, however, to realize that there wasn’t a matching boom in art spaces. There are heaps of talented artists in Birmingham and, being an early career artist myself, I recognized that there was both a need and an opportunity to contribute to the growth of the creative community here. When I moved back, I asked my facebook community to connect me with other artists who are working in “emerging practices.” Someone put me in touch with Ann Trondson, and upon our first meeting we decided to put our heads together and make something happen. We both work in mostly non-object-based practices such as video, performance, installation, etc. We don’t see a lot of exhibitions featuring this type of work here in Birmingham despite the prominence of these emerging practices in the national and global art community. So we knew we wanted to focus our efforts on celebrating those genres of art practice. When we first started working together in 2018, Ann and I (and another initial collaborator) operated as an artist collective. However, after a few months of exhibiting our own work, we felt compelled to expand our operation into something much bigger than ourselves. In 2019 we began the process of pursuing official 501(c)3 status and have since supported the work of numerous artists in Birmingham and beyond. Readers probably want to know where the name Vinegar came from! Back in our artist collective days, we realized we needed a “band name,” so we asked a friend who has played in many bands to help us brainstorm. From a list of over 200 excellent (and often outrageous) potential band names, Vinegar rose to the top. It resonates with us for many reasons. Vinegar is created from a living culture that transforms the environment in which it lives. Vinegar is an acquired taste—not everyone likes it but some people love it. And whether you like it or not, a little dash of vinegar (even a small one!) in a dish of food brings out the other flavors in the dish and makes it even more delicious. We think these attributes of vinegar (the substance) are great metaphors for Vinegar and the art that we share with our community.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My career is multifaceted: my work as an artist, curator/director, and educator are intentionally intertwined. That being said, my art practice is the foundation for the rest. I work across multiple physical and digital media to create projects that are typically immersive and often participatory. My work is an attempt to reconcile celebration and criticism of American tropes (normative American values, popular media narratives, performative patriotism, etc.). I’m also committed to collaboration in all aspects of my career. I believe in the power of the “third mind” that emerges from teamwork; I also celebrate the ways that collaboration rejects notions of authorship and solitary “geniuses.” Collaboration can offer space for pure exploration—the “yes, and” of improv or any other cooperative creative act. I arrive at this point in my career as a kind of happy surprise. When I was an undergraduate biology student, I didn’t anticipate becoming an artist. When I returned to Birmingham, I didn’t anticipate co-founding a nonprofit and taking on a curatorial practice. My second chapter in Birmingham comes after a difficult period of my life, marked by lots of loss, pain, and struggle (all too personal to describe here). An important mentor of mine once invited me to ask of myself, “Where does the energy want to go?” I am learning to pay close attention to where I direct my energy, and to where my energy is (or isn’t) being received and welcomed. Since founding Vinegar, we have heard many people say “thank you for what you’re doing,” and “Birmingham needs this!” and similar statements. This “noticing where the energy wants to go” describes a kind of meta-collaboration, a “yes, and” between a community and its cultural producers.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m going to answer this as if we aren’t living during a pandemic. Friday: arrive in town, drop your bags at my place, then let’s head over to Tropicaleo for some casual Puerto Rican food and drinks. We’ll probably pop into Harvest Roots ferments to stock up on booch and kraut while we’re there. We can relax on the patio at Tropicaleo and maybe walk over to Mom’s Basement or Cahaba Brewing if we want to keep partying. Saturday: let’s grab a quick coffee and treat at Filter in 5 points, then go look at art! We’ll definitely check out the Birmingham Museum of Art and UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts, and we’ll see what’s available at galleries and artist-run spaces, too. We’ll visit Vinegar (and shop CBD products from their neighbors, Magic City Organics), then Ground Floor Contemporary, Gallery Vox, and more. Why are there only 24 hours in a day? For lunch/brunch we really need to hit up The Essential. For dinner, we’ll go to Shu Shop and maybe get some cocktails while we’re there. If we aren’t too tired from our day of art-ing, we can take the party to other downtown bars like The Atomic. Sunday: since I live downtown, it’ll be easy for us to walk over to Hero Donuts by Railroad Park. Let’s grab a yummy breakfast (they have some hangover-curing options just in case we partied too hard on Saturday) then walk around in the park and on the Rotary Trail. it’s good to stretch our legs. Let’s go over to Alabama Peanut Company so you can have some snacks to take with you while you travel.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Of course my shoutout goes to Ann Trondson, the other co-director of Vinegar! We have embarked upon this experiment together and have grown to really trust, support, and challenge one another. Her knowledge of contemporary art and willingness to dream big are big reasons why Vinegar is what it is today. Having a co-directorship instead of a single director is really important to us. Forgive me for breaking the rules, but I also have to give a second shout-out to our Board President, Tony Bingham. He is one of our inaugural Board members and has played a critical role in helping us identify the mission, vision, and values of our organization. Those guiding principles steady our ship; we are immensely grateful to Tony for that and for his unending enthusiasm.
Other: My personal website is melissayes.com and my social handle is @melbobyes.
All images courtesy of Vinegar and of their exhibiting artists.