By Jonah Raskin | Special to The Sun
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but it was something very close to it. Keith Wicks took one look at Mike Zakowski while he was baking bread in the Sonoma Plaza on a Tuesday and knew that he wanted to do what he loves to do better than anything else. He set up an easel, got out his oils and brushes and began to paint.
When he was done, he had a portrait of Zakowski that he calls “Mike the Baker.” Since then, he’s completed three portraits of Zakowski, two of them plein air, which means out in the open, and one of them done in his Sonoma studio.
The studio work is generally more expensive than the plein air stuff, though Wicks’s most recent portrait of Zakowski isn’t for sale. The artist and the artisan belong at least part of the time to the barter economy where what matters most is a sense of camaraderie, not competition, and where money doesn’t exchange hands.
Wicks and Zakowski have an oral not a written agreement. No lawyers, agents or bankers are involved. Zakowski gets Wicks’s portrait of him, and in exchange Wicks gets all the bread he can eat for six months. That might be a lot of bread. Zakowski bakes some of the best as well as the most innovative, hand-made breads in Sonoma, from organic grains and with natural fermentation.
That the two met in the Plaza seems appropriate since the Plaza on market days is the place where strangers meet strangers, locals meet tourists, neighbors meet neighbors and artisans meet artists.
Wicks is 58. He was born in San Francisco and raised in Bakersfield. He moved to Sonoma in 1997 and he’s been painting here for the past 20 years. “I came to Sonoma, because of the beauty of this place,” he told me. “It reminded me of Europe, and I knew I wanted to raise my kids here.”
Not long ago, he founded the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation to raise money for kids to learn the arts. Once a year, artists from around the country arrive in Sonoma and paint together. Forty-percent of the proceeds from the sale of their work goes to the foundation. According to the website, the foundation aims to encourage the appreciation and understanding of “the importance of the visual arts.”
It doesn’t hurt that Wicks paints in the open air, where people watch him and take photos of him while he paints. So, Wicks’s open-air performances are a form of publicity for art, and for community participation in the arts, as well as advertisements for Zakowski’s specialty breads. Wicks ran his own advertising agency for years; he knows how the business operates.
Master baker Mike Zakowski is 49. He was born in Indiana, and, while his grandparents owned a farmer and raised chickens, pigs and cows, he was never keen on farming or ranching. From boyhood, he was definitely keen on bread.
“There’s a sense of instant gratification with bread,” he told me. As an adult, Zakowski roamed around the country making breads and learning the craft of bread baking. He came to Sonoma in 2004. For years he worked at Artisan, Craig Ponsford’s award-winning bakery. Then he branched out on his own. These days, he makes and bakes about 100,000 loaves of bread a year and sells all of them in Sonoma where his fans get in line to make their purchases.
“I’m crushing it here,” Zakowski told me. But it’s not only here that he’s a big hit.
He goes to Europe to teach the craft of bread baking, and Europeans come to Sonoma to learn from the master himself.
Wicks doesn’t make anywhere near 100,000 paintings a year, and his paintings usually don’t sell as fast as Zakowski’s loaves, though they are snapped up quickly. “My breads are an edible art form,” Zakowski told me one morning in the small kitchen outside Sonoma where he makes 11 different kinds of bread, including a French baquette.
“I make what I want to make,” he added. “Fortunately, people love it.”
That includes Wicks who says that Zakowski’s breads “are a work of art” and that “he’s definitely an artist. “ He adds that, “Mike has the same kind of dedication that I have, and the same willingness to work hard.”
Zakowski thinks of the bread making that he does in the Sonoma plaza as performance art. “People around here are well-educated,” he said. “The story of my breads is carried by word-of-mouth. I don’t do any advertising.”
You can’t eat Wicks’s art but looking at his portraits of Zakowski making bread is definitely mouth watering.