If You Build It, They Will Come
By Jordan Staggs | Photography courtesy of SOWAL House
In the European-inspired New Urbanism town of Rosemary Beach, Florida, a jewel-toned speakeasy is the home of creative collaboration, great conversation, and unique events. But a selection of craft cocktails or a wall of wine isn’t what’s hiding behind this door—it’s SOWAL House, a creative space designed to foster new friendships and ideas among artists and entrepreneurs from Northwest Florida and around the globe.
The club’s cofounder and chief visionary officer, Dave King, moved to South Walton, Florida, in 2018 with his wife, Bo, and immediately felt the inherently creative energy surrounding the beachside community. The Kings had lived in Atlanta before making their dream of living near the Gulf of Mexico a reality. So they moved to the beachside communities along Scenic Highway 30-A, where Bo opened her optometry practice, South Walton Eyecare, a year later. Dave, meanwhile, had joined the FIRE (Financially Independent Retiring Early) movement in his thirties and became “obsessed” with the idea of retiring by forty, which he did after a lucrative career in computer science, later joining a prominent hedge fund in New York, and then working for a cybersecurity firm. He was helping Bo as a business advisor after their move, but after learning his wife was a natural at entrepreneurship and needed his help less than they initially planned, Dave says he quickly became a “house dad” and enjoyed most of his ample free time paddleboarding and exploring South Walton while Peter was at school.
“I learned the hard way that early retirement did not suit me well,” Dave admits. “In fact, it nearly killed me. I had inadvertently conditioned myself to work eighty to one hundred hours a week over the course of a decade, and stopping had severe consequences. Through insights I gained from a related near-death experience, I decided to build a business that gave me a true sense of purpose.”
During the first year and a half or so of living along the Gulf Coast, Dave had been interested in getting back into painting and the arts, something he’d done to put himself through college and greatly enjoyed. Looking for that creative scene he’d known and loved in New York, he says, “When we moved here, I had a lot of spare time on my hands. So I would go around asking people where the creatives hung out.” Most people, he says, gave the same response: They don’t. Everyone works from home. Recognizing an opportunity to fill a niche in the area, Dave’s entrepreneurial mind began generating the idea for a place where local creatives, and just locals in general, could hang out and meet each other, forming much-needed connections in what is essentially a small town full of transplants and transients. “SOWAL House was intentionally developed as an answer to that conversation,” Dave says.
Dave, along with SOWAL House CMO Rob Cantave and CFO Blake Jones, started planning to open the speakeasy-meets-studio in 2020 (a hell of a time to open a new business, as we all know), and it debuted in summer 2021 to rave reviews from the lucky locals invited to set foot inside. Its cerulean and gold interiors are easily unlike anything else in the area, where beach-inspired style is prominent and muted palettes prevail. “We designed SOWAL House to be an alternative to the beach,” Dave explains. “It’s one of the few places in South Walton where you can forget that you’re in paradise—escape it, even, if only for a few hours. To be clear, I love living in paradise like anyone else, but sometimes I get ‘paradise fatigue.’ I had a hunch other people may feel the same way. Marisol Gullo of Not Too Shabby did a great job with our decor to serve that purpose.”
Through insights I gained from a related near-death experience, I decided to build a business that gave me a true sense of purpose.
Esteemed guest speakers, artists, and performers have included: songwriters and musicians Tarrah Reynolds, Anthony Peebles, Paul McDonald, Daniel Pratt, Jackson Rohm, Luke Pinegar, Laura Vida, Jessie Ritter, Jessica Heit, Austin Collazo, and more; playwright Nancy Hasty; author and Emmy-winning producer Brandon Adams; tap dancer Anthony J. Russo; Danica McKellar of The Wonder Years; improv poet Ta’ki Brown; renowned transcendental meditation instructor Prudence Farrow Bruns; and others. A host of South Walton-area artists, entrepreneurs, writers, organizations, and other creatives have rounded out the lineup with exceptional local talent.
The space is filled with art, as well. Photographs by Steve Lazarides line some of the walls, mostly depicting street art by the renowned yet elusive Banksy—one of Dave’s favorites. (Look closely when visiting; you’ll even spot two original Banksy pieces on display.) Meanwhile, a gritty photo of Kurt Kobain’s ink bottle, also by Lazarides, is a newly implemented piece, and the SOWAL House podcast studio is lined with wallpaper featuring toile-inspired sketches of Brooklyn by Mike D of the Beastie Boys.
“I have a theory that creative energy has mass,” Dave expounds when speaking of the interiors and gallery-like artwork of SOWAL House. “It radiates from paintings, sculptures, and even performances and resonates in the spaces where things are created. So I decided to fill our space with world-class ‘not beach’ artwork. Not many people know this, but the feeling that SOWAL House invokes when you enter has very little to do with our design or aesthetics and everything to do with the energy of those who have come prior. It’s been incredible to witness, and it’s becoming more and more potent over time.”
This theory, Dave believes wholeheartedly, also applies to the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast in general. “I recently did a podcast with Didon Comer, one of the oldest living residents in Seagrove Beach, and her friend, local author Garrett Horn. They shared these incredible stories of walking along the dunes and discovering troves of ancient Native American pottery unearthed after each heavy storm. Priceless pottery, hundreds or thousands of years old, just lying in the open sand. There’s something special about this place that makes people want to create. It compels them to. Didon and Garrett’s discovery proves that the inherent creative energy that resides here precedes us. It’s been here since the beginning.”
Tapping into the creative energy the area offers often starts in places like coffee shops, where rotating batches of artwork are on display for sale, and it’s easy to discover local artists such as Chris Tipton, Susan Gunn, Bradley Copeland, Wes Hinds, and many more. “I could rattle off a dozen more names without breaking a sweat,” Dave shares. “I believe the creative class of South Walton and the adjacent areas rival that of major cities, and the 2020 decade of our creative class rivals that of SoHo New York in the 1980s. These ‘up-and-coming’ artists are particularly inspiring.” In addition to cafés, Justin Gaffrey’s Gallery on 30-A, Foster Gallery in Miramar Beach, and Maxine Orange Gallery in Fort Walton Beach are some standouts Dave recommends for discovering local art. He’s also got his own gallery in the works right in the Mercado Building of Rosemary Beach, where SOWAL House is located. “We’re opening a new concept called Mercado Public Gallery,” he reveals. “It’s being led by Christy Milliken, director at the Seaside Institute. Located on the second floor of the Mercado Building, this gallery features ‘up-and-comers’ and gives a 75 percent commission split back to the artists, while 20 percent goes to the Rosemary Beach Foundation and the other 5 percent goes to the Mercado Building for maintenance. It’s a very exciting concept!”
Citing the need that many transplants have for social connection and value after moving to a new place, as so many have to the South Walton area, Dave says, “The arts serve as a magic elixir, a salve that treats social trauma. Culinary arts, written arts, performing arts, visual arts—these things feed our soul like a hot bowl of Vietnamese pho. The beach does too, but the arts take more of an effort to get to, more of an effort to find. And there’s an even bigger payoff when you find them.” His goal is to help people find them through SOWAL House and its affiliated programs. In the meantime, he says, he gets to indulge in the “selfish intention” of hanging out with the cool creative souls he meets along the way. “I don’t want to live in an area that doesn’t have a thriving creative class. Fortunately, I think many transplanted locals feel the same way. That’s why artists here aren’t just supported; they’re cherished, almost like local celebrities. You are who you hang out with. I want to hang out with these people as often as I can.”
The feeling that SOWAL House invokes when you enter has very little to do with our design or aesthetics and everything to do with the energy of those who have come prior.
This happens at least once a month when SOWAL House hosts an invite-only Creatives Meetup. Other events, some tickets and others more exclusive, include the studio’s SOWAL Sessions live performances by world-class musicians. The first-ever SOWAL Selections art exhibition recently featured works by over a dozen local artists throughout the space that will soon house the Mercado Public Gallery. Among those artists was Dave—who says although he hadn’t produced art in over twenty years before the event, he was greatly encouraged to do so by the other exhibitors. “I love weaving odd textures and rare earth materials (most recently, uncut Ukrainian dollars and palladium) into narratives, then letting people determine the story. I’m heavily influenced by artists who produce social commentary. Their pieces aren’t meant for a wall; they’re meant for a discussion.”
More discussions of art, life, business, and South Walton’s creative flair often happen on the SOWAL House Podcast, which Dave also hosts. Citing that podcasts seem to be experiencing such a boom likely because they are so accessible to the public and embrace a wide array of topics, Dave plans to help new producers get their voices into circulation by offering a podcast course this year.
This is in addition to the current SOWAL House monthly event lineup, the art gallery concept, and other exciting projects in the works. “We’re co-producing a documentary with Jessica Plowden Anderson about Jackie Cochran, a World War II hero from Defuniak Springs,” Dave shares. “We’re in the beginning stages of a crowdfunding campaign to bring her story to life. It’s a remarkable story that we can’t wait to share. Be on the lookout for The Flight of Jackie Cochran.
I love weaving odd textures and rare earth materials (most recently, uncut Ukrainian dollars and palladium) into narratives, then letting people determine the story. I’m heavily influenced by artists who produce social commentary. Their pieces aren’t meant for a wall; they’re meant for a discussion.
“We’re also launching Orbiter One this spring. It’s an executive Mercedes shuttle service with a unique exterior design that will ‘orbit’ South Walton. Designer Chris Tipton and I are completely geeked out by this offering. This will easily be the most recognizable vehicle in the area. It should evoke the same excitement as an ice cream truck when you were little—but for adults.”
X To say Dave and the SOWAL House team are busy would be a colossal understatement. But with the hearty support of the South Walton creative community at their backs, they’re sure to soar to new heights in 2023.
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Those interested in becoming SOWAL House CLUB members can learn more about doing so on the organization’s website. You can also request to be added to invite lists for upcoming events (such as the monthly Creatives Meetup), learn more about renting SOWAL House as an event space, listen to podcasts, or view the virtual SOWAL Selections gallery. Visit SOWALhouse.com or follow them on Instagram @sowalhouse to learn more.
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