Be Curious – A New Friend Might Be Sitting Right Next to You

Heidi Snellman at the new location of the Union Knott Gallery. Photo credit Alice Murphy

Almost every day during Covid I have run past TwentySix Café, the local coffee shop near my house. I used to visit more frequently when I would walk my dog stopping to catch up with a couple of friends, chat with some acquaintances, grab a cup of tea and a dog treat. Then I’d carry on with my walk. I was always refreshed after those short visits but still, I felt like something was missing. It is hard to take the time and be present on most days of our life. Our busy schedules, thoughts of work, and worrying about far-away family and friends keep us from seeing what’s important and right under our noses.

One friend, in particular, introduced me to several people. Mike Errol Beard, a dear soul who passed away this past summer, was instrumental in connecting me with one of the regulars at the coffee shop. Mike would sit outside on their street-side patio with his group of regulars. That’s how I got to know Heidi Snellman. “Heidi knows everybody,” he would tell me. “Get to know her, she knows about all the artists and other people in the neighborhood you can write an article about,” he would say. Well, he was right about that and so much more.

On a cold, damp, foggy, morning in November, I organized an “interview” with Heidi Snellman. She and her little dog, Gigi, are regulars at TwentySix Café. We had talked many times before about neighborhood issues, what’s happening with her art gallery, Go Fund Me campaigns to share, and other events. We, had not, however really sat and chatted about her life. This “interview” was supposed to be about how her Union Knott Gallery has moved to the Standard Dairy building and about the newest artist, Violet Aveline, who was exhibiting there. It became so much more.

I had been curious after one quick exchange many months ago. A throw-away line in a conversation, “…when I was traveling on tour with a jazz musician…,” got my attention. I am a huge fan of jazz music and it kept gnawing at me to find out more.

“So tell me about that jazz musician you said you traveled with,” I inquired as we shared a hot beverage on the patio of TwentySix Café. But let me back up and fill in a few details.

Heidi’s family emigrated from Finland to Astoria. She was born in Seattle and lived there for most of her childhood. Both her parents were art collectors. Her mother managed the Mexican pavilion at the world’s fair in Seattle and discovering her love for Mexican music and art, she and Heidi spent summers in Mexico. Heidi moved to Portland when she was 12 years old. Her dad traveled a lot and her mom traveled with him so Heidi was enrolled in St. Helens Hall, a local boarding school, now Oregon Episcopal School. Her mother was a co-owner of the White Bird Gallery, one of the first art galleries in Canon Beach. Heidi always worked at the gallery and would help host openings and events. You can see how she got her start in the art world and how it shaped her future.

A jazz concert at the Multnomah Athletic Club changed the trajectory of Heidi’s life. She met Frank Tiberi, the tenor sax player for the Woody Herman Band, and ran away with him for a year on the band’s United States tour. “It was really interesting!” Heidi remembers. They toured the U.S. mostly by bus playing at country clubs, the Great American Music Hall, Fort Knox, military officer clubs. They also played at Italian American fellowship halls and, “some strange grange places” and “weird places in the Midwest where mafia bosses lived.” They even went to the Grammy Awards that year when the Woody Herman Band won a Grammy for “Giant Steps”. Heidi says, “Joni Mitchell was in the audience.” She also remembers being in San Francisco and eating dinner with Edi Gourmet and Steve Lawrence at Bimbos, a San Francisco club. “It was a really fun year!”

Fast-forward twenty-one years and two children later, Heidi became the first manager at La Luna, the music venue that was previously the Pine Street Theater. She helped get the concert hall off the ground and running and then went to work for Dr. Martens as public relations sponsoring MonQui events at La Luna and elsewhere. She liked this side of the concert stage better and was able to manage sponsorships at many music festivals and product placement in fashion, film, and music. She handled custom designs and wardrobes for many musicians including Cyndi Lauper, Gwen Stefani, Prince, George Clinton, Everclear, Gus van Sant, and so many more. What amazing experiences she has had.

Union Knott Gallery came about organically. An artist friend who needed a space to paint in the summer rented the space next to Bridges Café for a month to paint and sell her art. When she left Heidi was cleaning up and thought, “This is a pretty cool space. There’s some artists I know who don’t have a space or any representation and it turned into a thing.” That was 5 years ago. In the first part of 2020, the space next to Bridges was going to be renovated to add more café seating so the Union Knott Gallery moved to the Standard Dairy building at 2808 NE MLK Jr Blvd, #2. The unit has an apartment upstairs from the gallery which can be used by the artist or rented out separately. Covid has changed how the gallery has art openings but with the entrance on the parking lot side of the building, it has a covered space right outside the door it makes it easier for an indoor/outdoor event.

Heidi doesn’t know but when I was looking for photos for this article I explored all the social media sites. We are friends on Facebook and Instagram so I started there and realized that we both have the same love of taking photos of flowers and plants around the neighborhood. That coupled with my love of jazz and most other types of music make me realize how you can just run past someone every day and not realize that they could be someone you have a lot in common with. All it takes is being curious and reaching out and asking a few questions. We all probably did this a lot as kids in school making friends in the cafeteria. So, try it soon – you may find your next friend is standing right next to you in line at the coffee shop.