At first glance, Varinthorn Christopher and Dave Dahl appear to have nothing in common. She is a Thai artist born in Bangkok, and he is a 6-foot-tall ex-con with a rap sheet that could paper a trail to the moon and back. But a closer look at their unlikely partnership reveals what they have in common: a collaborative project in the form of a book containing stories from prison, bread recipes and advice to drug addicts. They also share a belief in the possibility of redemption in life and in the power of second chances.
Varinthorn Christopher was born in Bangkok, Thailand during a coup de’etat, in 1977. Because of a strictly enforced curfew at sundown, no one dared venture out, for fear of being shot or killed by the military. During all this, Varinthorn’s mother went into labor, and her father loaded her in the car and went out into the city. Soon they were pulled over by Thai soldiers, but instead of being shot on sight, the soldiers saw that her mother was in labor and formed a cavalcade of tanks and cars around her family’s car, escorting them to the hospital. Her father saw this procession as a very auspicious beginning to a life and assumed she would be a boy.
Meanwhile, in the United States that same year, Dave Dahl was an awkward pre-teenager, working in the family bread business, but already beginning to struggle with the depression that would plague him into his 20s and 30s.
When Varinthorn was three years old in Bangkok, Dave was dropping out of high school in Gresham, Oregon. As a 12-year-old in her hometown of Pathum Thani with extended family, one of Varinthorn’s favorite rituals was to gather at sunrise to offer cooked jasmine rice to monks clad in saffron robes. By now, Dave had married and divorced, fathered a daughter, and gotten good and hooked on methamphetamine, a habit he financed by committing armed robberies and break-ins.
When Varinthorn was 20 years old, she moved to the United States to attend college. Dave was beginning his sentence of 115 months in prison for assault, delivery of a controlled substance, and possession of a firearm. He served more than seven years and was released early due to his completion of a drug program.
By December 2004, Dave had spent more than 15 years of his life incarcerated. But this last round of prison had been different. He’d learned computer-aided drafting and was good at it. The drug treatment program had left him clean, and determined to stay that way. And he had decided to return to the family bread-making business.
“This particular time I had the humility and the acceptance, and the hope — I had all those things,” he says. “I knew where I was, I knew where I’d been. I accepted who I was at the time.”
He started working at the bread store for $10 an hour, mixing loaves and subbing for absent bakers. Finding housing was difficult for Dave, considering his past crimes and his status as an ex-convict. “I lived with my mom at first,” he says. “I wasn’t able to get actual housing — or, my choice of housing, as you’d expect. You think if you have a certain amount of money you can get a certain amount of housing. Well that’s not true with criminals, with ex-cons, if you have a criminal record. Getting housing is very tricky. I was just going to accept whatever housing I could get. Again, I was comparing it to prison. I was like, OK, you can’t throw me in any place worse than I’ve already been. I’m still going to be able to get up and walk outside and go do what I want to do.”
About a year and a half ago, Dave purchased his own home, and his worries about securing housing for himself were over. But the situation remains daunting for countless other ex-cons being released from prison who need to find a place to stay.
“One thing you have a problem with when you’re in those shoes,” he says, “is that most bigger apartment complexes are operated by property management companies, and have certain insurance and certain rules they go by. This person is a risk, and so their insurance won’t allow it. Also if you’re a law-abiding citizen who has an apartment, you may not really want an ex-con like an armed robber, a drug dealer, moving in next to you. It’s totally understandable that you kind of have to start at the bottom.”
In addition to filling in for bakers and emptying bread loaf pans, Dave began to experiment with mixing a new kind of bread. Prison had given him plenty of time to reflect on his upbringing in a bread-making business, and after 15 years of prison-issue white-bread sandwiches, he longed for a heavier, grainier loaf. Out of this experimentation came his “Blues” bread, a delicious cornmeal-crusted loaf of bread that he says looked so beautiful that he hated to cut into it. This “Blues” loaf was the most expensive sandwich bread Nature Bake had ever produced, but they knew it was something special. Dave’s brother Glenn encouraged him to call his invention “Dave’s Bread.” Meanwhile, Dave had grown attached to the title “Killer Bread,” but given his history, he wasn’t so sure using the phrase “killer” in conjunction with his name was a good idea. Eventually “Dave’s Killer Bread” was born, and rather than hide his past, Dave told it on every bag of bread he sold. He gives a nod to his own past drug addiction, and emphasizes a preservative-free loaf with the phrase “Just say NO to bread on drugs.”
He knows well the difficulty associated with kicking a drug habit.
“It really comes down to, have you had enough yet?,” Dave says. “For me, I don’t know what would have stopped me if it hadn’t been for prison. I went to prison so many times, and that last time I’d just had enough. I said you know what, I can either die, or spend the rest of my life in prison.” Dave sometimes had dreams while incarcerated that he had committed further, serious crimes that meant life in prison. He’d awaken with his heart pounding, and then have a rush of relief to realize he only had five more years of a sentence left.
“These dreams made a big difference to me,” he says. “Taking antidepressant medication worked for me, and also going to school, but all of that wouldn’t have worked for me without me making a decision that I’d had enough. And really, sometimes you make that decision two or three times. Or maybe 10 times, before you actually do it. So it’s not an easy thing to do.”
In August of 2005, Dave and his nephew Shobi debuted Dave’s Killer Bread at Saturday Market in the Park Blocks in downtown Portland, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. By the fall, Dave’s Killer Bread was available in grocery stores such as New Seasons, Peoples’ Co-op, Food Front and the Alberta Street Co-op. Soon to follow: Whole Foods and Fred Meyer, and eventually Costco. Today, Dave’s bread is now available in the northwest from Alaska to California, as well as Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Varinthorn’s introduction to Dave’s Killer Bread came by way of her husband, who she says fell in love with the bread “in a very extreme way.” Because she’d grown up on Thailand’s rice-based diet, Varinthorn wasn’t accustomed to eating much bread, but she soon came around to share her husband’s affection for the new brand. By now, she had lived in Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and South Dakota, where she’d finished her BFA in painting. Before moving to Portland, she lived in Alaska, where her practice included creating giant sculptures and paintings. On a walk one day, she saw up close evidence of glaciers impacted by global warming, and that day when she returned to her studio and saw the scale of what she was making, she felt a little sick to her stomach at the amount and size of the materials she was using.
“My epiphany was that I should do something more social, that other people can relate to. If I was going to count in food miles when I ate, why couldn’t I make my work environmentally friendly and sustainable too?”
Varinthorn applied to Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice and began in 2007. The program emphasizes the community component in art-making, and often means an artist works directly with a particular group of people, such as elementary school students, local farmers or developmentally disabled adults. PSU’s website describes social practice as something that “might appear to be more like sociology, anthropology, social work, journalism, or environmentalism than art, yet it retains the intention of creating significance and appreciation for audiences in a similar way to more conventional art.” The program was a great fit for Varinthorn, who was now determined to create projects around people.
“It’s something that makes the most sense to me. When I first started focusing on sustainability, I visited the UN website and it said “sustainability can’t be successful in only one area. It must cover four areas: human, social, economy, and the environment.” Varinthorn’s projects were also informed by her own struggles as an immigrant to the United States, trying to find work, and to learn a new language. In her project “Friggen Rich,” she helped design new menus for food cart-owners whose first language was not English. In 2007, the Willamette Week published an editorial by her, defending a former co-worker who had been criticized by a food reviewer for lacking adequate English.
“I love the underdog story,” she says, “people who go through something and change themselves, or transform themselves.” But it took the prompting of her professor, artist Harrell Fletcher, for Varinthorn to screw up her courage to contact Dave.
“I’m shy so it was a challenge to contact him,” she says. But she believed his story was compelling, and saw in it the perfect act project. “I read his story on the bread bag, and thought about it as a larger story.”
Her challenge, once she made contact with Dave, was to explain her interest in him. At one of their first meetings, Varinthorn says Dave asked, “Be honest with me: Why are you interested in an ex-con?” Her answer was its own compelling story: As a child, she had eaten some of her grandmother’s sleeping pills and heart medication while her grandmother was away at the market, and it was an ex-con neighbor who discovered her and drove her to the hospital, saving her life.
For his part, Dave liked the idea of creating a larger project around the story of his life. “I’ve never had any problem telling people about my story. It kind of helps me stay clean and remember where I’ve been.” Varinthorn suggested that they create a book that would expand on his story, and from the beginning, they both agreed that whatever their collaborative project produced, it would be offered free to correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers across the United States. Over the next few years, Dave worked and reworked his story while Varinthorn proposed various book designs. When Dave told her she could use photos from his past, including a string of intimidating mug shots from his more troubled days, she went to request copies at the courthouse in Portland, a particular thrill since she had just become a citizen and it was her first visit there.
This fall, Varinthorn received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to publish a final version of their book project, which is titled “Good Seed.” The book begins with an introduction by Varinthorn, and then Dave’s story takes off. Told with unflinching candor, he describes his drug addiction and violent crimes, his incarceration and his eventual transformation. There are photos of his family, of him both in and out of prison, and many of the aforementioned mug shots, some of them showing a defiant Dave, some battered and bloody. The first half of the book is handwritten in No. 2 pencil by Varinthorn, a nod to the tool of choice allowed in prisons. When Dave gets out of prison for the last time, the text of the story is typewritten, a symbolic gesture of the change he’s undergone, and the new possibilities available to him now.
Varinthorn organized an event in December to celebrate the publication and offer free copies of “Good Seed.” “When I saw Dave signing the book that day,” she says, “I thought it was the most fulfilling project. The moment I saw it, I felt like everything was complete. Everything I have been doing for three years was worth it. Seeing him sit and sign copies of his book was really incredible.”
Today, Dave Dahl is vice president of the bread company and continues to advocate for people who are trying to make positive changes in their lives. If there’s anything he has to say to business owners and policy makers, it’s that everybody deserves a second chance.
“We have two hundred employees altogether, and fifty of them are ex-cons, so we have a lot of people who were basically on the street when we hired them. I can show them by example that it works hiring these people. Of course you have to do your homework on anybody you hire. But if you hire people who have been through adversity and have come out of it stronger, those people can be some of your very best, most motivated, most accountable people. All you’ve got to do is give them a chance. Give them a chance to prove themselves and they will make your company better.”
Varinthorn Christopher continues her social sustainability projects, and is an adjunct professor at PSU and PCC. She credits the faculty at PSU for her success. “They are so dedicated to their teaching and they also inspired me and my projects as well.”
The “Good Seed” project has reinforced Varinthorn’s belief in the possibility of redemption. “Don’t judge a person based on the way they look or dress. I think everyone deserves a second chance. Just like the ex-con that saved me. Because he did that, he gave me a second chance to live. And so I want other people to believe in the same thing too.”