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Buffalo’s Cover Girl: Shasti O’Leary-Soudant

Amongst the clanging of dishes and cat-calls of baristas, I recently sat down with Shasti O’Leary-Soudant at a local coffee house.  Confident and humble, articulate and funny, she runs her own creative business mostly designing book covers for major publishing houses like Penguin Putnam, Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Doubleday.  Wife of documentary photographer, Jethro Soudant, and doting mom to Ruby, 5, Shasti repeatedly gushes about how much she loves her urban neighborhood and her daughter’s school.

But Shasti doesn’t live in the East Village or Park Slope where you would think a successful artist of her caliber would be working and raising her family.

She lives in the City of Buffalo.  Parkside, to be exact.

And it isn’t as if she hasn’t done enough comparison shopping.  The Soudants have moved ten times in twelve years, bouncing back and forth between five different states.  They’ve called Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine home, even returning to their hometown of New York City for a stint.  

It was O’Leary-Soudant’s mother-in-law, a Western New York native, who suggested they consider Buffalo for their next stop. Taken aback by how far their money could go in the real estate market, the Soudants decided to take a few trips to see the Queen City for themselves.

Shasti admits the suburbs weren’t really her style, but once she saw downtown and Elmwood Village, they really began to consider it:  “There were some great neighborhoods and the architecture was exquisite.  It [reminded] me more of the New York that I grew up in than the New York that is actually there now.  It’s a lot like Brooklyn, its a lot like Queens; it has a lot of that feel, but it’s reality.”

The “reality” that O’Leary-Soudant describes seems to be Buffalo’s simple, down-to-earth way of life that suits her.  However, she explains that it also needs to go beyond that: “More than anything it has come home to us how absolutely blissful a simple existence can be in a lot of ways. But it has to be enriched. There has to be art, there has to be music. There has to be culture of some kind.  There has to be people who are interesting and intelligent.”

Buffalo’s arts scene seems to have fulfilled this intellectual need for Shasti. “The art here is tremendously high caliber work. The artists here are more committed to being artists than they are committed to being famous… the people who really want to be famous are gonna go elsewhere, but there’s something about the people who stay and people who have come here from other places that really have a good sense of perspective about what’s important in their lives.”

And what else helped convince the Soudants to put their roots down here? “Wegmans! I think if there hadn’t been a Wegmans it would have been a tougher proposition for us… we’re such foodies. Thank you, Wegmans! We love you!” And when O’Leary-Soudant’s husband, a former chef, is not cooking at home, Hutch’s is one of their favorite spots to eat out.  Kuni’s is also at the top of Shasti’s list; she crouches down and speaks very loudly into my recording microphone, stating that the fact that Kuni no longer does lunch is a travesty.

From a business standpoint, another appealing feature of Buffalo for O’Leary-Soudant is its location. Meeting with New York clients is hardly a grueling commute, and it’s actually easier for her than for some New Yorkers who trek into Manhattan from New Jersey or Connecticut.  “The airport is fifteen minutes away. It’s an hour long flight to JFK.  I go see my clients, I fly down in the morning, and I can fly back in the evening.  It’s like somebody’s day at work… and it’s Jet Blue!  I mean Jesus, how can you go wrong?”     

Shasti knows firsthand that although New York offers many opportunities, its day-to-day existence can be grueling.  After graduating with a degree in Sculpture from SUNY Purchase, she worked a string of not-so-satisfying jobs in the Big Apple and spent late-night hours teaching herself how to use design software on a Mac, which for the time, was way ahead of the curve.  Thanks to her “seriously Protestant work ethic” she was able to start a successful business on her own, and eventually was able to maintain her client base elsewhere.  Seventeen years later, she is still going strong.

O’Leary-Soudant compares her process for creating a book cover design to a making a Raggedy Ann doll. “I’ll read the manuscript, I’ll pick out visual hooks, things that you can kind of hang the story on and I’ll design around that…you’re taking pieces from here and taking pieces from here. The whole process of design involves this choosing and then balancing context.” One of the projects on her desk right now is designing the cover for the sequel to Jacqueline Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean.

Our conversation moves to the subject of family, a topic which instantly makes O’Leary-Soudant smile.  She has an unmistakable glow when speaking of her husband and confides that she never thought being a mother to Ruby would be so much fun.  Family is a priority, and being a family in Buffalo has its perks. With Western New York’s comparatively low cost of living, it was possible for Jethro to drastically cut back his work in order to care for Ruby before she was school-age.  Now that she’s thriving at Olmsted Elementary, there is still plenty of family time to be had while living a comfortable existence.

However, of all the positive things Buffalo has to offer, it also needs improvement in some areas, the first of which, according to Shasti, is its attitude. “The people who are most suspicious of us moving here are people who are from here … they have seen and probably experienced so much of the feeling of decline, that they have forgotten the feeling of prosperity.” O’Leary-Soudant, a self-described “glass half full type of chick” claims she has always had a lifelong love affair with potential, and that Buffalo is bursting with it.  One of her ideas to invigorate the Queen City is to raffle off all of Buffalo’s unclaimed properties to artists nationwide. “There would be an influx of population in this place that you would not believe.   Artists are inherently entrepreneurial right? They’re inherently creative and they will make anything into anything else. This is a perfect city for that because it has the infrastructure to support that kind of lifestyle.”  

Some would argue that there wouldn’t be enough jobs waiting for these artists, but Shasti explains that many incoming artists wouldn’t be searching for traditional jobs anyway.  “Artists typically don’t usually work nine to five gigs.  They’ll work as bartenders, they’ll work as waitresses, they’ll work as gasoline attendants… just to be able to concentrate their energy on making work.” Soudant believes this is possible even with our nation’s current economic woes.  “The best time for art, not for art marketing, but for art, is in recessions and depressions because that resourcefulness comes out, that desire to make things better.”

And so, will Shasti be sticking around to see if Buffalo will live up to its potential? In the hopes of teaching at the college level, she has an application pending at the University at Buffalo’s MFA program, so it’s probably safe to say she doesn’t have any immediate plans to flee. But given the Soudants’ restless nature, I thought I’d ask anyway.  “There’s no reason for us to leave. We’ve built something here,” she smiles.  “We’re not going anywhere.”

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