Transformative Art and the Lonesome Home

When I was in my early twenties, my husband’s and my friends came up with an idea to begin a series of at-home concerts, of sorts. Not a terribly unique thought, but here was the twist: everyone had to bring their talents to the party. Whatever it is you did well, you had to share it with your friends in a safe setting. We decided to call it the Lonesome Home because it was a housewarming party for our buddy, Spencer.

And so, one winter night a few weeks later, we all piled into Spencer’s little campus apartment. He sketched Lonesome Home posters and taped them to the walls like it was a real concert venue. He hung paintings he’d done himself as a backdrop and as part of his contribution to our evening. (A giant painting of Darth Vader stood behind our makeshift stage.)

I was amazed at the turnout and at what our friends and neighbors had chosen to share. With not a small amount of liquid courage, they stood, one-by-one, in the room’s center and sang, played guitar, and read their own poetry. They brought homemade cakes and cookies and served them in pottery formed by their own hands. Our buttoned-up, modest, Argyle-sweater-wearing, white friend, Ryan, surprised us all with a Beastie Boys rap solo that was the highlight of the evening (er, maybe my life). We learned so much about each other that night.

The Lonesome Home was such a hit that we had two more like it the next year, and one after we moved from Kansas to Texas. We discovered that it was the best possible way to get to know our new neighbors and work friends. Once we made ourselves vulnerable enough to share our artistic gifts, no matter how imperfect, we allowed other people to be vulnerable, as well.

I thought our idea was ingenious, really, until I discovered that it wasn’t our idea at all. I was recently reading Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, and in it he has a special section reserved for discussing the power of art in building community.

“There can be no transformation without art. Art in the form of theatre, poetry, music, dance, literature, painting, and sculpture. Communities by and large know this and invest heavily in the arts. Those who want to heal the wounds of a fragmented community initiate hundreds of art projects for those living on the margin. Art brings these voices into the mainstream. Most communities are proud of their arts tradition and rightly so.”

Block goes on to say that every community gathering, large or small, should feature art in some form. For large groups, he recommends inviting a choir or dance troupe to welcome people into the next session. For smaller groups, he suggests asking at the beginning of the gathering if someone would be willing to bring a song, poem, or story to the assembly. He says, when this happens, “the tone in the room shifts, and the place becomes a little more sacred.”

I love this notion, and not just because I thought it was my idea. What if we really did that? Wouldn’t it at the very least be more fun?

Imagine sitting in a neutral-colored swivel chair in a fluorescent-lit meeting room (we’ll talk about aesthetics in a minute). You are fully prepared to be bored out of your mind for the next 45-60 minutes. But in walks one of your coworkers with a guitar and a smile. He starts to play. He’s good! Suddenly your shoulders come down out of your ears and you have a new admiration for this guy. When you begin the meeting, you feel a little more willing to share your thoughts because now the creative juices are flowing; if he made himself vulnerable, why shouldn’t you?

Maybe it would just weird you out to see a coworker play the guitar, but I guarantee it would change the mood of the gathering.

In Community, Block also touches on the importance of art and design aesthetics in places of meeting. Remember Spencer’s Darth Vader painting? Well, it turns out he’s a community-building genius. Block quotes street life researcher William H. Whyte as saying, “An empty wall is a testimony to the insignificance of the human spirit,” and then himself goes on to say this:

“Our job is to affirm the significance of the human spirit, and filling walls with photos and with art by citizens, youth, and employees is very doable…. It is not a question of cost; it is a question of consciousness. At the end of the day, we have to ask, how can we create aliveness when the wall sits sadly empty?”

When we walked into Spencer’s apartment and saw his hand-painted art, we knew he was welcoming us to his space. When Ryan let us in on his mad-awesome rapping skills, we were soon all laughing and talking and infinitely more comfortable with each other. Sharing music and adorning walls with local art takes the impersonal and makes it personal. It takes the sterile and makes it comfortable.

Although I’m a touch disappointed to learn that we didn’t come up with a world-changing, community-building system, I’ll always be thankful for the Lonesome Home parties and what they did for our little community. We’re all still good friends, too, though now from a distance.

We’ve recently moved into a new neighborhood and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s time to revive the Lonesome Home gathering with new crop of unsuspecting neighbors. I have no reason to doubt its effectiveness at drawing us closer together, and in short order. Inviting art into gatherings has proven in our lives, and the world over, to knit people together like nothing else can. And if we really have good fortune, we’ll discover another closet rapper among us. (One can only hope.)

(Excepts from this blog from Community: The Structure of Belonging, Second Edition, by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2018.)

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