During the week of September 19-23, 2005 I lived as an artist in residence at Art 634 in Jackson, Michigan. Art 634 is a privately owned, communally operated warehouse with studios designed to give local artists space to experiment and explore the intersection of artistic mediums, culture, and socialization.
Despite having travelled extensively overseas, I felt like a truly cross-cultural experience required my immersion in a foreign setting more than a foreign country [after all, Berlin tends to feel a lot more like Chicago with subtitles than it does a truly unfamiliar place]. Art 634 is a venue full of irregular individuals working irregular hours on hyper specialized projects that most people do not appreciate. As a fairly structured person, this kind of liquid living required considerable adjustment in the five days I stayed.
Perhaps it will be helpful if I give a play-by-play of the week’s events and main characters.
Steve Sayles is the owner/founder and uses the basement [a.k.a “the dungeon] as his studio space for metal scultpures and ironworks. Steve is tall, thin, is an accomplished Jazz pianist and smokes for breakfast.
Birdhouse Mike is, actually, an amazing painter…who builds birdhouses in his spare time. It’s an odd hobby for someone who is a gifted artist to build large birdhomes out of driftwood and pinecones, but Mike seems to enjoy it.
Cameron and Sydney are the photographer and dog, respectively, who live in the uppermost/frontmost suite in the studio. Cameron races bicycles and Sydney races cars.
Nora runs a framing gallery where she handmakes picture frames and matting. She does a fair amount of business. Sadly, Nora – unlike all the others – does not live at 634, she just works there 24/7.
Barbara, Left of Center. I call her “Barbara, Left of Center” to try and be charming. Barbara thinks I’m charming, at least, and Left of Center is the theatrical production company she runs from 634. Their last play was about the Matthew Shepherd murder trial and the way the evangelical hegemony has persecuted homosexuals with their rhetoric and – ultimately – violence.
Crazy Tim is an entrepeneur who travels weekly all over the world to spin new ideas. He is quite brilliant. He looks at people, literally, out of the corner of his eye and he wore a shirt that read “skeptic.”
Jeff the Contractor comes by Art 634 everyday day at lunch and after work before he goes home. It’s almost like a local bar for him, a place where he can unwind. Jeff is not an artist at all, but he and Steve Sayles are good friends and Jeff often refers to Steve’s sculptures as their work. Amazingly, no one ever corrects him.
Kenny and Betty K from Texas are dyed-in-the-wool, old school fundamenta-bapists. 634 is their alternate residence, for when they need to escape their cattle ranch and find some peace.
Ave is the resident artist-enigma. She is there all the time, living next to Cameron and Sydney, but I never saw her. She paints naked mermaids.
The Week in Review
Monday: John and I arrive at Art 634 with my camera gear and guitar. Steve Sayles sets us up in an unfinished room covered in sawdust and invites me to set up my airmattress next to the pile of unused insulation. After two hours of inflating my “easy-inflate”, I sit next to Birdhouse Mike and learn how the pros smoke sheesha. Mike explains that sheesha is made primarily of molasses and fruit and I smile encouraginly because my friend John Tittle is an avid Sheeshaman.
I go to sleep afraid of bugs.
Tuesday: After a short night marked by several awkward bathroom experiences [Crazy Tim booby-traps the one toilet with Ave’s naked mermaid pics], I rouse myself and stumble to the B-Z-B Café two blocks south of 634 with John. I have oatmeal and a coffee and on my way back to the warehouse purchase a frisbee for Sydney. She plays catch with Cameron and I while we discuss the merits of chemical photography in a digital world, then we all try and get Mike away from his studio for a few minutes to hear his thoughts on what it means to have everyone living together. Steve’s dog, Zoe, shows up for frisbee while Mike pontificates, but is soon distracted by her owner’s arrival with Schlenker’s hamburgers.
My afternoon is spent alternating between the Texans and Nora. The Texans want me to commit to converting the “heathen” and Nora wants me to pray for her husband. I make some coffee after prayer and we all talk about art while I wonder if anyone ever makes any.
In the evening I sit in on the Left of Center rehearsal and offer my thoughts on the presentation. The portrayal of the ignorant preacher seems one dimensional in my view. Jimmy Reed, a local guitar icon, stops by after the show and I get excited about jamming with him.
We play frisbee instead and John and I stay up very late taking pictures.
When I collapse into my “easy-inflate” I think I catch a glimpse of beady red eyes in the rafters and wake up several times sweating about bats.
Wednesday: I sleep in until noon, but am the first one awake. Birdhouse Mike is usually early to rise, but he and Tim argued until breakfast about “Let’s make a Deal” to which Tim owns the rights. Mike thinks “Let’s Make a Deal” isn’t as popular as it once was. Tim thinks it is.
Stumbling out of the dark bathroom – Tim always has dirty soap – I find myself in the middle of an interview between Steve and a local reporter. He makes Art 634 sound like Disney in Heaven and when the reporter asks me what I think I am compelled to talk about the warmth of the people who live there. The reported loves the fact that a pastor would live with the artists and promises to write me up, but I decline.
I write a poor sermon for most of the afternoon, trying not to feel hungry enough to walk back to the B-Z-B.
Our church staff shows up for a late lunch and I give them the nickel tour. They are enthused about ministry to artists, but amused by my five o’clock shadow and new smell. When the staff leaves, several of our parishioners show up with dinner and we all eat with Nora and Mike and talk about how Westwinds can minister to the art community.
That night I almost get to jam with Jimmy Reed and John until we realise we’re going to keep Mike awake, so we site around and watch him sleep instead. Leaving him, Jimmy and John decide to play frisbee while I take more fotos.
I sleep very well.
Thursday: I wake up after noon and have breakfast at another local haunt called “The Roxy” where Nora explains to me the finer points of matte creation. When we return, Steve is trying to hang new doors with a skill saw. When I ask him what the skill saw is for, he explains it is to make the hole bigger.
We go into the dungeon to work collaboratively on a scultpure.
When we emerge, the day is over and I am just in time to see “The Laramae Project” by Left of Center. I cat nap through acts 1-4, and am irritated by act 5 - again, i just can't get past the dumb preacher - and leave as soon as it is done. The stage manager and I talk about quantum mechanics on the dock [a.k.a. the porch] until almost sunrise.
I sleep upright.
Friday: I sleep in a long time on my last day, wake up and pack up, and then say my goodbyes. Steve cries because I’m leaving, then calls me funny names and laughs at the fun week. Birdhouse Mike helps me put my stuff in the car and John and I play frisbee together one more time.
I drive home, kiss my wife, and go to bed until Saturday.
I had an interesting experience at 634. Here is a community that practices looking after one another, living together, far better than we do in churches – and far more uncomfortably. It seems as if everyone is in everyone else’s business, and I am forced to wonder if maybe this is a natural outcome of community. Certainly the nomadic peoples of the Old Testament didn’t observe privacy in the same light as we do in our segregated, individualistic western society; but, I wonder what the dynamics would be like to compare the level of love and respect with 634 to the centrality of family in the OT. Suffice to say, I would have been far less comfortable had I brought along my wife and son [it is one thing to subject yourself to this kind of encounter, and quite another to make your two-year old sleep with bats].
In ministry, I have always found myself to be a busy person. I thrive in a pace-of-life that demands I get little sleep and requires my full attention. This is not uncommon for the stereotypical Type-A pastor, and my ability to live joyfully this way has never been in question. As such, I was challenged by the pastoral way in which Steve and Mike and Cameron welcomed every visitor. I came to 634 as an extrovert, seeking missional opportunities but they live at 634 practicing hospitality. They were evangelists to a way of life that valued people regardless of their background, and I was convicted my inability to do the same.
It is this androcentric quality that came through strongly in Cameron’s photographs – a value for people. My images, see above, value color and temperature where people are placed as subjects. Cameron’s photographs placed people in frame artfully, and used the blend of tone and shade to open our imaginations to their minds and wills. His art was about imagination, while my imagination was about making art.
I don’t think anyone could have come away unaffected from a week at 634, though I will not go so far as to say it changed my life forever. I am still unable to trust my reflections, fearing that somehow I am prostituting the experience in in favor of a fun story [“hey kids, have you heard about the time I lived in an art commune?”]. I will say that what I got out of the experience was different than I thought – it was more boring, less “artsy” – and yet it taught me something about looking after one another.
Still, it won’t beak my heart to be back in my own bed…without bats and bugs.