An Artist’s Reflection on Community and Hospitality
Food, community, and art are three of my favorite things in the whole world. I am fortunate to live in a community of believers, work and study in communities of non-believers, study art alongside other creative minds, and enjoy food within my community on a regular basis. In the past year I have begun to think deeply on what it means to be part of a community and why it is important as well as how and why community might relate to art. As a student in the Art department I have been able to investigate these ideas through art as part of my college education and expand upon what it means for me to live as an artist. Through this investigation I have grown in my love of the Lord and the world as He shows me the beauty and wonder of Himself and His gospel through art and community. This investigation has expanded from a few ideas and conversations to a large artwork, writing, many conversations, and a vision for an artistic practice which focuses on community and hospitality. I am convinced that these ideas are of the utmost importance to my work as an artist and that work is intimately connected with my vocation and my faith.
My first work which intended to investigate community through art I provisionally titled Welcome: The Meals Project. It was created in response to an open-ended prompt given in a studio art class and entailed creating and collecting all of the elements necessary to host a series of small meals for my classmates: ceramic dishes, the seating arrangement, and the food were all made by hand. My classmates joined me for soup, bread, and conversation in groups of five. Each meal session went something like this:
The room was set, empty save for a table against one wall and my small arrangement in the middle of the floor. Beams from a few of the gallery spotlights were concentrated in the center of the room; the concrete floors and white walls on the periphery faded into shadowy corners. In this central pool of light was spread a simple drop cloth and a basket of soft, moss-green cushions. A small elliptical board, a cross section of a large tree branch whose honey-colored wood was marked at intervals by darker rings, was set on the drop cloth. Handmade ceramic dish ware, six small bowls and spoons and serving dishes for bread and soup, were arranged on the board and cloth. A loaf of fresh bread was sliced. A large bowl of soup was steaming. The door opened, “Welcome! Thank you for being here.” I greeted each guest as he or she entered the room. Inviting each person to take a cushion and sit down on the floor together. “Thank you again for being here.” I said, taking a seat and moving to serve soup into each person’s bowl. Inviting all to take bread and passing out soup, I explained my interest in the pattern visible across cultures and religions and groups throughout history of gathering around a meal. Furthermore, I was interested in the generative nature of gathering as we were; when we came together around the meal there was an interaction created between us: we conversed, built relationships, entered into a small community. We all ate and talked and basked in each others’ company.
As I said, this action of gathering, of coming together around a central point, of which a meal is a classic example, and the interactions which ensue are generative: community is created through the process. Fostering this community therefore becomes a creative act. In the same way as designing and making the dishes and cushions and the meal which made up the physical artwork was a series of creative acts, the use of those elements to bring people together functioned as an act which, in this case, created a community-based artwork. After I completed the aforementioned piece and began to think through the conversations which had arisen during the meals and build on those conversations outside of their original context, the question arose: what held this work together? If the process of creating and hosting these meals, fostering these interactions, had not gone as planned (for example, if my invitation had been refused, if a guest had been unwilling to talk or had been rude to myself or others, etc.) what would maintain the integrity and efficacy of the work? To be invited freely, as a guest, into a space and receive, but give in return nothing more than your presence, is a strange phenomenon in today’s transaction-driven culture. So what was the axis on which project turned? Why, beside the fact that they were students attending a form of art viewing or critique, would these people or anyone else accept this strange invitation? For that matter, why would I spend extra time and money and effort, beyond what was necessary for the class, to create this setting and interactions? That free giving and welcoming, which was a major part of my intention for the piece, seemed to hold the answer to this line of questioning. It went unnamed until its identity was pointed out by my Aunt and fellow artist. In a conversation about the work, the effect of the welcoming atmosphere I had wanted to create, and the comments of several students about how the piece made them feel that I really cared about them, my Aunt said “Well. It seems like the pivotal point of this project is hospitality.” Suddenly I couldn’t believe that I had not seen it as such before that moment. Hospitality was the catalytic agent in this reaction.
Since completing my “Meals Project” I have thought further about this phenomenon of hospitality as part of the creation of community, particularly concerning its importance within the Christian faith. From the Last Supper, to the current practice of Communion, to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, gathering together around a meal is drawn through the story of the Gospel. In fact, I believe that we can see Jesus’ act of gathering together, first the Disciples, then the earthly Church throughout time, and finally the entire Kingdom of God, through his death and resurrection as one of the greatest community-fostering acts of all time; what I am suggesting is that we can view Jesus opening himself and transferring to us his identity of beloved and belonging, as a form of hospitality. That is what draws us together, time and time again in the same manner which has been practiced for centuries. I think that this is what makes hospitality such a powerful catalyst.
I see further evidence of the Biblical basis for hospitality in Isaiah chapter 55. We see in the first few verses an invitation into the Father’s bounty, an opening and offering for us to come in “without money and without price.” He says only come, be nourished, engage. What perfect, beautiful hospitality. Here we have an example of the Father opening to us that nourishing sanctuary which is ours in Christ Jesus. Hospitality can give a small taste of that unconditionally welcoming love that our Father has lavished on us. If this is truly what we have been given through Christ we must share this with others, bearing witness to the beauty of the gospel by opening spaces and hearts and lives to welcome others.
I am so convinced of the importance of these ideas and so captured by this beautiful truth that I wish to base in them the theory behind my artwork. In concrete terms I have begun to develop an artistic practice which, as I mentioned before, I wish to pursue and consider to be vocational. Thus far my work is based chiefly in writing and ceramics and has begun moving towards social practice (an art form which moves away from purely physical media and focuses on engagement as a product). I will leave you with the following, which is an excerpt from “Welcome – Gather – Repeat,” a short piece I wrote outlining my desires for my artistic practice and encapsulating my ideas about the artistic process of creation through hospitality. In its entirety it is part artist’s manifesto, part guidelines for practice. I have included some of the most important points.
“Examining the means of collecting and connecting, finding the sources and methods of hospitality (which we may view as the substance of the creative work of gathering) , and questioning their forms, functions, and effectiveness is the focus of my practice. In more specific terms:
Investigate, nurture, practice, and delight in widely varying ways, both ancient and contemporary, of understanding and learning about, commenting on, and improving the creative work of hospitality in (gathering, communing, joining, uniting).
Though the work will often take physical form in materials manipulated by my hands, my most important medium is hospitality, which is both an idea and a physical process. […]
Welcome others into the work with you.
Gather people together.
Herein lies much of your purpose.
Include yourself in this. Make space to be flawed, to rest, to surprise yourself, to grow.
Invite guests. Invite helpers. Invite artists.
Do not consider the aforementioned as necessarily separate entities.
Rae is in her final semester of a double BA in English and Art. A part-time barista and full-time coffee snob, she enjoys sharing the joys of good coffee and long conversations. You can usually find her dancing in her kitchen, making a mess in the studio, or singing, especially which singing is not necessarily prescribed.Tags: art, beauty, community, food, hospitality, love, University of Minnesota