Many artists feel isolated. Many live in a very competitive world that encourages being self-centered, simply as a necessity to survive. But an artist who is isolated—alone—is always in a dangerous place. What does positive community actually look like? Here are some possible answers that I’ve experienced firsthand:
Charles and Hasmick’s Dinner Parties
I had just graduated from the Northwestern University School of Music and I was eagerly pursuing my dream of becoming a conductor in the music theatre world. But in those early days, I had to do a lot of non-conducting things to earn a living. One of those jobs was to sing in the paid choir for the Hebrew High Holy Days at Chicago’s Temple Emmanuel. It was there that I met Charles and Hasmick Rich.
This couple had been working in the Chicago commercial music world for years, starting not long after Charlie left the army at the end of World War II. They asked me if I was interested in joining their commercial singing group called “Charlie’s Gang” and I eagerly said yes. It was hard, demanding work. We were booked to do industrial shows (such as the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place) and shows in the grand ballrooms at virtually every big hotel in Chicago.Charlie and Hasmick’s home became a safe place for me. We rehearsed the act there, and on many occasions, they invited me to stay for dinner afterward.
Now, this is important: Charles and Hasmick would never tell me what to do. They listened well, asked great questions, told stories about their own lives, and then carefully gave me feedback about the career options and even life choices I was considering. When it came to decisions, they always let me decide on my own. These were “solid” folks, and I learned that I could not only trust them, but that I should. In retrospect, my relationship with them gave me a time, a space, to hear from God—even though, back then, I didn’t really understand what was happening.
Their family dinners were very relaxed, and included not only Has’s mom and dad, who lived upstairs, but also their two young kids. It was a time for us to freely talk about our lives, and for me to tell some wise and experienced musicians about my dreams and passions.
Although I joyfully ate the wonderful Armenian food that Has’s mother cooked, there was something happening that was more important than a hungry bachelor being fed. I had community.
I had been blessed to stumble into a welcoming family environment. At a time when lots of choices were being opened to me, I had found a place where I could get genuine help as I processed future options, some of which were good and some not so good. They talked to me about the importance of character, and about which people were great to work with and which were not (even when they were famous).
Perhaps most importantly, these wonderful people offered me a model for what a fulfilling life could look like for working artists. I carefully watched the two of them, and I saw an honesty and humility that formed a foundation for their lives, their marriage, and their careers.
Instead of being isolated—off on my own, trying hard to get ahead in the music world—I had been blessed by being in a really effective community. Of course, Charlie and Has would never have called their family a “community”—for them it was simply the way they lived life together. In fact, as I write this, Has (who is now in her nineties) is just as energetic about life as she was when I first knew her. Family and family-oriented relationships (old friends, church, and her children) are a way of life that continue to be a blessing for her and for many others.
A Huge Career Decision…
A very talented young actor I knew named Cindy was just beginning to look for theatrical work in a new city. She found an agent who was very confident that directors would cast her because she was attractive, smart, and already a member of the Actors Equity, the professional actors union.
At the same time that Cindy was starting out with a new agent, she and her writer husband began attending a weekly meeting of artists. This group, some of whom were connected to our church, discussed how to be a healthy artist in the midst of often unhealthy work environments. A high level of trust had been formed among the group members.
One night at the group I saw Cindy on the other side of the room talking passionately with a group of her peers. Later, I discovered that she was telling her friends that her agent had arranged for her to audition with the state lottery officials. They were looking for an attractive woman to be on television as the lottery spokesperson who would announce the winning numbers as they randomly came out of the machine containing the whirling numbered balls. Cindy’s agent was confident that she would get the job—and it paid very well. The big salary was an important issue because Cindy and her husband were both working non-lucrative, non-arts jobs in order to pay the bills.
The reason that Cindy was speaking so passionately was because she was seriously considering whether or not she should audition for that lucrative job. She explained that she believed that the lottery took money from the poor—the people who most often played. Although the potential salary was much needed, Cindy knew she could not participate in something that helped people remain in poverty.
The people in the arts group who were listening to her story did not try to give her advice. Whether they agreed with her decision or not, they listened carefully and asked questions. They did not try to fix her problem about caring for the poor yet needing increased income. Cindy was in the midst of a caring community of fellow artists who understood and respected her beliefs.
I’m not exactly sure what happened during Cindy’s discussion that evening, but I know that she was grateful for compassionate friends who listened carefully as she explained her predicament. Instead of the group telling her what to do, they allowed Cindy to express out loud her feelings in a nonjudgmental environment. This process allowed her to get to a place of discernment—hearing from God—and real confidence regarding what choice to make. I know that her worry about needing increased income remained, but she was very much at peace about her decision to not audition for the lottery job. A caring community functions as a safe place for artists to process the emotional and spiritual sides of our lives.
So What does good community look like?
A healthy arts community can include folks from varying disciplines. Musicians, painters, poets, and designers have differences in how they work, but they share similar pressures that come from society’s judgment of their success. All are working in a highly competitive world of communication where the product of their work is measured regularly, often daily. This is especially true for younger artists, who are just beginning their careers. There is wonderful bonding that happens when people who experience similar things regularly spend time together.
The Bible gives us a stunning picture of what a fabulous community looks like. In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, an amazing series of events occur. After Jesus ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit comes and fills those who believe in him. The author writes a brief paragraph describing what that early community was like.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47
The Bible describes a first-century people who were devoted to one another and to God. They cared deeply for others, and even sold their own properties to take care of the needs of the community. Their lives were full of awe and joy as they lived out the freedom and blessing of being part of this community. Lives were being transformed.
This is our model of what a good arts community can be.
But how do you actually achieve this type of community? Read more here: How to Build a Christian Arts Community
Photo credits: Jon Tyson on Unsplash; Zach Reiner on Unsplash; Tim Gouw on Unsplash; Ardian Lumi on Unsplash