Connecting with creatives

Above: “taste the emptiness (oil on paper collage, 2013) by Hildy Maze from her web site

The conventional way of presenting artistic works involves a distancing between the audience and the creative. For example, works of art are hung on the walls of a gallery and the viewers file past the photographs or paintings. In most galleries there is nowhere to sit and just be with the pictures for half an hour, let alone share a coffee with the artist. Books are published and the audience browses through the shelves, picks out the odd volume here and there, thumbs through it, and perhaps takes it to the check-out till. A play is presented on the stage, and the audience passively sits (or stands in the case of the Groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe) watching the characters mark out their brief existence.

Occasionally there is a momentary connection with the artiste. At the vernissage, you might get to exchange a few minutes of chat with the artist over a glass of Cava (or a bottle of beer, depending on venue) before the noisy bustle pushes the artist into the next knot of admirers and inquirers. At a book signing, you might have a minute or two of social pleasantries while the author signs your copy of the book, and the queue of impatience lines up behind you. And, after you’ve watched a play at the theatre, it is unusual indeed to run into the actors or the playwright at the bar after the show.

Obviously this distancing of the creative from the audience becomes more inevitable as the audience swells. It is simply not possible for, say, Van Morrison to share a pint of Guiness with each of his millions of fans. And it can be draining for a very popular creative to try to respond in anything but a cursory way to all fans and interested persons. This, in the modern age of celebrities, is where the role of the journalist comes in. He can spend quality time with the creative individual, ask searching question, allowing time to ponder, backtrack, rephrase questions. And the journalist distils his insights into an article that we hope will be engaging, honest, and insightful.

Obviously, reading an interview in a magazine or web page, or watching a video interview, cannot match the fuller experience of a relaxed conversation with the artist. How often have you been changed in some way by talking with an accomplished artiste, or at least gone away with a lasting insight or image or thought that stays with you? A long conversation with an profound artiste can be a valuable thing, on a par with the work itself.

Bénédicte Gimonnet

I first realised how insightful it can be to get under the skin of a painter when I spent several hours in a hotel bathroom with French painter Bénédicte Gimonnet.  No, no, that sounds wrong! Let me explain. In 2008, the Red Dot Art Fair, London, was held in the Radisson Edwardian Grafton in Tottenham Court Road. Each gallery was allocated a hotel suite (which, for out-of-town exhibitors, doubled as accommodation at night). It was an ingenious cost-saving gimmick, but also created a more interesting space than the usual gigantic halls that art shows occupy. I gravitated to the hotel suite that was being used by one of my favourite galleries in London, Cynthia Corbett. As usual, there was wide variety of interesting new work, but I was intrigued by the biomorphically abstract paintings of Bénédicte Gimonnet. She happened to have been allocated the bathroom of this suite, and had made an effort to create a more salubrious atmosphere by constructing small wooden boxes around the toilet and the wash basin. As usual, I had arrived in the last hour of the last day of the exhibition, and I was hanging around in the bathroom talking with Bénédicte when Cynthia gave the order to pack up all the artworks and evacuate the suite, as the show was over. As I was there, I volunteered to help out with dismounting, packing up, and carrying out her paintings. This provided a great opportunity for an extended conversation about her paintings – her techniques, her inspirations, her thoughts, her interpretations. Her characteristic style of vertical streaks of acrylic paint on an aluminium sheet were suggestive of raw muscle fibres, or intertwining vegetation, or desert dunes, but never simply depicting any one thing.

Detail from FlaLinea (2008) by Benedicte Gimonnet

I learned vastly more about her paintings over these two or three hours than I ever could by just looking at them or having the usual brief chat that is possible in an art show. I ended up buying one of the pieces, which had pride of place above my red sofa in my London Docklands flat. (This is the sofa, that four years later, became my sleeping quarters when I rented my bedroom on AirBnB.)

2012-04-27 sofa 1
Benedicte Gimonnet’s FlaLinea in what became my AirBnB property (2012)

My point here is that having a long, relaxed conversation with an artist can provide a lot of insight into the work. Which is one of the two main premises of the Staying With Art project: that sharing the artist’s home for a number of days can give a unique access to the creative mind, as well financially supporting the artistic endeavour. And … the visitor is also more likely to purchase the creative work. (As I did!)

To be sure, not all creatives like talking about their work. But most welcome the opportunity.

Hildy Maze

I was reminded of this when I saw the paintings of Hildy Maze, who is an AirBnB host and member of the Staying With Art group on Facebook. When I first saw Hildy’s paintings, I must admit I found them rather inaccessible. But as I read up about her work on her web site (, and online articles (e.g. The Awakened Eye, Investigating the Mind Through Art) I began to appreciate them. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Hildy, but through the vicarious medium of the internet, I have at least got a handle on the paintings and now I like them.

Hildy Maze 2
Crossing the Waves / Inner Portraiture, by Hildy Maze, from her web site

For ten years from 1978, Hildy studied under the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, and Buddhism remains at the core of her art practice. As I understand it, Buddhism is centrally a careful and systematic dismantling of illusions. We suffer illusions about physical reality, about our personal existence, about our thoughts and feelings. And we find ourselves in what Morpheus called a “prison for the mind”. The enlightenment that Buddhism teaches is a liberation through seeing the illusions for what they are, and hence releasing their grip. That’s what I get from reading around the subject, anyway.

Hildy writes, “Out habitual patterns of passion, aggression and ignorance like roots of a tree that reach deep into the earth, reach deep into our minds sustaining a false security of who we think we are. By engaging in these patterns mind’s true nature is obscured.” Chogyam Trungpa was the first major exponent of Vajrayāna Buddhism in the West. Also known as tantric Buddhism, this is a highly mystical tradition that defies simple explication in Western concepts.  A key part of it is the empowering of the student by the overthrowing of illusory constraints. (It is often radically misunderstood in the West because of its antinomianism.) Anyway, when I looked again at the paintings knowing their roots in Vajrayāna – the so-called Thunderbolt Way or Diamond Path – then they began to acquire a coherence and meaning in my mind. Their fragmented surface forms spoke to me of the shattering of illusory concepts and revealed a deeper, trans-rational awareness.

I don’t know whether my reading of Hildy’s paintings connects with her own intentions in making them, but I certainly find that my personal appreciation of them is enhanced by knowing more about her life and her long experience of Buddhism. Hopefully, one day I shall stay with her on AirBnB and find out more.

Staying With Art

In part, the thinking behind Staying With Art is that engaging with creatives can make it easier to appreciate their work and to gain a deeper understanding of it. Of course, I realise that not everyone will want to see it this way. On the one hand, some art critics (for example, Gary Kennard – see his Open Letter to the Tate) believe we should be completely free to construct our readings and interpretations of creative works with being guided by curators or the original artists themselves. On the other hand, some creatives just want to isolate themselves from the audience and focus exclusively on the creative work. Therefore I would be very interested to hear people’s perspectives on this.

As a creative, do you welcome one-to-one engagement with your audience, or is this for you an annoying distraction? As a member of the audience, do you relish getting the artist’s insights, or do you prefer to formulate your unique personal reactions in your own space?


The art of raw chocolate in Brooklyn

Above: Illustration from Vanessa’s web site, © 2014, Gnosis Chocolate

One of the challenges of this new Staying With Art project is to delineate what counts as ‘art’ for the purposes of this group. Sometimes AirBnB hosts have practices that question the parameters I have set, and help to clarify what ‘art’ is. Or, at least, what I think it is.

In the Fall of 2015, I was visiting New York to give another of my talks on the history of the subway map, and as usual I was looking around for inexpensive and interesting AirBnB homes, when I came across a cool one described as “peaceful vibe, conscious décor,” which immediately sold the place to me. And then I noticed the owner, Vanessa, had a one-line profile saying, “CEO of Gnosis Chocolate“. Well, I had previously heard of the spiritual aspects of raw chocolate from the Urubu trance-dance group here in London, so the conjunction of “gnosis” with “chocolate” intrigued me. (In ancient Greek, “gnosis” denoted direct and transformative knowledge of the divine, as counterposed to “pistis” or faith.)

I learned more about Vanessa’s journey from her extensive web site and from chatting with her. She is a certified holistic health counsellor who studied with Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, and David Wolfe, and the chocolate project grew out of her work as a holistic practitioner. Just as Mary Poppins found that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, so Vanessa found that chocolate — raw, vegan, organic, and a lot healthier than Mary Poppins’ sugar — helped her clients take the herbal medicines that she recommended to them. In order to fine-tune the chocolate products to suit her purposes, she formed Gnosis Chocolate in 2008 (at the age of twenty-three) to handle the whole process from sourcing the cacao, through blending it with herbs, and administering it to her clients and selling it online.

Is chocolate an art form? Well, not the mass-produced Hershey and Cadbury chocolate bars. But raw, organic chocolate, prepared consciously through skill and intuition with ingredients sourced in person, I think this ranks alongside other recognised arts such as making perfumes and jewelry. There is a bias in western society towards visual and audio art, which neglects other senses — especially olfactory and gustatory. Look at the three core elements that make up what we normally think of as art: (a) a tradition within which each new work constitutes a statement in relation to what has gone before; (b) a skill that is developed through tuition and extensive practice; (c) a process of inward connection — which might be thought of as reflection, or intuition, or channelling; (d) an intent to express something to an audience. Those core elements apply to the raw chocolate creations that Vanessa makes, so it seems to me that they belong within the category of art.

Cacao has a shamanic tradition as a ‘teacher plant’ which has of course been eclipsed in western society by the vast corporate enterprise of mass-produced chocolate. Vanessa has brought to New York City – and, through the internet, elsewhere – a connection to that tradition of conscious, raw chocolate.

Vanessa has two AirBnB rooms in her tranquil Brooklyn home, which Reka and I found to be perfect when we stayed there, and she runs her chocolate studio from another premise:

One writer’s experience of AirBnB

Above: Copies of my first non-self-published book in the window of the New York Transit Museum Annex, Grand Central Terminal. Probably not possible without AirBnB. Photo © 2014, Reka Komoli.

Squeezed writing time

As everyone knows, it’s tricky to earn a living from any creative activity. The market-place is full of cheap thrills against which genuine art must compete. And creatives are often poor at marketing and business planning, or even just asking for money for what they create. It is therefore a very common practice for arts people to have a day-job that keeps body and soul together, but has little or nothing to do with their calling to express their soul in artistic form. Unfortunately most jobs are full-time or more than full-time, so they restrict creative time to a few tired hours between supper and bed.

In my own case, I was lucky to be able to work in software development. Although I was grateful for it, the job generally meant working late and commuting even later, It left the weekends for an unceasing battle between domestic commitments and trying to squeeze in an hour or two for writing. Eventually, in 1999, I put together my philosophical writings into two self-published books. Over the subsequent years, my sense of being stultified, sitting at my desk in an open-plan office churning out pages of Fortran computer code to pay the mortgage weighed against my yearning to spend all day inquiring into the nature of consciousnes, or following my new passion in the history of maps. To be sure, I was fortunate to be sitting at a desk and not sweating in a fast-food outlet, but the hamster-wheel cycle of working as much as possible to pay the mortgage and domestic bills and looking distantly to retirement when I could begin my real work of writing, became more rebarbative with each year. Anyway, stuff happened, and I found myself in a one-bedroom flat in East London with no work and no prospect of work (in a young industry were fifty-year-olds are dinosaurs), and no real desire to go back to the work-place anyway.

Enter AirBnB

I discovered AirBnB. I cleared out all the junk from my bedroom, and rented it on AirBnB, while I slept on the couch in the living room. Amazingly, it worked. Almost all my income for a few years came from guests, with a few extra quid from teaching English. Where I lived in the desolate margins of the docklands, tourism was unheard-of, so I configured my AirBnB service to be as flexible as possible: minimum stay of one night, free extra air-beds for extra guests, no cleaning or cancellation fee, and I often met people at the station, or sometimes even the airport.

As I said, it worked. I survived, and I published my first book on the history of the New York City subway map at the end of 2012, with an academic press in the States, and this year I will be self-publishing further volumes in the series. Last year, I sold my flat in order to travel, so I am temporarily not hosting. But eventually I shall settle down and host again.

For me, and I think for many people who are in economically marginal situations either permanently or temporarily, AirBnB can be a financial lifeline. Especially for those whose passion is for creative work that is not financially recognised in the marketplace.

I can understand the arguments of critics of AirBnB, who complain about landlords who effectively turn residential properties into hotels and reduce the available stock of rentable homes. But I do not believe that that criticism applies to the writers, artists, and performers in financial straits for whom the extra income from renting out on AirBnB a spare bedroom in the home can make a huge difference to their economic life.

But, beyond the success of keeping creatives alive, it seems to me that there is an untapped potential in connecting guests and hosts with shared interests in the arts. I know that some hosts in this group actively introduce activities – such as art classes – into the hosting service. It may be that that is something that could grow enormously. And just making the connection on the basis of shared passion is an unknown potential in the ‘sharing economy’. All of my guests have been wonderful people, but the few who shared my passion for philosophy have left memories of long and fascinating conversations.

So far, the AirBnB Group system has been a disappointment for technical reasons. But my own experience as a host (and, since then, as a guest) suggests to me that forming intentional communities on the back of AirBnB has real potential.