This past Sunday, I returned home.
For the past three years, I’ve attended The Secret City, a monthly gathering of artists and art worshipers. Chris Wells, the dynamic director of this innovative, not-for-profit arts organization, started the community driven pseudo-church five years ago, receiving accolades from The New York Times and the Village Voice Obie awards. Last season, we outgrew our modest space on West 14th Street in Manhattan to our current home at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side. Every September, The Secret City celebrates the town in which we reside with The Manhattan Wonderwalk, a 14 hour expedition from the northern tip of the island ending at midnight on the Brooklyn Bridge. Along the way, participants discover the city through fresh eyes and enjoy performances by various artists at site specific locations.
To say The Secret City has impacted my life is an understatement. For anyone who’s ever felt spirituality in art, our community aims to nurture this core principle: within all of us, there is a nugget of creativity, a light that sustains us from this moment to the next. The Secret City fosters that light.
Once a month, Chris devises a service modeled off a traditional western Christian church service. It’s not religious. It’s spiritual. There’s song, there’s call and response, we pass the plate to support the organization, and, of course, there’s lots of art.
Typically, The Secret City Singers, the church’s choir and Chris’ ad hoc backup singers, kick off the service with the org’s anthem “This is the Secret City”. Its communal refrain, “WE’RE CONNECTED,” is the interdependence themed mission that begs the community to dig deeper and find “it” (Can you…feel it? Can you…touch it? Can you…make it live?) within ourselves.
The service is a trip because initially it feels like it might be tongue in cheek, but upon further familiarity, earnest message of each service permeates the congregation. Each service revolves around a theme. October’s service revolved around “Persona.”
We listened to Nina Simone’s “Who Am I?”, which gave a grave but emotionally reflective tone to the moment, only to be split open with the monthly food offering: sliced apples. We talked about the personality of apples. What makes them unique? How each apple is propagated asexually by grafting. We also did a cultural mapping exercise in which Chris asked questions starting with the phrase, “You identify yourself as…” Examples: You identify yourself as homosexual. You identify yourself as American. You identify yourself as an artist. We stood up for each statement with which we identified and sat down when we did not.
The visual art for October was, perhaps, most moving for me. Sarah Kate Beaumont, an art teacher, makes all of her own garments by hand. The only articles she doesn’t sew herself are shoes. Otherwise, every stitch of clothing is made with her fingers. It was humbling and fascinating to hear Sarah Kate discuss her work, for it was clear: every item is personal to her. She doesn’t just grab something off the rack at Macy’s. She has a deep relationship with her wardrobe.
As with every service, Chris concluded with a sermon. This month’s sermon was a funny and poignant anecdote about Chris’ ten year high school reunion. He compared his high school self to his 28-year-old self, which were drastically different portraits. Then he contrasted those personas to his current incarnation. Chris’ motivation to share stories from his life to buoy others is a special gift.
The theme for the next service is Community. It’s an important topic for many reasons, not the least of which is The Secret City’s annual food drive for the Food Bank of New York. Chris challenged everyone to bring at least one canned goods item to offer the charity.
Chris also put out a second challenge to the congregation: Bring one friend to the next service. He encouraged us to invite new participants to join this community that seeks spiritual nourishment through personal reflection and celebration of art.
So, I’m going to do one better. Or, hopefully, ten better. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to invite you to join me. My goal is to bring ten new people to the next service. Most likely, if you’re reading this, you’re a friend or a fellow artist (or both). Perhaps, you randomly follow me on one of many social networks. There’s also the chance you dropped by because a search directed you here. Whatever the reason, I highly encourage you to join me at the next service. All the details are below, and it’s coming up quickly.
Join me on November 20th. It’s a fun, moving and grounding affair.
THE SECRET CITY
161A Chrystie St.