L.A. Artists Find Encouragement And Respite Inside Communes
Once inside, the sounds of the electronic pop band Passion Pit and the smells of vegetarian Thai curry drift throughout the home.
It’s nearing 8:30 p.m. A hand-carved wooden whistle signals to anywhere between 10 and 20 people that dinner is ready.
Three people come down from upstairs, where one was crafting a leather belt while the other two drew in bound notebooks. Two women emerge from the den where they had been discussing what to pack for the Burning Man Festival—a 25-year-old event considered an experiment in organic creation of community.
“Do you think it’s at all possible in our lifetimes to see the complete disintegration of societal structure as we know it?” begins the evening’s dinner discussion at a long, blue table just outside the kitchen.
“That would be terrifying,” replies Matt Wright, a 33-year-old doctoral student in Korean and Asian studies at UCLA. “Revolutions are a terrible idea.”
After a long debate, the group comes to a consensus that the best way to bring social change is for people to create smaller changes in themselves that will organically spread to everyone around them.
And that’s exactly what the group of 10 diners—unusually small for a Thursday night—tries to do in their home, better known as Synchronicity.
Synchronicity is an "intentional community," a label that hundreds of similar communes use to denote a family or tribal atmosphere where each member supports and looks after the rest through shared work and supplies.
“It’s not a community of just doing chores (because you have to),” said Bryan Wiedenheft, 29, whose turn it was to cook dinner. “To live here, you have to actually be interested in getting to know people and talking to people and hanging out.”
In the United States there are about 2,000 intentional communities organized around various interest groups, according to Laird Schuab, executive secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.
Among other things, the fellowship publishes a directory of registered communities, which accounts for 57 groups identifying themselves as artistic communes, including Synchronicity and five others in Los Angeles.
These groups across the country range in size from eight people to more than 100. They take their cues from hippy communes of the 1960s, and attempt to foster creativity through open and accepting environments.
Unlike the groups of the '60s that were mostly set in isolated, rural areas, Synchronicity and many others today are located in the city, where their members often work in disciplines other than art. But once back home, their creative endeavors flourish.
While many of the residents make a living as teachers, social workers and nonprofit organizers, they fill their free time by painting, recording music, sculpting or working with photography.
“It’s hard not to be influenced by the creative nature of … the house,” said Wiedenheft, who enjoys photography and carving wood. “When everyone is creating beautiful things around you, even if you’re not an artistic person, it drives you to want to create something, to do something.”
The drive is so strong that the group hosts salons on the first Friday of every month where members can show off their current projects to each other and the public.
However, Schuab said there is more to the commune lifestyle than celebrating artistic ventures.
The communes, he said, are a reaction to today’s culture, which is dominated by technology and social media promoting artificial relationships and diminishing human interaction.
“There is a deep hunger in this country for a greater sense of community belonging or connectedness,” he said. “We are dealing with a mainstream culture that is increasingly alienating and felt to be unsafe. This is a way to address those issues.”
Twelve people, including two couples, live in the nine-bedroom home, while an additional 20 to 30 people live in the surrounding neighborhood and take part in the community.
To join Synchronicity, one must fill out an application with questions ranging from how the applicant feels about alcohol and drug use to how they anticipate contributing to the community. The group reviews all applications together to decide who will be admitted.
Wiedenheft lived in the house for a little over two years until last summer when he moved out to his own apartment one block over. But he still pays for a meal plan at the house.
“My personal favorite part … is just the community vibe,” he said. “I can come home from work and I know that there’s going to be 20 people here having dinner. It’s like Thanksgiving every day.”
For those living in the house, the cost each month is $500, which includes rent, utilities and all food and supplies. Those living outside the house can either spend $20 a month for a half-time meal plan or $40 for a full-time meal plan that encompasses four meals a week, Monday through Thursday.
The members living in the house pair up and rotate through cooking dinners and doing other household chores—everything from cleaning the bathrooms to maintaining the spa or feeding the cats.
The kitchen is flooded with food. More than 100 types of spices sit in racks on the counters, bags of rice and pasta line the floor and two refrigerators are constantly stocked with everything from organic carrot juice to a variety of beer.
Upstairs, Betina Vazquez shares a room with her boyfriend Michael DeMarinis II. The two met at a sacred fire drum circle deep in the woods near Apple Valley, Calif., and have been together ever since.
Vazquez, 22, is a professional bellydancer and DeMarinis, 33, a private chef.
When she decided to leave Las Vegas to join her boyfriend in L.A., the couple struggled to find a place they could afford—that is, until they found a room to lease at Synchronicity.
The communal style of living appealed to them both.
“It always just struck me as being something that was really important to the human spirit, which was always being amidst your family and your friends and your loved ones in a very festival-type environment,” Vazquez said.
They said since living at the house they have found themselves to be more tolerant and accepting of other people, learning to share and accommodate their roommates in such close quarters.
Communes like Synchronicity share many characteristics with traditional artist-in-residence programs, where artists are invited to live away from their normal environments, often without economic constraints, in order to dedicate their time to their work.
These artistic retreats have been around in the U.S. for 100 years, but there are only about 500 residency programs in the country and most require an artist to have a lot of formal training.
“In a society that so undervalues artists, for (them) to be able to step into a place for a week or a year … where they are totally valued and totally trusted, it’s really transformative,” said Caitlin Strokosch, executive director of the Alliance for Artists Communities, an organization that advocates artist-in-residence programs.
Strokosch said it wasn't surprising that artists are forming their own communities where they can share the supplies, space and costs involved with creating their work.
She said one of the things artists find most beneficial about the residency programs is that they can create their art without the fear of being judged or evaluated.
“The fact that artists are developing an environment to live in where they have that creative peer set there all the time is really tremendous,” Strokosch said.
Across town from Synchronicity, 10 artists and musicians live together in a home they call Villanova in Westchester near LAX.
The artists have built a teepee in the driveway using broken instruments. They've also converted the garage into a music studio. The walls of each room are covered with hundreds of pieces of colorful sketches, collages and paintings that have been collected over the years.
“I definitely am very inspired when I am surrounded by people who are constantly creating and pushing to exceed human limitations and expand their mind and body and soul in all directions,” said Anna Jackson, who specializes in drawing mystical creatures like mermaids, fairies and some that exist solely in her imagination.
Jackson compared herself and her roommates to the 3-year-olds she teaches at a preschool in Venice.
“We are just silly-gooses,” the 27-year-old said. “Our goal is to embrace and encourage the inner child and let that part of ourselves be free.”
On a normal day, roughly 20 people hang out around Villanova to work on their art and music, but they also come to focus on what they eat and the positive energy they bring into their home.
All of the housemates are either vegan or vegetarian. The water consumed in the house is gathered weekly straight from a lake in Big Bear, Calif.
Jackson sleeps on the floor of an RV parked in the driveway, on top of a mat filled with crystals said to be infused with positive energy. She has placed a Buddha figurine between the driver and passenger seats to watch over her while she sleeps.
While Jackson has touted the benefits of living in an intentional community has countless benefits, she also says the lifestyle can sometimes have its drawbacks.
“I’m at a point where I am really excited about meeting goals, so it can be challenging sometimes trying to focus without being interrupted in any way,” she says. “It’s really forcing me to refine my focus.”
She also notes that artists aren’t known for being the cleanest or quietest of people, which is a common complaint among neighbors according to members at both communities.
As Jackson turns to show off some of her art pieces on display, one of her roommates, a musician, stops by to ask if she had seen her saw.
“It’s in the living room, right in front of the glass case,” Jackson says.
Sitting down on a piano bench, the girl puts the base of the saw between her thighs, bends the blade with her right hand and starts to draw a violin bow across the non-serrated edge.
As a beautifully slow and melancholic rendition of “Amazing Grace” fills the living room, the rest of the roommates gather and begin to hum along.
Reach Contributor Molly Gray here.