Last week I was reading a column by David Brooks called "What Rural America Has to Teach Us." I felt his description of the benefits of volunteering rang true with what I had witnessed myself  in the South and Midwest.  When visiting friends in rural areas, I have been envious of the close ties they have to their neighbors and relatives. People are careful to help each other with problems like a broken freezer containing a year’s worth of food, or a flooded house or a death in the family.  Often, the church is the central hub that ties groups in small towns together, and although I am not a church-goer, I can see that for many, the benefits are profound. 

I have lived for 30 years in the Bay Area in California, in a vast urban web of freeways, cities, suburbs and notably, a lot of cars. The first time I realized that my life was lacking true community was in 2010, when I went to the funeral of my cousin’s daughter in North Carolina. When I arrived at my cousin's house, I saw that people were gathered in the street, on the porch and on the lawn. In the kitchen, all the counters and tables were laden with casseroles and desserts. While we visited, more people came and knocked on the door, bringing more dishes, flowers and well-wishes. At the funeral visitation and service, the entire town came. My cousin, who gave the Eulogy, stood at the pulpit calmly and spoke that his daughter represented “finest example of what a small, rural community can offer.” Watching the youthful, eager faces of her fellow students gathered at the service, I was filled with admiration for this way of life. On the flight home, I considered how many neighbors I felt close to on my street in San Francisco. The number was 2.

Almost ten years have passed since then, and I have increased my time volunteering in my children’s activities and at my art studio by 1000%. Remarkably, my sense of community has also increased 1000%. I have found, in general, that the payback for an hour of volunteering far exceeds the effort expended. For example, I serve as the secretary of the PTA at the elementary school. In exchange for showing up for 1.5 hours a month and taking notes, I learn everything that is going on in the school, and I know the principal and teachers by name, know the other volunteer parents closely and also, actually raise money to help the students. In my past life, I seldom experienced these bonds or feelings of mutual support. Going to glitzy conferences and business trips felt exciting, but the underlying feeling of isolation never went away.

To bring this train of thought around to the artist’s life, I have found that many artists are lonely, working in solitary circumstances. The contemporary artist needs to constantly post to social media, write press releases, produce work and have shows open to the public. One can appear to be a whirlwind of activity and yet be filled with a longing for other people. To counter this problem, I have been at the same studio, Fourth Street Fine Art, for 15 years. The time I spend volunteering at the studio has increased 10-fold since I started, and so has has my closeness to the other artists. From one point of view, it may seem that designing a postcard or writing a press release for another person is a thankless job that sucks up time one could be making art for oneself. But this point of view doesn’t account for the moment when you really need help, and the person that you wrote the press release for helps you hang your show at 1am. When people in a group can call on each other with the certainty that someone will answer, that’s a sign that you have true community.