What makes a home?

Stuart Deets
Sep 6, 2017 · 8 min read

The home you grow up in and the culture you live in matters more than we can imagine. — Unknown

But on the whole, it’s also fair to keep building and keep dreaming, and to imagine or try to create a country where the common thread of empathy is the tie that binds…

There is still some glimmer of a chance that with enough work and elbow grease, my child — descended from slaves, slave masters, immigrants, and natives — will find a way to live outside of the veil. This is why I write.

-Vann Newkirk II

All the best love hurts.

To create something is to put a part of yourself into it. To create something is to love, even if it’s just a little bit.

One of the principles of the University System in Wisconsin is that our work should reach every home in the state, and that education should influence people’s lives beyond the classroom.

This is such a big idea. I’m a fan of big ideas.

The world always needs bigger ideas.

Having a safe place, having a place to call home, is big. Everyone should have a home, and that’s a big idea. But what does it take to make a house into a home?

It is incredibly hard for someone who is in poverty to move out of poverty. It takes about twenty years. Twenty years of no mistakes, no accidents. Twenty years of no cancer, no car crashes, of perfection. Maybe if more people had homes instead of houses their lives would be better.

Another big idea is about art, and what it can do. What if we created an object, or a piece of art that people could connect over or maybe through? Wouldn’t that be something?

I believe in complexity, in things not working how you intended them to. This is, after all, how life is. The more I learn, the more I know this. The best art is the most like life. The better you are, and the better art is, the more connections you can make.

Some people would have art simply for art’s sake. I have never heard such a dangerous thing in my life. Art is meant to make you feel things, meant to make you feel happy and sad and everything at all at once.

I have felt that way a few times in my life. I feel it right now, as I write these words. I feel it at the end of every summer. I felt it at the end of my project- titled Bread, Salt, Wine, & Art- and I felt it at the beginning too.

I remember the enthusiasm I had when I first heard about the HEX-U program. I’ll be honest, I have a mind that can run a million miles a minute when it gets going. I originally had a totally different idea for a project, with doctors and hospitals. But my mother (who happens to be one) talked me down. And so I thought about it some more and I talked about my ideas with a lot of people and I came up with a different one with schools. I think it’s worked out.

I guess I should explain what my project was, or more accurately, is. My project gave canvases, art supplies, and frames to two classrooms of art students at Madison West High School. It was around 50 students, and around 52 paintings were made and framed. Those paintings were then given to Habitat for Humanity: Dane County, to be put into homes. They will put one painting in each home. They have enough paintings to put one in every home they build for three years.

My idea came from It’s a Wonderful Life, which is my favorite movie. I watch it every year. There’s a particular scene, of a housewarming. The family is given three gifts: bread, salt, and wine. There are special reasonings for each them, but each object is necessary to make a home. My project changed this. You can go out to the store and buy the other objects. But you can’t go out and buy memories, or connections to other people. So this is what we did.

When I started this project, I didn’t know what would happen, and this was intentional.

The art was left to the students, and they were supposed to think about what home meant to them. This gave them ownership of what would happen. I told them that it didn’t matter if their art was ‘good’ but that it mattered whether they cared about their art.

Even students who normally don’t finish projects and who don’t care, finished this project, as told to me by the teacher I was working with.

If they cared about their art, then they cared about the people whose homes their painting was going into.

These people are people who the students have never met before, who they will likely never meet. Caring about someone and their life and their experiences that you will never meet and never see is one of the hardest things to do. It’s incredibly important for people and cultures to value those who they cannot see…

The students

It’s frightening to do things you’ve never done before, to make budgets and walk into a classroom of students you’ve never met, because it all might not work. The numbers might not add up, the students might not engage, and the art might not change lives and make the world a better place.

But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. The only way forward is straight ahead.

These are photos that were taken at the housewarming ceremony. When a new house is ready to be moved into, they gather the family and Habitat for Humanity’s staff and other members of the community for a small ceremony. I asked to participate in one, so that I could give one of the paintings to the family.

I read a short speech on what the paintings meant, and then presented the painting.

The speech eventually turned into a letter to be given to the families when they got their paintings. You can read that here:

Mikey, the student whose painting was presented, arrived after the ceremony had ended, but was able to meet the family and talk to them about their new painting.

A few weeks after I went to the housewarming, the rest of the paintings were given to Habitat for Humanity to store, so that they could distribute them whenever they finished a home.

Artistic activity, for its part, strives to achieve modest connections, open up (one or two) obstructed passages, and connect levels of reality kept apart from one another.

-Nicolas Bourriard

Perhaps to some these paintings are merely symbolic of the connections that flow between us. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, There is nothing mere about symbols.”

This project succeeded, not because of me, but because of everyone else. It succeeded because of the Center for the Humanities, and the relentless work of Jamila, and because of Grace, the teacher who generously allowed me into her classroom. It succeeded because of Habitat for Humanity, who was willing to do something special.

Above all, it succeeded because of the students, who cared above and beyond anyone else, and because of the families who allowed the students and everything that that meant into their home.

But now the project is over for me, beyond this documentation and a few other tasks. I made something, and the students made something. It’s time to let go.

The best part is that this is not the end, not really. Because the art will continue to be given out for three years, and will continue to hang in the homes for far longer. It will continue to remind those families that they matter, that people care about them. Maybe because they know someone cares they will have a better life.

Far better is if this project inspires someone else, who will do something better and larger. Even better than that is if that second project inspires someone else to do something better and larger. And so on, because caring enough is a horizon, an infinite project that will never be finished. Maybe someday someone will find a way to live outside the veil and our realities will be connected.

I wanted the students to feel something when they saw their art for the last time. I wanted them to want to squeeze it close, to hang on with everything they’ve got. And I wanted them to love the person they will never know, and never meet, enough to give something of themselves, enough to let go.

I wanted them to let go of their selfish desires enough to say good bye.

Hopefully houses have been made into homes. I know the power of art first hand, and I know that this is the end for me, at least for this idea. I hope that I loved the world enough to make something that will help other people.

To create something is to put a part of yourself into it. To create something is to love, even if it’s just a little bit.

All the best love hurts.

Thanks to Jamila Siddiqui.

Stuart Deets

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Starting Art History grad school @UMNArtHist in Fall 2018 | Ecological Thinking | Photography and New Media Intern @artsmia | #arthistorysquad