Art and life intertwine when artists welcome audiences into their own homes

Photo by Seth Kubersky
Photo by Seth Kubersky

With constant news about the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and its planned acoustic hall and the Orlando Museum of Art's potential relocation, it sometimes seems like Central Florida's arts community is obsessed with impressive venues. But it's equally possible – preferable, even – to put on a show or exhibit without a formal forum. Last Saturday, I experienced two events that exploded ossified notions about where art belongs by taking it out of the institution and bringing it into the home.

Drive down Highway 60 through Bealsville, about an hour southwest of Orlando, until you come upon a rural roadside produce stand plastered with hand-painted signs warning you not to park. On most days, it's a spot to score some fresh-picked fruit or turnip greens, but on the first Saturday of each November it's temporarily transformed into a tent revival-slash-art gallery. Last weekend I was welcomed to Ruby C. Williams' 19th Anniversary, a magical afternoon in which one of Florida's most notable living folk artists opened her homestead to share food and fellowship with fans and collectors.

In 1996, Williams was in New Jersey when she had a "dreamwork" vision of a Biblical beast atop a hill. Interpreting it as a message from God, she immortalized the image on a flag, kicking off her celebrated folk art career. Returning to her family farm near Lakeland, Williams was introduced by art student Rudell Kopp to University of Central Florida professor Dr. Kristin Congdon, who connected Ruby to the wider art world, leading to worldwide media exposure. For nearly 20 years, Williams' work has been collected by museums from Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian American Art Museum to Orlando's Mennello Museum of American Art, but she still leads the prayer services at her annual event and personally cooks finger-licking barbecue for everyone attending.

Williams' life hasn't been easy; the great-granddaughter of slaves, she picked strawberries by hand for three pennies per quart. Despite the strife she's experienced, her art is largely apolitical, with subjects ranging from ripe strawberries and smiling people to birds and werebeasts, but her endearingly prickly personality lurks just below the surface; woe be unto anyone she catches taking an unauthorized photograph. Above all, she remains resolute to her mantra that "hate costs too much," keeping her heart open to anyone regardless of color or creed who wants to take a piece of her vision home – as long as they've got cash or a check.

Hours later and a world away, I was welcomed into a College Park home for a very different – but no less heartfelt – art event. Last month, photographer-performer Tisse Mallon and filmmaker Banks Helfrich (along with musician Jack Graham, who was absent that evening) launched their Living Room Theater project, opening Mallon's house up to an ultra-intimate audience.

Squeezed onto her couch with four strangers, I watched Mallon and Helfrich enact a series of short scenes mixing pre-scripted structure with semi-improvised dialogue. A few were funny enough for a sketch comedy showcase: a man agonizes over whether his "I like pie" business cards are truly honest; a couple entwined around each other can only communicate via cell phone. Others explored the less humorous side of human relationships, like a domestic scene shifted uncomfortably from rom-com to realistic violence. The most striking scenes were both solos. In one, Helfrich examined his hands while an operatic aria blared; in another, Mallon sat and slowly made intense eye contact with every audience member.

The 50-minute performance was followed by a talkback of equal length, which evolved from a critical discussion of the "connection/disconnection" theme tying the vignettes together into a networking meeting/encounter session. Our audience included storytellers, singers, writers, a retired anthropologist and even a medieval knight; between the baker's dozen of us, we had a lively discussion about the production's potential as immersive interactive (though not necessarily participatory) entertainment.

Mallon and Helfrich hope to take Living Room Theater on tour across the country, accompanying it with in-home screenings of their film projects. In the meantime, they have additional performances across Central Florida – from Winter Park and Maitland to St. Petersburg and DeBary – scheduled through January. Find them on Facebook to request an invitation to an upcoming show, or to offer your own home as a stage.

If this column inspires you to seek out art inside a home (other than your own), head over to Benoit Glazer's Timucua White House on Sunday, Nov. 22, when the weekly gathering's usual musical repertoire will be temporarily taken over by prolific playwright Joseph Reed Hayes' latest theatrical creation. Tom Waits for No Man stars Cole NeSmith as broken-down bar musician Bobby Ace, backed by the nu-jazz band La Lucha in this lyrical concert/play. Admission is free as always, so drop a donation in the jar, grab a drink and make yourself at home.

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