The San Lorenzo flows steadily behind the Tannery Arts Center, clear for the first time in months. Away from the river’s sycamores, the concrete holds the heat of the day. Artistic Director of What’s Home? Creative Listening Across Difference Andrew Purchin and Cynthia Strauss sit in the shade of the Tannery’s Radius Gallery. They lean towards one another, animated in conversation. Their postures anticipate the topic at hand: creative listening.
At its core, What’s Home? is a community documentary project that puts housed and unhoused Santa Cruz residents in conversation. In the documentary, artists ask participants about their relationship to home and how housing scarcity has impacted them. During discussions, artists also facilitate creative activities—like music-making, drawing, or crocheting. The project has been years in the making.
“This chapter started in 2020 when I brought my creative listening project to the Benchlands encampment here in Santa Cruz,” Purchin says.
The San Lorenzo Park Benchlands encampment served as a city-sponsored camping place for people experiencing homelessness from 2020 to November of last year. Purchin would paint at the Benchlands and have conversations with passersby. These types of conversations—generative, meandering, curious—typify creative listening.
Before 2020, Purchin practiced live painting and creative listening nationally, at the 2008 inauguration of President Obama and the 2012 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
“I’d start a painting at the Republican National Convention, and then I’d bring it to the Democratic National Convention, and the people would go, ‘Oh, that’s us,’ and I’d say, ‘No, that’s the Republicans,’ and I’d finish the painting over there,” Purchin says. “I’d have conversations with the easel in front of me. It’s like having a puppy. It gets conversations going.”
Strauss—a dancer and interviewer in What’s Home? —emphasizes that other artists have swiftly and widely adopted creative listening. Strauss participated in Purchin’s project to bring 1000 artists to the 2012 presidential inauguration and perform site-specific, creative listening projects more locally.
“Other artists jumped on it. For instance, I did a dance on a bridge [to San Lorenzo Park] where someone was beaten up. There have been many more artists who have brought this concept to other places,” Strauss says.
Purchin proposed the What’s Home? project to the City Arts Recovery Design program in 2021, ran a successful pilot with musician Michael Levy and received a grant. Now, What’s Home? uses creative listening to understand the often heavy stories of Santa Cruz residents experiencing homelessness.
“If you are deeply listening, people reveal what they wouldn’t necessarily be willing to reveal otherwise. You see the quality of listening through the person who is talking. That’s what I noticed when I was interviewing,” Strauss says. “I don’t need to do anything more than allow the space to grow for them to say what they need to say. I’m here to hear your story. I can hold it. They are heavy stories, some of them.”
Artists are uniquely poised to have these meaningful conversations because they have what Purchin calls “mixing boards.”
“On that mixing board, we might ask, [about someone’s experience] what is like from far away? What’s it like from up close? What’s it like in the middle? What would it be like in black and white? In color and what color? What colors do you see your childhood as?” Purchin explains.
Strauss finds these sorts of nuanced questions, particularly poignant for matters related to housing and homelessness.
“I’m fascinated with that tipping point, that spectrum,” Strauss says. “For me, as a mover, we have all these pedestrian movements, and when do they become dance? When does rocking become a dance form? I realized that this applies to everything. Like when is a person considered housed or unhoused? Is it when you’re on your friend’s couch because you have nowhere to go? Or is it when you are definitely on the sidewalk? Those shades of grey are constant, and then, all of a sudden, it tips.”
In addition to the documentary, the What’s Home? project has engendered a suite of creative projects, set to premier this Saturday at The 418 Project. During the show, A Night of Creative Listening Across Difference, Strauss will dance to an original score by their husband and fellow artist Ken Bewick. The show will also include a thirty-minute, one-act play, musical acts, and clips from the What’s Home? documentary.
Strauss and Purchin agree that art is vital to addressing issues like housing and homelessness.
“We [artists] can explain it in ways that aren’t necessarily cognitive,” Strauss says. “People can access it in a different way. Because sometimes it is too painful, but maybe I can see something crocheted by someone housed and unhoused and have a different feeling.”
Purchin adds, “Art is relationship building, and we need to make relationships across differences—between housed and unhoused people—so that people are enrolled in making a better community. Art brings us together.”
To those who might suggest that a more urgent, direct aid approach is appropriate in addressing the housing crisis and homelessness, Purchin says, “They’re not wrong. And, artists, as cultural workers, can shift the consciousness.”
Purchin’s painting from the San Lorenzo Benchlands encampment sits against the wall in the Radius Gallery, soon to hang with the work of other What’s Home? artists. The painting is a vibrant, layered amalgamation of tarps and tents. A sycamore leans in its corner. It looks familiar, like home.
Night of Creative Listening Across Difference, Saturday, April 15 at 7pm. Sliding scale entrance fee. The 418 Project, 155 S. River St., Santa Cruz.
What’s Home? Multimedia Exhibition, Sunday, April 16 at 2pm (opening reception). The exhibition runs through May 7. Free. Radius Gallery, Tannery Arts Center, 1050 River St., Unit 127, Santa Cruz. whatshome.org