Q&A with Andi Ashworth, Art House America
My husband and I live in a special place, a renovated, country church in Nashville, Tennessee that was built in 1912. Our home is called the Art House and it includes a recording studio and offices. Since moving in many years ago, we've worked to make this place a home for our family, but also a gathering place for other people—mainly artists, musicians, and songwriters who need nurture in some way.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Andi Ashworth: My work consists of three basic parts. I'm co-director for Art House America. I'm a seminary student through Covenant Theological Seminary's distance education program, and I write and speak.
The work I do with Art House America is about hospitality, art, and Christian studies. My husband and I live in a special place, a renovated, country church in Nashville, Tennessee that was built in 1912. Our home is called the Art House and it includes a recording studio and offices. Since moving in many years ago, we've worked to make this place a home for our family, but also a gathering place for other people—mainly artists, musicians, and songwriters who need nurture in some way. In all these years we've been working to create a place where good can happen. That might be good music, good conversation over a meal, or the good that comes from hearing an author or a teacher speak about a topic they understand because of their life experience and study. We do a lot of mentoring, encouraging younger people to develop curious and imaginative minds and apply the teachings of Jesus to every part of life. My husband, Charlie, helps young folks develop as artists and people of faith, always with the hope that God's musical people will become vital, active participants in the music of our culture.
For my part, I sometimes do a lot of cooking, make granola and muffins, and bake lots of cookies. I do laundry, change beds, clean bathrooms, and make many trips to the grocery store. Basically I do all the same stuff moms and dads do as they take care of their families and households, but sometimes our home feels more like a "bed & breakfast." I also do a lot of listening and talking, because often that's what people need the most. If we're having a special event—perhaps, an artist retreat where people come to make new friends or spend time with old ones, listen to wise teachers, and talk about what it means for God's people to make music and art in today's world—then we concentrate on making the retreat a great one. My husband and I each have our different areas of gifting and expertise, and we divide our labour according to what we each do best. Together, we hope to offer people something that's beautiful and important.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
AA: Hospitality was part of our earliest response to learning the grace and mercy of Jesus as young adult converts. My husband and I married shortly after high school and became followers of Christ seven years later in 1982. The first years of our marriage were very dark and painful, and as God began to change us and turn our lives around, we were extremely grateful and eager to share what we had—our home, our food, and all we were learning. Hospitality began by responding to need, mainly to the musicians in our life who my husband worked with, but also to the needs in our first church. As time went on we became much more intentional with the hospitality we offered, but in the early stages we were drawn to receive and invite out of gratitude. We also have a great awareness that it's God who has sent people to us. I can trace the way many have come into our lives, but I can only attribute the volume and consistency to God's hand.
In all these years I've been learning my work, responding to it, developing gifts. I never would have imagined it for myself as a young person. I had a care-giving bent, but I thought it would lead me to work in the medical field. I started out in nursing school but only lasted a few months. It was only in coming to faith and becoming a true partner with my husband that either of us could be led on the vocational paths God would unfold. I read a lot of books by Edith Schaeffer in the early years of my Christian life and I resonated with the Schaeffer's L'Abri work. We had no desire to replicate what they did, and it was never our calling to have a residential study center. But when God began moving us into our Art House life and calling us to a larger work in hospitality, I was able to recognize certain aspects of it because of Edith's writings. Through her inspiration and that of my grandmother, I had a small but growing vision for how I wanted to care for the people God brought us. I was drawn to serve through the cultivation of beauty, through the fellowship that comes with sharing food, and through being a lifetime student who is curious and always learning. I understand now that God shapes the life he wants for us. He brings us to a particular set of callings, reveals them over time, all the while fashioning us to fit the life to which he calls us. My husband is the visionary. He understood our Art House calling long before I did. He was the initiator and the leader. But I joined him in the work and set about helping to create an environment of welcome. I have learned the deeper meaning of our work over time.
There are particular things within my overall calling to which I've been drawn. I've always been a lover of good books and as an adult, a self-motivated learner. I have a very hungry mind so it's not difficult to do a program of study that involves self-discipline. And I've always been writing. I wrote in journals for years out of an inner urge to archive our story and process my thoughts, but I never considered myself a writer until my husband and a few friends helped me see that's what I had become. Writing is something I've had to do. I couldn't not do it, but I had to learn to pay attention to it before I realized it was a significant part of my vocation. I've also been drawn to the mentoring part of our work. It's a very satisfying thing for me to have significant one-on-one conversations with thoughtful younger people.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
AA: Learning to cook and imagine well for the table has been important to my vocation. In this I had an important mentor, a close friend who is a chef and food consultant in California. We spent a lot of time together when our children were young and through the influence of her cooking, her philosophy of food, the restaurants she worked in, as well as the cookbooks I came across in her house, I was introduced to the creative world of the kitchen. When we cooked together she was very generous in sharing her knowledge. And she encouraged me as I began reading cookbooks from cover to cover and experimenting on my own. Those were the years our house was filling with guests more often—musicians my husband brought home from the studio at dinnertime or people he met all over the world as a touring artist. They were also the years I had a family to feed every night. Through the daily practice of meeting all those needs, I acquired creativity and skill that would serve in my Art House work.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
AA: We've had some occasions to host world-famous celebrities in our home. Two that stand out: hosting Bono as he spoke to a group of Nashville artists in our living room about the AIDS/famine emergency in Africa, and Mel Gibson who previewed The Passion of the Christ in the same room. As I prepared for these two events and anxiously pondered the issue of food, a good friend advised me: give them the same care you would give to anyone else. Don't do things any differently or treat them more specially. She was exactly right.
Another helpful piece of advice was something I read a long time ago, I think it was from Eugene Peterson but I'm not sure. Whoever it was said something like this: I've learned that the interruptions are my work. This is always in the back of my mind when unexpected people enter into a carefully scheduled day. I have to trust God for his provision of enough—enough time to meet the day's work load with its deadlines, and enough time to sit with someone at the kitchen table and talk.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
AA: The Holy Spirit and the Scriptures, books—in particular the writings of Wendell Berry, Madeleine L' Engle, and Edith Schaeffer—but many, many others: gifted friends, gardens, films, vintage treasures, cookbooks, the teachings of Steve Garber and Jerram Barrs, oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams, quiet still moments, Margie and Denis Haack's Notes from Toad Hall and Critique.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
AA: A trip to the coffee pot is the first thing. Then I check e-mail. After that it depends on which kind of work I'm doing that day. I always pray before launching into anything, talking to God about the people I'm concerned for and asking for guidance, enabling, and inspiration for the day's work. If it's writing, class work, or working on talks, I go to my desk and begin. I'm best to do that kind of work in the first part of the day and more active work in the mid to late afternoon. Reading for school threads through most of my days and for that I go to a favourite chair—if it's good weather I sit in our screened-in porch. If it's winter, I go to my chair in our sanctuary/living room. To break up long hours of sitting I take a walk at mid-day whenever I can. If we have houseguests, I begin the morning by getting breakfast for them and their needs factor into the rest of the day. At night before bed, I usually read a novel or memoir. I write in my journal on Saturday mornings—thinking through the previous week and documenting the work, the people who came through our home, and significant events and conversations. And finally, there is an element of spontaneity to our lives and work because people and hospitality are central. It's not unusual for people to drop in unexpectedly or with short notice and when that happens, we adjust as much as we can.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
AA: My Mac PowerBook. Yellow legal pads. Good journals. I'm very picky about my journals—not too large or too small, no spiral binding, and no lines. I want them to feel good in my hands, open well, and have an inviting cover. In the kitchen I have a sixty-inch Dual Fuel Wolf Range, which holds two ovens, six burners and a griddle. It took two full years for my husband to convince me it was okay to spend the money on this oven. As a record producer, he knows it is right and necessary to have good tools and he wanted me to have a good tool for my work in the kitchen. This oven/stove combo has revolutionized my life when I'm cooking for crowds and even for the larger table of family or friends. My favorite gardening tools are my Felco pruner and a hand-held weeding tool.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
AA: We recently hosted a two-day artist retreat for about eighty-five people, mainly musical artists who are Christians working in the mainstream. My chef friend from California, whom I referred to above as my cooking mentor, flew out and worked as executive chef for the event. My daughter, two close friends, and I assisted her. The workload for the entire event was overwhelming, but it was so sweet to have beloved friends and family join in the work that means so much to my husband and me. The best part, however, is that God was with us and powerfully blessed the retreat. We can plan and organize, bring in wonderful guest speakers, work for beauty around the house and in the garden, cook amazing food, and provide time in the schedule for play and rest, but if God doesn't bring it all to life and do his work in our midst, it's empty. Only God could have created soft and receptive hearts and minds, sweet fellowship, and met people in their need. We do the best we can to prepare, but then we experience God at work and it is truly, truly a privilege and a delight to be a part of what he's doing.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
AA: II keep a weekly planner open on my kitchen counter where I make a skeleton plan for the week on Sunday or Monday, filling in details each day. I also use iCal.
I try to be very careful about over-commitment and yet I get sucked under all the time. I always take time to pray and consider before saying "yes" to things that require commitments far in advance, with the knowledge that family needs, grandchildren, household maintenance, house guests, and unforeseen emergencies will fill a lot of space. But as careful as I try to be I can't control all the variables. I'm also very aware that in order to say "yes" to some things, you have to say "no" to others. This school year I am saying "yes" to finishing up my master's degree on time, and "no" to other commitments outside my Art House work.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
AA: There is no separation. I understand vocation in a very holistic way—consisting of roles and relationships and the responsibilities therein, along with the exercise and development of gifts and interests in service of others. All of it makes up our work in the world, so it all connects.