Leadership, Artistry, and a “Sense of Place”

Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our communities. . .

I saw my neighbor, Dreama, at the community cafe this morning. Dreama is an organist. She teaches organ and provides music for Sunday worship at a local church. Dreama is an artist who is passionate about her art. Something she said about being an organist intrigues me.

“We organists are a peculiar group. We love our instrument—the organ—but we can’t take our favorite organ with us when we go out to share our work. We have particular organs we love to play, but we can only play them in the place where they live. Organs are not really transportable.”

Thank you, Dreama, for inviting me to think about how important it is that people in all professions pay careful attention to the places where we do our work. Having a “sense of place” is vital to the effectiveness of our professional endeavors. It is also vital to the life and health of the communities where we hang out our shingles, if you will, as artists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, and others.

What is a “sense of place”? Some people say a locale’s “sense of place” is shaped by the characteristics that make it unique from other locales. People are drawn to these characteristics and are connected to places over a lifetime because of experiences they have in them, whether good or bad. Communities cultivate a healthy “sense of place” when they instill in their residents an authentic sense of belonging. And an authentic sense of belonging can heal broken hearts, foster peace and inspire hope, and lead to overall communal well-being.

Dreama, as an organist, has had to cultivate an awareness of place as vital to her artistry. She plays organs in diverse locales. Each organ in each locale is unique, designed by a particular builder and then constructed, in part on site, to fit the architecture and acoustics and sometimes oddities of the space.

Author Agnes Armstrong specializes in the history of 19th Century organists and organ music. She writes that

in medieval times, a builder would move his workers and often his entire family to the site of his next organ. They might even take up residence inside the cathedral being built around them, sometimes for a year or more. There they would be devotedly occupied with building the organ. . .

Agnes Armstrong

Organs, especially pipe organs, become a part of a place’s architecture.

Organs also hold stories:

“I will never forget how I felt when I heard those first organ notes as I came down the aisle on my wedding day.”

A woman in a nursing home remembering her wedding

“I remember hearing all of Mama’s favorite pieces played on that organ for the prelude at her funeral.”

A family member’s recollection of a funeral service

Good organists develop their musical skills and expertise over their lifetimes. Amazing organists also attend to each organ’s peculiarity and to the stories, memories, and connections that are present when they sit down to accompany a choir or perform a concert.

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter, 2014.

I am grateful for the conversation with Dreama. She is an amazing organist. Her wisdom about her art reminded me to lean in to the places where I go as teacher, poet, and preacher to listen for all of the voices and stories that make a place what it is. The health and well-being of leaders and the communities we serve depends on a rich meeting or intermingling of our story and skills with the particular and peculiar stories, gifts, and challenges of the places where we serve.

Agnes Armstrong writes that “pipes in a newly constructed organ must ‘settle in’ and ‘make their own community’” within the space where they reside. We all do that when we bring our artistic and professional endeavors to a new place. Like pipe organs, we learn to breathe in and with our new communities, and in partnership with them to make music that is unique to us and that has the potential to make a difference in our world.


Stonehenge is in the news this week because of a controversial four-lane highway tunnel designed to be built underneath the ancient site. Reflecting on this mysterious monument and its much lauded geometric perfection, I wrote this poem in an experimental (for me) fashion–circular, with each three-word phrase containing seven syllables–for perfection or wholeness. The one-word lines each contain four syllables; on the fourth day, God completed the material universe. The beginning and ending lines each have fourteen syllables.


Still Life, Still Living

Artist Frida Khalo wrote this about a still life she created:  “I paint flowers so they will not die.” I recently visited a still life exhibit that graced the walls of a local art museum for a few months. The exhibit included “both traditional and unexpected approaches to still life” presented in “examples of still life from across the state” (from the exhibit description).  Some phrases and insights emerged for me as I viewed the exhibit and read the descriptions of the various pieces:

Passing fancies
Preserved “to do” lists from times gone by
Meal tables abandoned
Fragile splendor
Collecting? Hoarding?
Imbuing objects with values they do not possess on their own
Exotic flowers in uncommon places
Macro view of life and world.
Still life, still living.

The exhibit, along with Khalo’s quote, stirred some questions for me:

What things in our lives do we seek to remember and preserve, so that they will not die?
What things do we return to again and again, so they will not die?
What things do we sing, create, imagine, so they will not die?

The irony, for me, is that many of these things are at the same time both still lifes and still living.

This summer I discovered a new personal interest—photography—that has expanded my reflections on how elements of daily living are still lifes and still living.  With a new digital camera now with me on some of my travels, I began to see the world and its aliveness in a new way and to preserve or set apart my own still lifes of that new perspective.  The photos posted here are examples. I captured one of them while standing near my end-of-summer vegetable garden. The other was a surprise front yard “capture.” As I began to save photos from my new camera to computer files, I recalled that some of the still lifes in the art exhibit were given titles that attempt to communicate something about what the artist intended.  Alas, I am not adept at crafting insightful titles or captions, so I invite you to imagine a caption for one or both of these photographic still lifes or for your own still life. What do you hope both to preserve and to keep alive as you encounter life’s gifts and complexities.