Published November 1, 2023
Third Things & Third Places: Building Relationships Through Art
In a work of prose published (somewhat ironically) in the magazine, Poetry, American author Donald Hall looks back on a successful marriage. Hall was married to fellow writer Jane Kenyon for twenty-three years before her death. “We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes,” Hall remembers. “Most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing.” For Hall, this so-called third thing was the secret to years of happy marriage. The two writers did not fixate on one another at all hours of the day and night. Instead, they nursed their own interests, hobbies, and of course, creative outlets. When the time was right, they converged on one of these third things.
“Third things are essential to marriages,” Hall writes, “objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.” Hall explains that third things come in many shapes and sizes. They can be children, communities, or in this couple’s case, other writers. Hall remembers Kenyon reading Keats, and not picking Keats up until she was done. “Each member of a couple is separate,” Hall explains. “The two come together in double attention.”
Third things are essential not just to marriages, but all kinds of relationships. The best dates, friendships, and workplace bonds come together around something external. Whether people “come together in double attention” around a confusing abstract painting or a plan for Friday night after work, third things catalyze relationships.
As Hall implies with his talk of poetry, art is the best third thing of all. You can learn a lot about a date by what they gravitate towards in a museum. You can make a new friend at an artist’s studio party. You can see a side to a colleague you never knew based on the art they hang on their walls. Art allows people to express themselves and be curious about one another in an indirect way. In that way, art is a uniquely powerful third thing.
The stakes for connection and community are high. In 2023, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report alarmingly titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” and more hopefully subtitled, “Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.” In it, he explains that loneliness and isolation are on the rise and increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29% respectively. The mortality impact of disconnection is similar to that caused by smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
The Surgeon General does not mince words: “loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day,” Murthy writes, “and with comparable levels of risk to health and premature death.” Connection and community, he concludes, are essential for living healthy lives both as individuals and as a society. Murthy calls to invest in those things that build relationships and naturally, my mind turns towards art.
In my own life, I have been amazed by art’s capacity to build relationships, or as Hall writes, “provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.” I look back fondly on my recent studio visit with Testudo artist, Kim Garcia. I was anxious to meet my first artist from the Testudo community as I snaked my way through an unfamiliar industrial building in Downtown Los Angeles. But when I arrived, Kim created an easy, instant connection through her art.
Within five minutes, we had skipped the small talk and dove into unusually, refreshingly deep conversation about family, history, mythology, and our shifting relationships with “home.” Our prompts were the paintings and sculptures all around us: abstractions inspired by folklore and undulating forms made with gauze, resin, and found materials including peacock feathers, epoxy hands, and half-empty sake bottles. These artworks pierced the veil of the ordinary. They invited the two of us to see things differently and talk about what it all meant, as though we hadn't just met.
That’s what art does. It changes how people see the world and helps go about transforming it. Art creates connections between people who would otherwise never meet, or never have the necessary framework to talk about what really matters to them.
Leaving the artist’s studio, I felt the need to share this experience with more people. I knew that my friends, peers, and colleagues could benefit from something similarly transformative: genuinely connecting with new people through art, the perfect third thing.
With this goal of building relationships through art, Testudo organized an expanded version of my studio visit with Kim. The team invited friends of Testudo, other talented artists, and art lovers ranging from established collectors to first-time art-buyers. It was important that artists could mix with fellow artists, critics, and potential collectors alike. It was also important that these disparate groups, who would usually pass one another on the street, could converge around Kim’s practice. We were there to experience something out of the ordinary. We were there to meet new people and make connections we usually would not through this third thing.
In a recent interview with Testudo, collectors Benny Or and Cristian Shoemaker share how art helps them build relationships. Benny and Cristian’s collection helps them feel connected to a community of artists and art lovers in their daily life. “When I see works that I relate to by my friends who are P.O.C.,” Benny shares, “I am reminded of our shared community. As I meander through my home, I always have friends on the walls." The collecting couple brings their friends home through the art that they acquire and ensures that they are always, literally surrounded by their community.
Benny and Cristian also deepen their relationship with one another through their collection. “When I met Benny,” Cristian says, “one of the things that drew me to him was his love and understanding of art.” Like many collecting couples, their approach is as much collaboration as it is self-expression. “Every piece in the collection, while Benny has a stronger hand in finding and curating every piece that we find, we've purchased together,” Cristian continues. Building a collection – meeting artists, refining one’s tastes, staging and restaging the art – offers endless opportunities for the couple to spend time together and explore one another’s point of view.
If art is a third thing, then the spaces where art is made and enjoyed can be “third places.” American sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined this term in his book,The Great Good Place. “Americans do not make daily visits to sidewalk cafes or banquet halls,” Oldenburg laments. “We do not have that third realm of satisfaction and social cohesion beyond the portals of home and work that for others is an essential element of the good life.” Oldenberg argues that people need so-called third places where they can gather outside of the home (the first place) and the workplace (the second).
The lack of these spaces is glaring in the United States, where highways and parking lots take up walkable space that might otherwise be occupied by Parisian cafes or Viennese coffeehouses. The problem has been exacerbated by COVID-19, with many third places closing their doors and entire neighborhoods withering.
A studio like Kim’s can be such a place, one of those increasingly rare opportunities for what Oldenberg calls informal public life. It is somewhere to hang out, notably with people who work different jobs and live different lives. A third place is, “by its nature, an inclusive place,” Oldenburg writes:
There is a tendency for individuals to select their associates, friends, and intimates from among those closest to them in social rank. Third places, however, serve to expand possibilities, whereas formal associations tend to narrow and restrict them. Third places counter the tendency to be restrictive in the enjoyment of others by being open to all and by laying emphasis on qualities not confined to status distinctions current in the society. Within third places, the charm and flavor of one’s personality, irrespective of his or her station in life, is what counts.
There is something democratizing and disorientating about third places. Studios, galleries, and collections allow people to reorganize themselves in a way that rejects the normal order of things. Like Kim’s peacock-feather-and-gauze sculptures, the space itself asks people to see the world around them differently. People can mix and mingle in a way that they struggle to do in the wider world. It is the charm and flavor of one’s personality that dictates a person’s position in such a place, as Oldenburg writes. The possibilities expand. Anything can happen.
Art, it seems, is a uniquely powerful tool for connection. An artwork can serve as a third thing, “a site of joint rapture or contentment” where people find common ground. Likewise, a place where art is made, enjoyed, or discussed can become a third place: somewhere people can not just meet but can shake up an increasingly isolating social system.
Art has the ability to build relationships, promote community in a time of isolation, and reimagine the ways in which we connect. These possibilities inspired the team at Testudo to ask ourselves, what can we do to help people connect through art? As we move forward, Testudo invites you to join us and enrich your life through studio visits, discussions, exhibition openings, and learning about young art collections that will inspire and engage you.
Reach out to join our list of upcoming public events near you.