Imagine throwing a house party for 100 perfect strangers.
Now, imagine that some of those strangers maybe take your paintings off the walls and hang up their own, or start playing a double bass in your living room. Or swing from the trees in your back yard. Completely sober.
Something like that is happening in a tall rowhouse just off Logan Circle. At first glance, you might think you’ve wandered into just another bohemian house party, with beer in a giant tub on the kitchen floor and that one guy who always blocks the door to the bathroom. But then you notice something more.
A band called Near Northeast, which plays “melodic ambient folky harmonic music,” is setting up in the bay window at the front of the house. Dana Ellyn , a self-described “vegan artist,” is pointing out her paintings, including one of a herd of cows chasing humans dressed in Ronald McDonald costumes from a green field.
In the tiny fenced-in garden out back, Texas natives Chris Svetlik and Brian Stanford of Republic Kolache are handing out samples of the Czech pastries called kolaches that they’re bringing to Washington.
Welcome to Little Salon, a series of gatherings that have become the locus for a hip new cultural scene in Washington, all in the comfort of (somebody’s) home.
Since they began in May 2014, Little Salon gatherings have shaken up the District’s arts world with monthly house parties that offer a smorgasbord of poetry, music, art, performance, stories, and even free food and booze. Named after the European salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Little Salon is different in one major way: No performance is supposed to last more than 10 minutes.
This is a salon for the channel-surfing, modern-day attention span.
Founder Chris Maier dreamed up the idea of short bits to hold everyone’s attention — most attendees are between the ages of 25 and 40, he says — and to try to pack a good mix of art into a single evening. There’s no science behind it, beyond the fact that Maier starts to get restless himself after eight to 10 minutes.
“We give you bite-sized morsels,” he says. If you’re not a fan of a particular song or story, it’s all over quickly. After their minutes in the spotlight, the artists have a chance to field questions from the guests.
The reach of this modern-day salon is far beyond a string quartet or even, say, the DC Objectivist Salon, which gathers to discuss the writings of Ayn Rand. Washington has had a tradition of do-it-yourself house concerts, too, but those are generally limited to single-artist offerings.
“We want to extend what creativity means,” Maier says. “I want you to be able to rub elbows with artists and not have to go to the Smithsonian to get exposure to amazing art.”
As more and more people pour through her front door, host Kristin Haffert talks excitedly about volunteering her home for something that’s “filling a need to explore an arts community that’s under the radar a little bit.”
When she moved to Washington in 2002, she says, she thought the city was a little dull. There were fun things to do, but you had to dig to find them. “Little Salon turns that idea on its head,” the political consultant says. “It’s bringing culture and local talent to us — to D.C. residents in their living rooms all over the city.”
That’s a big departure from the usual Washington arts scene, which tends to involve the same old faces showing up at gallery openings and lectures, possibly just for the free wine, Ellyn says.
“It’s kind of interesting to be in someone’s house,” adds Holly Bass , a writer and poet performing on this evening. “It’s a house party, but you don’t know the owner! It’s like crashing a party, but it has a wonderful sense of mystery, just a peek into someone’s life.”
In her 22 years in Washington, says guest Danielle Glosser, she has “never experienced anything like this.”
Past salons have included one at which a performance artist took over a home’s back yard, swinging from the trees. Another time, a band performed Civil War-era music celebrating Clara Barton. Then there was the performance artist who set up about 40 one-time Twitter accounts for the audience and then responded spontaneously to whatever the others were live-tweeting about what he was doing.
Maier, whose day job is creative director at an advertising agency, had wanted to do something like Little Salon for a long time. In his student days, he and some friends published a literary magazine that mixed art genres. Starting a salon was the next step in introducing people to the best creative talent in the city and exposing them to art that they might not otherwise discover, he says.
The 38-year-old finds the artists for his soirees through word of mouth and by keeping an eye on the local arts scene. So far his Little Salons have featured poets, fiction writers, travel writers, storytellers, book creators, architects, chefs, distillers, professors, dancers, performance artists, puppeteers, painters, photographers, screen printers, installation artists and every variety of musician — to name a few.
It also hasn’t been hard to find volunteers in a dozen city neighborhoods willing to open their homes to strangers. Hosts love telling their friends what they’re doing for the arts in the District. “It’s a little bit of a status scene,” Maier says.
On this night, which is the 12th Little Salon so far, nearly 100 people cram into Haffert’s Logan Circle house, sipping donated beer from Alexandria’s Port City Brewing Company, trying the sweet and savory kolaches, and chatting with strangers. The 80 $15 tickets for the night sold out in less than 10 minutes the week before the event, Maier says.
Performance artist and writer Bass goes first. Wearing electric blue eyeglasses and a short, flouncy skirt, she reads a lyrical essay about teaching Italians to do the electric slide and then sings, a cappella, a song she wrote about Paris. A sampling of the lyrics: “The pastries almost break your heart, a taste of heaven in a tiny tart.”
Ellyn, the vegan artist, offers an explanation of her art. “Being vegan, the more I knew, the less I ate,” she says. But, she adds, laughing, “I also encourage meat eaters to buy my paintings. The price is the same for everyone.”
One painting, based on the Virgin-focused “Picturing Mary” exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which ran from last December until April, is an image of a grinning Hillary Rodham Clinton with a chubby baby Bill on her lap. Another is a painting that Ellyn calls “Kitten Nuggets,” based on the idea that both kittens and baby chicks are cute, but we feel comfortable eating only one of them.
She’s eager to answer questions. “The fact that people drill three levels down” in what they ask “makes me happy,” she says. “It’s fascinating to hear what people think.”
The band Near Northeast, which includes guitarist Avy Mallik, a civil rights attorney; double-bassist Austin Blanton, a computer programmer; and singer and violinist Kelly Servick, a science journalist, plays a few songs as guests settle in on the floor and around the room. The band has played at a number of house shows, but this event is different, Servick says. “Other house shows have more of a party feel and not a salon feel.”
Near Northeast’s songs have a world-music flavor, with a little Indian influence, a bit of ukulele-playing and a pattern of beats created by guest band member Andrew Northcut on the cajon, a Peruvian hand drum.
Storyteller John Tong wraps up the night. Before he gets up to do his thing, he admits that he’s nervous. But he has always loved going to parties. “I can keep myself preoccupied for hours with strangers,” he says. Meanwhile, the audience’s overall attention span has started to wane, but he cajoles people back into the living room with a story, part humor and part touching narrative, about asking his now-wife to marry him.
Tong, who by day is director of operations and administration for a national life insurance association (“It’s exciting — a lot of high-risk stuff,” he says, laughing), explains that he was thrilled to find storytelling as an outlet.
“For a lot of time, I was wandering in the desert,” he says. “I didn’t have a creative outlet. I was doing karaoke, which is a sad replacement for this.”
The evening is winding down, and the air conditioning is straining to keep up with all the bodies occupying every inch of space in the living room, spilling into the tiny kitchen and out onto the back deck. A few people hang out on the sidewalk in front, and a neighbor peeks out his front door to see what the commotion is about.
Maier announces that the next salon will take place Sept. 23 in a house on U Street NW. Because the space is smaller, only 60 tickets will be sold, and the lineup so far includes opera singers, a poet, and a jelly and jam maker.
Still, people linger, perching on a side bench to chat or peering at the art. Yes, some may have showed up for the beer and snacks, but clearly that’s not the only draw. “I always say,” Maier says, “if you leave here without a new friend, that’s your fault.”
Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington.