Home truths: how our domestic spaces shape the way we live

In Horace Pippin’s ‘Saying Prayers’ (1943), the kitchen is the focus of a loving home © Brandywine River Museum of Art, Purchased with the Betsy James Wyeth Fund, 1980

No matter where I’ve been in the world or what I’ve spent the day doing in the city in which I live, I always feel a deep sense of gratitude and relief whenever I walk through my front door.

It is a blessing to have a home that feels like a sanctuary. And in the different seasons of life, my various homes have served me in different ways: as a space that welcomed others for meals, game nights and lengthy conversations, a space to deepen community and strengthen relationships. Or as a place to gather myself or others together, to grieve or mourn quietly, to wait patiently for some healing to slip around me like a shawl.

And consistently, my home has been the place where my creative life both squirms and thrives. How we live in a home and enact our domestic rituals has an important effect on how we live in the outside world, influencing our thinking and our behaviour.

I love the work of Polina Barskaya, a Brooklyn-based contemporary artist. Born in Ukraine in 1984, Barskaya paints small-scale works that include self-portraits and images of her family. They are like visual diaries of her life, with many of the paintings set in domestic spaces. In her 2019 work “Bloomville”, she sits naked on her unmade bed, her hands raised, holding her hair in a bun. The light gray palette gives the bedroom a soft, quiet feel. We can see trees and green pasture through the windows behind her, and light pours in through the sheer curtained window on the right of the canvas. It is a stolen scene from what looks like an early morning alone.

Bedrooms started becoming separate rooms in the house only from the 17th century. And even then they were used not just for sleeping but also for entertaining close or important guests, and for business.

But for us today, bedrooms are the most private parts of our homes. So much energy passes through a bedroom: it is a place of intimacy that is also the room to which many of us retreat when we are battling physical or emotional illness. It is where we weep and grieve, where we lie awake in worry or fear, where we dream or nurture our desires, where we feed babies or cuddle with toddlers. Or where we might be reminded that we are alone.

A painting of a bedroom with a naked woman seated on the edge of the bed

In Polina Barskaya’s ‘Bloomville’ (2019), we have an intimate view of a woman’s bedroom just after she appears to have risen © Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, New York

In Barskaya’s painting, the way the woman is seated on the edge of the bed reminds me that a bedroom is also the setting for the start of any new day, the place from which we can check in with ourselves anew, and gather our thoughts — all of which can affect how we handle whatever the day brings, how we meet the world outside.

I treasure the space my bedroom provides me. It is an inner sanctum of my home. I do not have a television there, and the walls are white and bare except for an antique mirror and a painting above the bed. This spareness is respite for my already teeming mind. Regardless of what is happening in my life, I try to practice a morning ritual before I leave my bed: one that helps set my intention for the day, and from which I draw both my strength and my hope.

I also have little objects on my bedside table such as a tiny thumb-sized chalice that reminds me to leave space in my proverbial cup for the unexpected ways life may want to fill it. It might seem minor, but those items by my bed are symbolic reminders of how I want to exist in the world.

African-American artist Horace Pippin survived the first world war and said that his experience of war “brought out all the art in me”; having lost the use of his right hand after being shot, he taught himself to paint with his left hand.

In Pippin’s “Saying Prayers” (1943), a mother sits in a kitchen by a large black stove. Her two children, ready for bed in their nightgowns, kneel at her lap as she places a hand on each of their heads. There is a simple woven rug on the floor, and a few pans hanging on the wall. This is a family of modest means. But the image Pippin offers suggests that they are rich in care and love. The mother bends her body over them, protectively, as though gathering them into herself again. A hand on each child, she reclaims them while praying over them. It is a powerful image, one that suggests that it is also a powerful thing to be claimed by one who deeply loves you.

Our rituals at home can form us or transform us in how we live out in the world. The fact that Pippin sets this scene in a kitchen seems to highlight its role as the heart of the home, a place of nourishment and sustenance, often used to gather and build relationships. To ask someone to join you in the kitchen is to invite them into a different kind of intimate space, where formalities are left behind and labor is often mixed with love, creativity and a peculiar openness of heart. Kitchen tables are often where vulnerable conversations take place, where our truest selves are revealed, in all their glory and the mess.

The 19th-century artist Félix Vallotton is one of my favorites. He is best known for his woodcuts and his paintings of domestic interiors, reflecting human relationships by how he renders people in physical spaces. “Interior with Woman in Red from Behind” is a 1903 painting that offers us an intimate glimpse into how someone else inhabits the rooms of their home. As viewers, we enter the painting through the first set of eggshell-blue doors that open up the canvas to us. Through this opening, we are given access to the next three rooms of the house: we can see part of a couch, a chair and a bed, clothes strewn on each. The woman has her back to us.

In this painting, we glimpse through an open door into a room where we see the edge of a sofa and woman in red, with her back turned to us

‘Interior with Woman in Red from Behind’ (1903) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich | Bequest of Hans Naef, 2001

We have entered a scene that is not prepared for guests; rather, we have caught a woman unaware at home. If we stay undetected for long enough, we will see how she lives when no one else is looking. We are intruders, invaders of privacy who come in uninvited. It is not a light thing to enter someone else’s home, where love is made and unmade, where dreams are concocted, and where most of us struggle with parts of ourselves we deem unacceptable to the outer world, regardless of whether that is true or not .

To let someone into our home is to extend another level of trust, and to invite another level of knowing. The rooms in our homes, from how they are decorated to how we interact in them, say a lot about the people we are, or think we are, or want to be. They also speak to how we want to engage with others.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to someone’s home for the first time. After showing me the living room, he invited me to the kitchen to get our drinks. Right away, we were talking with a familiar ease. Once he’d made our drinks, we decided to stay just where we were. I knew that his inviting me into his home was a genuine gesture of wanting to get to know me. I also knew that ending up in the kitchen was a promising start for a potential new friendship.

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