MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, the house gets lost in the fray as it plays chicken with Cantrell and bests the heavily congested road. Running east to west, the road blinks, breaking around the house, leading drivers’ eyes off to the right before they can focus on what’s behind the curve. And even those with eyes given to wandering behind the wheel are more likely to look at the oft-rotating advertisements of a billboard staked massively on the white house’s eastern side—or to the state Capitol, large and lit up to the drivers’ left, where it breaches the darkened urban landscape.
More often than not, the drivers aren’t missing much. More often than not, it’s a place likely subject to the same patterns and routines as their own homes. It’s a place where, as the hour approaches 5 p.m., cars from the surrounding businesses—from the law firm across the street, from the women’s shelter next door—depart and pull away, heading toward downtown or up Cantrell. And with that exodus, the five guys who call the white house home arrive from work and elsewhere and park on either side of the street. Walking across the yard, they pass beneath the branches of an enormous magnolia tree, its root structure having crept far enough and absorbed enough of the moisture from the ground that the grass is sparse and brittle to the touch. And then, mounting the stairs of the porch, they open the door and disappear inside.
It’s a place where, most evenings, it’s quiet. Where you can pass by and there are candles burning in an upstairs window, where there’s the bare bulb of a lamp illuminating a half-dozen mismatched chairs surrounding a janky-legged table on the porch, casting shadows on an evenly spaced lineup of quietly fading potted plants. Where all you see is a guy with springy black hair sitting on the porch and working on a novel, playing a ukulele, doing pen-and-ink sketches or discussing the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and French new-wave cinema with his housemates. It is, in other words, a place that is most often strictly a house—a nice five-bedroom, 2,461-square-foot place with plenty of quirks, flaws and character.
And then on some evenings, it’s something else.
Because there are houses, and there are homes, and there are places like this, where on certain nights, the doors go open and there are performances and exhibitions, and there are people coming and going. Where on certain nights, there’s art hung along the walls of the common area at the top of the stairs, and there are musicians and authors on the porch. Where there are throngs of people and the furniture is shifted and the cabinets and dinner plates are overlooked, and everything within is anesthetized against the goings-on of the outside world. And it’s on evenings such as that when the idea of what a house can be becomes something more.
ON AN EVENING IN MID-JULY, the sun is dipping down and the porch is starting to get lit gold. It’s breezy and the weather nicer than you’d expect. There are magnolia leaves yellowing in the yard. Across the street, there’s an empty lot, and in it there are concrete blocks with sprouts of metal rebar and the rough edges of demolition. And then the door to the white house opens, and a guy with black hair and dark eyes named Phillip Rex Huddleston steps onto the porch. He’s wearing a white shirt and black pants. He takes a seat at the head of the table and waits for a dozen-ish artists he’s invited over this evening to arrive.
Roughly three minutes later, the first two, Brooks Tipton, owner of Electric Ghost Screen Printing, and Brooks’ girlfriend, freelance photographer and Electric Ghost creative director Shannon Shrum make their way across the yard and up the concrete steps to the porch. And, taking seats on either side of the table, they start talking about an event that Phillip wants to host at the house. In essence, it’s not really any different from any of the eight ones that he’s held here previously. At each of the Garland House Shows, as they’ve come to be known, there are artists, there are musicians, there are fancy snacks. They’re also, as any of the hundreds of attendees of all ages and social circles who’ve stopped by at one point or another since the shows started in May 2013 would likely attest, a pretty darn good time.
What makes this one different, however, is really a matter of scale. Because whereas shows in the past might have had, say, three or four artists, this one is bringing together a majority of those who’d shown there previously—just shy of 20. And as another twist: It’s also all going to be organized around the central theme of David Lynch’s cult-classic ’90s television show, Twin Peaks.
“How many artists are showing at this Twin Peaks thing?” Brooks asks a few minutes after they’ve gotten settled at the table.
“Um, I should have the list on me. …” Phillip says.
“Around about …?”
“15?” (It actually turns out to be 18.)
“That’s a lot,” Brooks says.
“That’s probably the most ever.”
“It’s definitely the most ever,” Phillip says, “because normally it’s three and at the most four. … But that’s why this one was 1 to 2 works for everyone. Don’t bring anything big.”
“That’s one thing,” Brooks says. “I feel like I’ve had such a great connection to Little Rock over the years, and I do, but when I come to these Garland shows, I meet so many people that I’ve never met before, so many new artists that …”
“That was the first time I met [illustrator] Sally Nixon—at an art show,” Shannon says, jumping in from across the table.
“Me too, actually,” Brooks says. “And when I think about it—yeah, that’s right. It really has brought together the artists. I guess Phillip just knows everybody. But they all just kinda hear about this place and come here.”
Which is why, as the evening wears on, it’s not particularly surprising to find so many people gathered at the house—who’ve come over to discuss this new show that Phillip has dreamed up (and, it’s worth noting, to sit for photographs and interviews for this story). They represent a group of painters, printers, sculptors, designers, filmmakers—artists who collectively cover just about the entire Venn diagram of potential artistic endeavors. What’s more, although many of the names might not strike you as familiar, you’ve probably seen their work around town without even realizing it. (If you’ve ever been to Bernice Garden, South on Main, the Little Rock Film Festival, White Water Tavern—or picked up a copy of this magazine—odds are you’ve seen at least a dozen of the artists connected in one way or another to the house.)
It is, in other words, the sort of place that has a sort of quasi-magnetic ability to draw people together in one place, casting a wide net which seems to spread a little farther with every iteration—pulsing out, regular like a heartbeat—and wrapping up folks from all walks of life to form this increasingly well-knit community.
But the thing is, it was never really intended to be anything like that. There were no grand and sprawling machinations for the events held at the house to take on a broader significance, much less to draw people in from well outside the housemates’ respective circles of friends. As Phillip says, “It’d started out so, so simple.”
A few years ago, back in August 2010, he and a few friends were finishing up grad school in Conway and decided to rent a house in Little Rock, ultimately finding and settling on the house on Garland Street. Over the next few years, they hosted their fair share of parties—house parties, birthday parties, dinner parties, and so forth. And then, in May 2013, he and a friend, artist Katherine Rutter, were planning a friend’s birthday party at the Garland House when they were struck by an idea: We’ve both got a bunch of artwork that we’ve been doing—why don’t we hang some of it up?
“After a bunch of people showed up just to see that, [it was like], Oh, I haven’t seen you in a while, how have you been doing, oh, this is nice,” Phillip says. “Then I said, Oh, let’s do this next time with some other people, and let’s get a band to play on the porch.”
From there, it grew.
When it came time to plan the next ones, it usually went something like this: He’d sit down and decide on a given medium—say, printmaking or painting or photography—think about artists he knew or knew of, decide who they would show well with and then ask if they’d be interested. A few days before the show, he’d hang their work in the large blank-walled room upstairs that served as a de facto gallery. Then he’d print off labels and artist statements. Set up a system to sell the work. Anything to make things less of a headache for the showing artists than they might have experienced at the more conventional galleries.
From there, as word spread about the shows, they started to get bigger and more elements got tossed into the mix. Authors gave readings on the porch. At the eighth show, a year ago this June, there’d even been people from the likes of KABF and the Arkansas Arts Center who gave speeches for upwards of half an hour, while some 200 people just stood listening in the yard. That one had actually been so big that Phillip had decided to hold off for a while. He didn’t want to do another until he could top that last one. And then he had the idea of doing a show based on Twin Peaks with all of the previous artists involved, and he thought, That could be it.
As the night wears on, as artists drift on and off the porch, talking excitedly about the first Garland House Show in more than a year, there’s no shortage of stories volleyed across the table about the role the house has played in many of their careers. Like when graphic artist Michael Church talks about Garland being the first place he ever exhibited. Or when painter Michael Shaeffer recalls standing beneath the magnolia tree, looking over all the people watching the band and thinking to himself, Yep, this is it. I’m home. Or when illustrator Jade Chauvin talks about how something like this Twin Peaks show has pushed her in different directions artistically while providing the impetus to create. (“You feel the need to have to do something, like you want to so desperately—but you also don’t know what you’re going to do,” she says. “But by him saying, OK, it’s Twin Peaks-themed, come up with something. … It takes a little bit of the burden of not having to come up with [a] totally new, totally different concept yourself.”)
And really, that could be it. That could be the extent of the story.
How a group of artists had found themselves under one roof—had made professional connections and friendships, had gotten their work in front of folks who wouldn’t have seen it and been given opportunities they might not have had otherwise. You could gloss over, say, the tattoo Phillip has of the Garland House logo. You could gloss over the fact that the house has a logo. Or how the art shows that Phillip and the housemates put on at Garland are a reflection and amplification of the spirit endemic to the house on most any night. And that would all be well and good.
But for the guys who live at the house—particularly Phillip and Mark Thiedeman—it really goes further.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, Phillip is sitting in an auditorium 180 miles away in Eureka Springs, waiting for time to pass. He’d driven up from Little Rock with Mark earlier this morning to get things ready for a screening of Mark’s film Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls. And sitting there, waiting and watching as people gradually filter through and take their seats nearly an hour before the film’s set to start, he looks as though he might wilt. In part because, as a teacher at eStem, he’s used to getting his weekends off and sleeping in a little on Saturdays. But also: It’s blistering on this August afternoon, and he’d opted to wear black pants and black shoes.
But yet, despite the fatigue and the awful Arkansas summer, as he’s sitting there and our conversation lights upon Twin Peaks, there’s something that changes. It’s like the mention of Lynch is a shock of endorphins introduced intravenously, and the man is suddenly very awake. Over the course of just a few minutes, he manages to reference the following in quick succession, all seamlessly—the way only a person with intimate knowledge of a subject is capable of doing: David Foster Wallace’s essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head”; a comprehensive telling of the issues the writers tasked with penning the second season of Twin Peaks faced when confronted with Lynch’s absence; and the David Lynch Signature Cup Coffee line. Oh, and also, Lynch was the subject of his master’s thesis.
If it were anyone else, this all might come as something of a surprise. However, given Phillip’s upbringing and what the show has meant to him, that animation and demeanor isn’t remotely surprising. Back when Phillip was 12, Bravo aired the entire season one summer. His dad, an English teacher, asked him to record it—but to wait until he got home so they could watch it together. Naturally, he watched it alone, got scared half to death and had to feign ignorance watching it with his dad later that evening. Thing is, having the experience of watching it twice—once with his own interpretation and then again with his English-teacher dad—he learned what it meant to interpret art. And it was in large part why he ultimately decided to pursue a graduate degree in literary theory at the University of Central Arkansas.
Oddly enough, it was during his time as a grad student at UCA that he decided he really didn’t want to focus on just one thing. He didn’t want the life of an academic where he’d risk being boxed into one focus or field of study. He decided that people like his dad, who’d worked a day job and done art as much as he could on the side, had it right.
(A few weeks later, he’ll explore this further, saying he was on track to be a literature professor by 26, and “that was going to be me. That’s what I was going to do. But something happened in late undergrad and after I’d already started paying tuition for grad, where I said, I don’t want that either. I kind of do want my dad’s life, where I work a job and I get to do things that I like at that job, but I get to come home and … if i want to do art, I can do art when I come home. If I want to do music, I can do music when I come home. If I want to put on an arts show, I can put on an arts show.”)
It’s for this reason that, after he’d finished grad school, he’d rented the house at Garland and immediately got a job washing dishes over at Vino’s Brewpub. He’d finish his shift, and then he’d do art. He’d do music. He’d do things that made him happy and creatively fulfilled. And it just so happened that, over time, he started to find his roommates (both then and later) were willing to join in and collaborate.
And it was around that time that he made Mark’s acquaintance. When they met, Mark had recently moved back to Arkansas after 11 years in New York and was doing work on his film Last Summer, one that’d eventually earn him the award for Best Director at the 2013 Little Rock Film Festival. A mutual friend who was working as a producer on the film had recommended Phillip for one of the minor parts. Although his scenes were eventually cut from the final version, Mark and Phillip struck up a friendship over a shared artistic aesthetic. And when a space in the house opened and Mark needed a place, Phillip extended the offer, and Mark accepted. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the path Mark had taken to the house couldn’t have been more different from Phillip’s.
It’s something that’s set in especially stark relief about an hour later as Mark’s film is screened in the auditorium. It’s a short film about a gay boy named Max facing the day-to-day challenges of a student at a Catholic high school for boys but who’s befriended by a fellow student named Andy—and even more so after the lights go up and Mark does a Q&A with Arkansas Film Commissioner Christopher Crane. Particularly when Crane asks Mark about the extent to which the film was autobiographical. Did he ever have a friend like Andy when he was growing up? The truth is, Mark says, he never had anyone like Andy.
“When I was young, I wore makeup; I was a total outsider; I wanted to make myself look like an outsider,” he says. And when he left Little Rock to attend NYU in 1999, it was with every intention of never coming back. But then, in the early days of 2010, after being away for so long, he did—at least in part because he wanted to make films about the South, which he couldn’t rightly make in the North. (There’d been a moment, he’ll say later, when he’d gone to a friend’s wedding in rural North Carolina and found lightning-blackened trees, broken train tracks and old churches, and it’d occurred to him that he’d never find those things in a place like New York.)
But even then, he’d never expected to stay in Arkansas. He was leaving a place where he felt at home—a place where he had friends who wanted nothing else but to watch Jean-Luc Godard movies on 33mm film and talk about them over glasses of beer—and going to a place where he had no friends, much less people who shared similar interests. And then he learned, upon returning home to Little Rock, that there were people who wanted to help him, who wanted to see his films—particularly after he’d earned his first nomination for Best Director at the Little Rock Film Festival in 2011—people whose existence he’d been totally unaware of before he left for New York.
And then throwing an arm up, he gestures back toward Phillip: “My best friend Phillip is here with me,” he says. “Like, drove with me for three and a half hours and is driving me back in a minute for three and a half hours just to, like, support me today. There are amazing people … who just care, despite your sexuality, despite where you come from, who want to be your friend because you are who you are and not because of what your sexuality is or anything else.
“I didn’t know that until I went to college. But this movie is maybe a retroactive ‘thank you’ to all of the heterosexual men that I met from age 18 on, who took this lonely redheaded, extremely depressed guy who just wants to make friends and put their arm around him. … I never had that in high school, but I’ve had that so many times since. … Even to this day, I can’t tell you how much it means to me to feel like one of the guys.”
AT THE HOUSE two weeks later on the night of the party, the table is gone from the porch. So are the chairs. The inside of the front door has been draped in red fabric. There’s ambient music playing over the sound system inside. When the door opens, it speaks in “wa-wa” Doppler waves. It’s like opening the lid of a music box. Just inside the front door, there’s the foyer, which in the glow of red light cast from two colored bulbs, one of many nods to Lynch’s Twin Peaks, is filled with that darkly textured music coming from a speaker hidden beneath a table. And to stand there, taking in the scene, you can feel the music vibrate in your knees, and you can feel it in your sinuses and the space where your teeth meet your gums.
It is, in effect, a far more immersive sensory experience than anything they’ve ever done at Garland. There’s a costume contest scheduled for later in the evening, and in the yard, there are people dressed in suits, walking around with coffee mugs in their hands, as if blissfully unaware of the 90-degree heat, people eating homemade cherry pie, people watching the light-bleached images from the show’s pilot projected on a rumpled piece of red fabric hung in the lower window just off the porch. And when you walk upstairs to the gallery, if the music is still holding steady, you can feel it like static in the balls of your feet as you look at the art—at the paintings, graphite microdrawings, collages, screen-printed T-shirts, mixed-media pieces and other works done by the 17 local artists. You hear the music. And when you walk into Mark’s room and close the door, the music is muffled and drops away.
Inside, the only source of light comes off the five candles set in two staggered rows on an end table at the foot of his bed. It’s dark but not too dark. Gradually, your eyes get accustomed to the space and start to look over the frames covering the walls—and particularly above his bed, which he says has been popularly dubbed “the Mark Museum” because those are the things that matter to him most.
In one frame, there’s the scaled-down movie poster from Red, which, when he watched it at 13, was the first foreign-language film he’d ever seen. To its left, there’s the cover from his favorite book, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Above that, a ticket stub from when he first saw the iconic French film The 400 Blows. There’s a large print of Degas’ The Absinthe Drinker. The last page of the first short story he ever published. Elsewhere, there are photos of Paris, photos of friends.
What’s more, in making a survey of the room, there are objects that suggest the near-obsessive approach that Mark takes in working on his films—a candle that has been burned down to a nub, cascading wax from the end table to the ground, an empty tumbler glass on the desk—an approach so fanatically demanding of perfection that he’ll watch the same footage a hundred times over, waiting for cracks to appear in the hull, waiting for the flaws to reveal themselves in that exhaustive playback as being unworthy of inclusion. And there’s also, of course, Mark himself, sitting in the gloaming of his room, concerned with the minutiae of his film, unconcerned with the party for the time being, as sharp bits of laughter wrapped up in the stifled drone of the music spike momentarily beneath his door and everything out there goes on uninterrupted.
But no matter how revealing the space seems to be on the surface, there’s also the notion that there’s a great deal around the room that isn’t so easily observed. There’s no evidence, for example, of the time he’d called Phillip into his room to get his opinion on the opening for Last Summer. Or how that film only really came together the way it did because of the input that he was able to get while living in this house, working in this room. There’s no evidence of those myriad instances when one housemate had needed advice and got it from another. More than anything, all of that’s evidenced by the house itself—how it seems to draw these similarly minded individuals together—and the work they’re able do there. But as Mark settles down in a chair near his computer, there’s the reminder that all of those late-night conversations, encouragements and commiserations, all of those collaborations that have taken shape there, are all best evidenced by the work itself.
He calls up and plays a clip of the film White Nights, which he’s currently at work on. After the appearance of a despondent young man on-screen, the films breaks into what at first seems to be something of an interlude: For three minutes, what passes across the screen are neon orbs, axons and dendrites vibrating in neuronal shapes and vibrant colors—three minutes of color refracted through the water of a windshield, whose wipers have been cut off. And for those three minutes, there’s this delicate vocal line lilting in the background, saying, I don’t need you at all / I don’t need you at all.
“That’s Phillip,” Mark says.
As he plays the film, right knee crooked high over his left leg with a glass of white wine clinking with ice cubes, an eye patch high up on his forehead, a flannel shirt with a plunging neckline, the red wig of his character—it is a costume party, after all—discarded because it feels like summer, he talks about how this scene had come to be. How one night in March of this year, Mark had gone out and come back two hours later, only to find that Phillip, who’d been tasked with doing the music for the film, had recorded, edited and mixed the song. Feeling inspired—and not to be outdone—Mark had then taken a camera and driven up and down Cantrell Road in the rain in order to get that footage. And when he brought the two things together … it just clicked.
DOWNSTAIRS IN THE “MUSIC ROOM,” a few hours later, everything is red, and it’s standing room only. There’s a red curtain at the door, and if you’re standing there in the back just in front of it, you can feel people parting the fabric graze your back and shoulders with their fingers as they enter the room and try to find space among so many bodies. But of course, when the music starts, all of those other sensory distractions fall by the wayside.
Over the heads and shoulders of other attendees, you can see a young woman in a red dress singing into the microphone and a six-man band fanning out on either side. There is very little talking. And it’s very difficult to think thoughts as she’s singing and the band plays because you very much want to arrange as uncluttered a place in your mind as you can for this music to settle and, hopefully, endure in memory long after the night. But even still, through those gaps left between those heads and shoulders, you can’t help but notice there are a great many familiar faces in the band.
All of them, actually.
On the left-hand side, sitting in front of another doorway screened off with a piece of red fabric, there’s Vince Griffin on percussion, the guy who did all of the ambient music for the house and a few of the prints upstairs. Playing keyboard is Brooks, who did the T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of Lynch. On bass, there’s James Szenher, one of the housemates. On guitar, there’s Thom Asewicz, (with whom Phillip has been playing music with since 2005). Singing is Hannah Moulder, who is dating the filmmaker and housemate Keith Hudson. And there’s Phillip on clarinet. Because evidently, he does that, too. And it’s in seeing all of their faces in such an odd tableau that everything becomes infinitely more familiar.
That sense of familiarity is heightened a few moments after the three-song set has come to an end, when Phillip opens the door to his bedroom, the room adjacent to the music room. While he’s ducking inside, for the handful of moments that he leaves the door open, everything is quite literally cast in a different light. Inside, all along the back wall, there are books, and there are keyboards and a drum set, an entire band’s worth of musical instruments, and there’s a vintage organ made of blond wood, and there are sketches, and there are drawings. And then, of course, there’s a bed, barely visible, so covered as it is by all of the stuff. It’s a brief reminder that the house isn’t just an art form or representation but a composite of all those things found within it.
Walking outside, the fact that the house is very much a home is reinforced by the mailbox—open and bursting with curling coupons, letters—partially touched with a milky-blue glow, another reference to Twin Peaks, which streams from the blue bulb of the porch light beside the door.
But even in looking out over the people gathered in the yard, there’s a sense of the familiar there, too. Not so much in the sense that many of the costumes people are wearing are familiar from the show—a forced-together composite of Lynchian characters all removed from the serialized, plotted-out context of the series and plunked down in the front yard beneath the magnolia tree—but familiar in a different way. Familiar in the sense that many of the faces there, dressed with spritzed gray hair and jean jackets, red dresses with blue flowers and flannel, black suits and white shirts, are all familiar faces at the house.
After he’s finished digging through his room, Phillip comes outside, the Twin Peaks theme song now playing over the speakers amplified slightly as he opens the door. And stepping to the front of the porch, just before the concrete steps, he stops and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, removes one and lights it. Standing there, he looks up and out over the crowd milling around his yard. There are people who’ve worn costumes, people who’ve worn flannel, people who’ve worn plastic wrap and sparkly gray makeup, and people who’ve worn no costumes at all. People he knows and, looking out across the crowd, maybe a third he doesn’t. People who’ve come to this thing at his house, which has become so much larger and taken on a life of its own in the years since it started. And then he keeps standing there. A spotlight shining on a painted wooden sign that reads “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sweeps up from beneath and washes over him indirectly, making him backlit in profile as he looks out over the party for what must be no more than 20 seconds, though it feels infinitely longer.
And then he steps down the stairs of the porch, shaking a friend’s extended hand, and rejoins the party.
A FEW DAYS LATER, there are again five mismatched chairs and a wobbly legged table on the porch of the Garland House. Much of the red fabric has been folded and stored away in bins for some as-yet-to-be-determined future use. There are lights from passing cars on Cantrell that cast shadows in triplicate across the off-white siding on the far side of the porch. It’s an evening when there are no people walking oil paintings across the yard, when there are no acoustic guitars or folk singers, when there are no people dressed to the nines mounting the stairs with a mannequin under one arm and a bird cage under the other.
On this evening, it’s just Phillip.
It’s an evening when he’s having to work through the schedule for the coming month, having to figure out how he’s going to manage a number of events and obligations that, as he reads them off, sounds like they’d be better spread over three months rather than just October. He’s got to prepare for another Garland show. Participate as a contestant in the Designed by Few competition (part of the Made by Few conference—also, spoiler: He wins). Play the music for said conference. Prepare for a friend’s wedding. Play the music for said wedding. Play a Halloween show at White Water … Oh, and his girlfriend’s birthday.
Truth be told, it’s a reminder that, for as much as the house and everything it represents derives from impulse and whimsy, for all the freedom it offers to create and collaborate, it’s a place that’s still subject to the same challenges as any other house. Because, as Phillip had said before, it’s really just a house. But even as he takes stock of all of this, it’s a little difficult not to think back to conversations that have taken place on the porch. Conversations that have explored the nature of art and what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a community.
There seems little doubt that there will always be questions. But it also seems fair to say that so long as there are places like this, it can work. So long as there are places where there are candles burning somewhere, places where there are minds wandering, places where the vague declivities of creativity and the human spirit are matched with people who find one another in the moments they need those places most.
After briefly stepping inside, he comes back out to the porch and turns on the light and finds that it’s still blue.