Conversations about Creativity


Spirit of the Senses Cultural Impresarios

Thomas Houlon and Patty Barnes


October 10, 2017

In 1983, Thomas Houlon, a native of Phoenix Arizona, founded the Spirit of the Senses: an organization exploring a vast range of ever-evolving ideas through informal gatherings – salons.  Almost 35 years later, Spirit of the Senses has been recognized as a Phoenix treasure and is now widely known throughout the USA as a mobile meeting arena for cultural exchange: a Social Experience of Arts, Science and Culture for Curious Minds.  When New York artist and art gallery manager Patty Barnes married Thomas, she became co-director-innovator of the organization and added her own thirst for knowledge and innate perceptive abilities, into the vitality of a one-of-a-kind institution.  Thirty-five years later, the Spirit of the Senses continues to provide broad, diverse and stimulating cultural experience for its members.


Ellen: Thomas, roughly thirty-five years ago you created the Spirit of the Senses salons. Did its genesis occur in a sudden flash of recognition that it was exactly what you, Thomas, needed and precisely what Phoenix lacked and needed? Or, was the idea something that had been germinating in your mind for some time?

Thomas: Spirit of the Senses is the germination of an idea inspired from a variety of life experiences I had both living in Phoenix and my travels around the country. I wanted to develop a forum for the inquiry into ideas. I wanted to introduce the many creative individuals that I knew to each other. I wanted to celebrate the places that made Phoenix a special home. I was confident from the beginning that there was a thirst for such a forum and that Spirit of the Senses had the potential to flourish.

Ellen: The name, Spirit of the Senses, encapsulates for me just what the organization would eventually become: a free-flowing, intellectually and aesthetically nourishing environment. How did you decide on the name?

Thomas: The name Spirit of the Senses is intended to portray an appreciation for the specialness to be found within everyday life experiences and the world around us.

Ellen: You were creating your own Field of Dreams – “If you build it, they will come!” And so you built it and so they came – me included – and I, like so many others, keep coming. Yet it couldn’t have been an overnight success?

Thomas: After almost 35 years, Spirit of the Senses is still a work in progress. There is a continual evolution of it’s potential. Spirit of the Senses began with my initial concept and then with the contributions of many, the concept has developed. When I started Spirit of the Senses, I thought there would be a large attendance at our first event titled ‘Dance’. Six people came including the presenter and me. Because I was willing to keep going, I was able to have patience for Spirit of the Senses to grow toward the concept that was my goal. From the beginning, there have been many wonderful and creative people who have participated with Spirit of the Senses. They have contributed much to the development of it. When I met Patty, Spirit of the Senses was able to blossom in the way I had always hoped for. Patty is someone who shared my vision for Spirit of the Senses and offered inspiration with complementary ideas, a richness of art and cultural experience and definitely, better taste. She contributed to make Spirit of the Senses more whole.

Ellen: Enter Patty Barnes, a New York artist and gallery manager whom you married. Patty, what was your initial reaction to Thomas’s brainchild or should I first ask you, to Thomas himself?

Patty: A mutual friend introduced Thomas to me one day over lunch. After a nice lunch where Thomas told me a bit about Spirit of the Senses, he followed up with a note sending me the current Spirit of the Senses Calendar and membership information. We met for coffee and I told him I would think about membership. We were married four weeks later and I now have a lifetime membership in Spirit of the Senses.

Thomas: Patty held out.

Ellen: That’s willpower, Patty! After living all those years in New York, you settled in the semi-desert city of Phoenix. Did you find it to be somewhat of a cultural desert as well and therefore you decided to contribute to its cultural evolution?

Patty: I loved the salons from the very first ones I attended. When I moved to Phoenix from New York City, I didn’t know if Phoenix would ever offer the kind of stimulating arts and cultural experiences I was used to in NYC. The salons offer a unique type of stimulating experience … in a very social context. It wasn’t long before I found I was becoming more involved in the creative process of Spirit of the Senses. Its all there, you just have to find it. Spirit of the Senses is an excellent way to find it!

Thomas: Patty inspired me to see a greater potential to Spirit of the Senses.

Ellen: Culture, I feel, largely resides within you. Do you think snobbery can sometimes be a shield against one’s individual inadequacies? Instead of blaming the lack of culture, add something worthwhile to it – that’s what you and Thomas do.

 Patty: In the case of Thomas and me, each of our cultures formed a complementary contribution to the salons. It became a kind of quilt of ideas.

Thomas: I think it is always much more meaningful and fun to develop or create something … to add something worthwhile to our community.

Ellen: Patty, you were fully immersed in the word of art in New York. Among the many things you did were painting and innovating installations. Would you tell us more about your work and also, did you continue painting when you settled in Phoenix? What about your art today? Has much of what you do changed?

Patty: I’ve always had day jobs to support my art. I loved the art world in New York City and found myself gravitating to the kinds of jobs that would inspire my creativity. I actually did more painting though in Arizona once I moved here than I did in New York. The lighting and the space were more conducive to painting large canvases. My paintings started to be informed by my research for Spirit of the Senses. I used my art to investigate the concept of self and to learn more about myself.

Thomas: I love Patty’s art.

Ellen: Your art is fabulous, Patty! One of your paintings to which I’m particularly drawn, is South Window 8.204 – and I’m intrigued by the accompanying wording:

This body of work is an exploration of the compositional 
possibilities that develop when ordinary views from the windows in my 
home are distorted, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The movement of the camera through glass and the scale of the works are 
the vehicles for the creation of a dream space where nature, 
psychological and physical space and time are explored. While often 
playful and entertaining, the work is simultaneously very personal and 

South Window by Patty Barnes

Title:  South Window 8.204 (54″ x 54”) – Paintings by Patty Barnes

Ellen: The Spirit of the Senses continues to this day to be a fulltime job – a labor of love, really, for you both. Thirty-five years later, it is firmly rooted in the Phoenix cultural scene, a production of a unique, ever-evolving collaboration between you both and the speakers and members who value this organization and all that it offers. Each salon, hosted in different informal settings, opens the curtains widely to past and new energetic ideas.

Thomas: The best is always yet to come. The salons inspire new ideas and new salons. Spirit of the Senses is a collaboration of many people’s passions, curiosity, and quest for knowledge.

Patty: It is truly a labor of love. But more than that, it’s an exploration. Two important questions that drive my exploration are “Who am I?” and “Where do I find myself?” Spirit of the Senses made me start to think more about those questions and I began to use Spirit of the Senses to help me in my quest.  It became a rabbit hole and has led me to meet the most fascinating people along the way. The salons are really this quest for me and I think for Thomas too.

In the early 2000’s I began to do much more research than I had ever previously taken on, reading at least a book a week. That continues to this day. I’m never at a loss for a good book and a good topic for salons!

Ellen: Private homes are generally your settings – intimate backdrops for your theaters of the mind!

Thomas: Hosting salons at homes, makes Spirit of the Senses special. The entire city becomes a stage. The city also becomes your neighborhood.

Patty: The settings are very important. Homes and unique settings create a comfortable environment for people to interact with the presenters and with the other members … a safe space for intimate conversation and performance.

Ellen: You have described the Spirit of the Senses as “a forum for creative dialogue”. There is never anything stultifying about the talks as well as the conversations that then ensue. I have been a member of the Spirit of the Senses for at least eight years and truly wonder if there is another organization in Arizona – or in the USA for that matter, that provides such a wide-range of intellectual experiences for its members – and, so consistently. A choice of about twelve diverse salons per month from which to choose is astounding!

Thomas: As far as we are aware, there is not another organization like Spirit of the Senses in Arizona or elsewhere. Spirit of the Senses has had national exposure as a unique organization in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on ABC’s Good Morning America. When we have met people in New York City, Boston, and California on salon tours, we always find the same reaction: The Spirit of the Senses is unique.

Patty: We were once interviewed on Good Morning America. They had seen an article written in the Washington Post about Spirit of the Senses and contacted us to do a short story on us. They came to Phoenix and interviewed Thomas and me and then came to a salon. The spot aired across the country and we subsequently received lots of calls from people saying that they wanted something like we have for their town. We haven’t heard of anything quite like Spirit of the Senses anywhere. Even in New York City with all the city has to offer, people there always say they would love something like Spirit of the Senses. Last year, we were voted “Best Place to Feed Your Mind” by Phoenix Magazine!

Ellen: I am constantly impressed by the level of knowledgeable speakers – artists, writers, scientists, politicians, city-planners, bio scientists – from ants to bats, to birds – the list goes on, And importantly, they are all passionate about what they do and fully involved in their work. Let’s first talk about the sciences, starting with some of the Nobel Prize Winners who have given talks at your salons.

Thomas and Patty: We have enjoyed Nobel Laureates Frank Wilczek, Eric Kandel, and Daniel Kahneman as speakers at our salons. Frank Wilczek, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, has participated since 2010 each year with a salon topic that he wanted to explore. We also visited Frank at his MIT offices with our 2013 Boston Salons tour.   What a wonderful pleasure and awakening experience it has been to get a glimpse of Frank’s interests and ideas through his conversations at the salons and his essays!

Ellen: And then you have the Spirit of the Senses Salon Tours.

Thomas: This past Spring 2017 on our New York City Salons tour, we met Eric Kandel and Daniel Kahneman.   Both were extremely engaging. Eric Kandel was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on memory. Patty had read Eric Kandel’s books and we had watched many times his ‘brain science series’ on television’s Charlie Rose Show. When we met Eric Kandel, he was much more multidimensional to us, besides being a very warm and charismatic person.

Thomas & Patty with Eric Kandel

Thomas: Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his research on decision-making. He was very engaged and personal with our group and spoke to us about his current perspectives on the process of decision-making as well as his previous well-known research.

Ellen: The people who speak at the spirit of the Senses, offer so much new thought for your members.

Thomas: There have been many people who have given us inspiration. One of these people is Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who has authored many popular books, is a tireless lecturer around the world, and director of the Origins Project at ASU. In Phoenix, we first saw Lawrence Krause on stage at Paul Davies Beyond Lecture in 2008. Soon after, Lawrence was presenting salons. Lawrence has also offered special access for Spirit of the Senses at his Origins Projects events that feature many famed scientists and public personas. Patty and I have had the special pleasure to get to know Lawrence and we have shared many breakfasts and stimulating conversations.

Ellen: So this all has been an ongoing inspirational experience for you both, right from the inception of the Spirit of the Senses.

Thomas: In the beginning of Spirit of the Senses, I had practice in the art of developing musical experiences with musician, luthier William Eaton. William designed his own exotic wooden stringed instruments at his Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. He would take these instruments and create performances in tunnels and other architectural and natural environments that became sound chambers. We created a Spirit of the Senses salon series called Mystery Sound Environments. Something I learned from these experiences is the interplay of anticipation and expectation, and that is something I then applied to all the salons.

We met artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their SoHo studio in Spring 2003. I had called Jeanne-Claude some months before our Salon tour visit on the telephone. As a way of introduction, I told her we were interested in discussing the then upcoming 2005 Christo Gates Project. Jeanne-Claude informed me there was no Christo Gates Project. I instantly recognized that it was the Christo and Jeanne Claude Gates Project!   Several years later in the winter of 2005, Patty and I decided to offer a Salon tour to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates Project in Central Park. The Gates was an installation of over 7,000 vinyl gates with deep saffron-colored nylon fabric. To our surprise, about 25 people from Phoenix joined us in the depth of winter for this NYC Salons tour! It snowed twice while we were at The Gates creating a wonderland with paths of Orange!   One of the Spirit of the Senses members on our tour had been a professional basketball player and said the experience of walking under the fabric of The Gates, reminded him of being a player entering the arena with lots of fanfare.

Patty Barnes at the Christo and Jeanne Claude Gates Project in NYC

Ellen: This organization has tremendous credibility and hence the quality of the speakers. How did this all occur?

Thomas: There has been a shared purpose of the value of investigation and the desire for inspiration. The website is designed by Patty.

Patty: Credibility takes time. We have been doing this for almost 35 years now and there’s a sense of trust that builds. People can look at our website and can see the range and quality of the presenters.

Ellen: Your research must be full-time. Could you describe your typical workday? Do you generally agree on whom to choose as a speaker? Who has the final say? Do you spin a coin?

Patty: I read a lot! I follow many different ideas and get inspiration from many places. The Internet is amazing. On line classes, inspiring videos, movies, books, interviews, images … its a feast if you know where to look!  We find many of our ideas from our research using the Internet.

Thomas: Patty has great ideas. I accept all of them.

Ellen: And no doubt, she “accepts” all of yours, too, Thomas. I am amazed at the diversity of topics and of the speakers you choose to invite. And the speakers keep returning. That says a lot for the Spirit of the Senses and for the feedback they get from the interested members. I should imagine that the speakers keep coming back also because the Spirit of the Senses salons can often be testing grounds to their own evolving ideas. You, Thomas and Patty, have created an environment where knowledge can be generously shared – a forum where thinkers cerebrate together!

Patty: Our presenters love the salons. They always say that our members have wonderful questions! I think the presenters really like interacting with people who are genuinely interested in what they have to say or in their performance.

Thomas: The best presenters are the ones that value the concept of Spirit of the Senses.

Ellen: One of the things I find so interesting about your members is not only how informed they are but also their level of curiosity – qualities I guess, that go hand in hand. Your members know lots about lots! Eric Kandel was spot on when he commented about the Spirit of the Senses and the members who visited him: “This is a wonderful group. You are privileged to be part of it.” He is right, Patty and Thomas: I am! Would you tell us more about where and when the group met with him and also, more about your Salon Tours.

 Thomas: We immediately asked Eric Kandel if we could use his quote! The salon tours are a condensed version of the salons. In New York City, we plan two to three salons each day with some of the most interesting people we can find. We want to be inspired by them and have the chance to ask questions about their research. We meet them in environments that are personal to them. We met Eric Kandel at his office at Columbia University.

Patty: Spirit of the Senses naturally attracts people who have a curiosity about a lot of things. They also enjoy being around others who have similar curiosity levels.

Ellen: Then there is Second Life Salons.

Patty: For the past 20 years, we have been taking a small group of our members to New York City to meet people we couldn’t meet in Phoenix. About 8 or 9 years ago, we took our group to NYC and Princeton, NJ. We set up a salon with Astrophysicist Piet Hut at The Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. We asked him to talk about reality and he spoke about investigating reality using virtual reality. We were very intrigued by what he was doing in Second Life. He suggested that if we wanted to try doing salons in the virtual world, he would host us at his virtual organization. Thomas and I each got avatars and took him up on it. Before long, our curiosity lead us to meeting some of the interesting people working in the virtual world. We did a year of salons in Second Life, meeting all kinds of wonderful people doing very creative things with this medium.

I became very interested in using the medium for art and video. They call videos made with computers inside virtual worlds machinimas and I was soon creating my own machinimas and entering them in some of the international machinima contests …

Thomas: The first experiences in Second Life for me were both the most difficult and most exciting. Everything was somewhat of a mystery. The learning curve of moving an avatar through a 3D world on a computer, the unknown real identities of other avatars, and the creative potential to stretch limitations.

About fifteen of our members joined us for the year of salons in Second Life. We met many of the prominent Second Life artists to tour their art installations. AM Radio had created a lonely cornfield with A farmhouse that was haunting to visit. Thoth Jantzen created a blend of Ancient Egyptian themes and popular culture music video textured spaces, and we visited Eureka Dejavu at her Second Life installation intended to give understanding to Islamic worlds.

Several years ago, in preparing a New York City Salons tour, we were recommended to contact Science House to host a conversation with a neuroscientist. To our great surprise, we discovered that the director Rita King of Science House was Eureka Dejavu!

Ellen Interviews Patty in Second Life

Title: Ellen interviewed me about my “second life.”

Ellen, when you interviewed me about “second life”, I created an avatar for your alter ego: Spunktaneous of your World of Glimpse whom I took into my virtual world, to an imaginary space textured with images of your beautiful paintings.

Ellen: I must say, my alter ego felt very relaxed in your virtual world. Thank you for your comfortable seating and the beautiful environment created. Thank you also for inviting Spunktaneous – me – in.  Patty, both your and Thomas’s creative thinking is boundless. There is also the Spirit of the Senses Journal. I very much enjoy being exposed to the ideas and philosophies of the contributors.

Thomas: Spirit of the Senses Journal is a collection of voices from around the world.   The Journal started over thirty years ago as a printed book to compliment the salons.   Today, the Journal has a digital form on the Spirit of the Senses website. Some of the contributors include:

Richard Nilsen who inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons or themes that he wanted to express.

Frank Wilczek, who we previously have discussed as a Nobel Laureate who has presented salons in Phoenix and Boston, has contributed short essays. One essay is of his experience with Patty and me at the Desert Botanical Gardens visiting an art installation.

Pearce Paul Creaseman, who leads the prestigious University of Arizona expedition in The Valley of the Kings, wrote an essay to complement his many salon conversations.

Corinne Geersten, a digital artist who assembles pictures by remixing photos, tintypes, and art, wrote about narrative art.

Traude Wild, of Vienna, who resides part time in Phoenix and has presented salons on her walking pilgrimages, wrote about her walking adventures.

Ellen: Well, thank you Patty and Thomas for your contribution to the cultural and intellectual growth that I, personally – and the members, experience through the Spirit of the Senses. This is a one-of-a-kind organization – and you are both a two-of-a-kind!

 Patty: Thank you Ellen, for a wonderful conversation … it was great fun!

Thomas: Your questions were great!   Thank you for such a nice opportunity!

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