This is the story of The Trees Community, a semi monastic Christian group that left NYC on a bus in 1971 on a journey of faith. When most of our money burned up the first night, we relied on God for all our needs and he provided! We traveled the United States growing in our new faith, finding a ministry in music and eventually becoming artists in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Seven years, seven "stories" are woven into this amazing journey.

The Young Painter

David Karasek

In early September, another lost sheep found his way to the Loft, David Karasek. At first glance, David struck me as shy, gangly and a bit clumsy. I soon discovered he was a gifted artist who could paint a kitchen wall or cover the side of a bus with intricate, beautiful paintings. David writes about his entrance into the Loft family:

"I was seventeen and lived very independently. I had one survival tool: a wooden stick with hair on the end of it, covered in paint. Someone would pass me a marijuana cigarette, and I would usually refuse, holding out the paintbrush, or rather on to it for dear life. I knew I was an artist since I was 11, when I painted my first painting, a seascape that I hated because it was so full of my anger and turbulence. But everyone around me loved it.

Art also drew me into a separate world, with a different set of people and experiences that I would not have known otherwise. It led me to the Music and Art High School, one of New York City’s specialized high schools now called LaGuardia High School. It also led me to many creative friends and acquaintances that, while having their own problems and struggles, all had a sense of inspiration and with that, direction in their lives.

One of these friends from school was "Charlie". He had not been a friend, but just another kid in my homeroom. It was 1970 and that summer we worked together as camp counselors at the 14th street Y, taking the kids to Staten Island by ferry each day. The bond from school and our work together gave us the time to know each other. Charlie insisted that I meet ‘these people’, but did not say where we were going, or provide any sense of what I might experience.  We turned the corner from 14th street at Union Square and 4th Avenue, and walked down two blocks, past the ‘Green Painted Bookstore’, where he confidently opened the unlocked door to what seemed like an abandoned building. With familiar casualness, Charlie led me into a pitch black foyer . “Come on,” he said, in a throated, jovial laugh. And then we began the darkened climb up broken stairs that would change my life. Around and around we went until there were no more steps left. At long last we reached the gateway to our destination, the curtain leading to the loft with it's batik-patterned surface of swirling reds, whose thinness was translucent to streams of natural light behind it, as if it were stained glass. Reverently, he peeled the fabric back from the door frame, revealing another half flight of steps, painted gleaming white, and reflecting blinding sunlight in contrast to the black treads we left behind. With each step a most unusual attic room showed more of itself. The irregular space's white wood polished floor, immaculately scrubbed, seemed to flow around many, intimate corners, while reflecting so much light that it gave me the sensation of being afloat.

The room had 3 alcoves, and a broad central area. The walls were a mosaic of open brick, earth toned relief surfaces covered in paintings, so that the walls were not boundaries but additional dimensions and pathways. The ceiling was deceptive in height. It was low and pitched near the window to our right, but high and flat where we stood at the stairwell. Translucent at the skylight, the sun penetrated the roof at its center. Where the lowness might have been too imposing, it too was dissolved, by the red geometries of rugs pinned up to form an artificial sky.

Then there were the tents. In sanguine colors of ochre and sap green that faded into the warm tones of the open brick, they were pitched into the glossy floor with bolts, like ships anchored in a harbor. These inner-shelters were positioned in the alcove to the left of the steps, in the corners of the attic. One alcove was opposite the steps, against the far wall from where we stood. It was raised up by one step, behind another white railing and was tent-free. Instead it supported the statue of a Buddha, a sculpture of a lion head, and the sole chair in the whole room. This was a very elegant, Balinese, fanned seat of rattan. In addition to the artifacts on the floor of the alcove, there was an orderly stack of books and writing pads. The book titles included The I Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Bhagavad-Gita, Siddhartha, and Kundalini Yoga. The texts belonged. It felt as if we had left New York and had materialized in the places where they had been written.

One of these men now sat alone, in the lone rattan chair. He sat as if he had always been there. At first I didn’t even see him. He was silent and unmoving, blending into the mysterious space with its many artifacts and images. But his stillness was kinetic. It seemed to me that his muscles were flowing, moving through smooth limbs connected like pipes to a very thin torso. His lengthy back was absolutely straight; shot out of the base of his spine to a long neck, and a soft chin and rounded cheeks. A thick mustache was drawn, as if by dab of gauche, below a thin nose, hedging thin, placid lips. The edges of his short brow and full cheeks were further extenuated by black, thick hair that poured from a full scalp, sweeping over barely visible ears, racing down the long neck to coalesce on thin, chiseled shoulders. In the midst of this latent movement, it was his dark brown eyes that caught me in their gaze, centering me from within the roundness of wire framed glasses, from within the roundness of his face, from within the roundness of the fanned chair that formed a halo surrounding him.

"Hello Ariel,” burst Charlie, the tenor voice sounding like an alarm. The man seated against the wall was at first immobile at the shrill chime, but then slowly breathed a “hello.” He answered almost inaudibly, with intentional reserve, so that the response fell in front of us, reverently bringing back the silence in room. Ariel continued to look at me.

"Oh,” continued Charlie, unabated, “I would like you to meet Dave.” At this introduction the stately man rose slowly out of the straw throne, rising to his full, 6 foot 2 inch height without hesitation, undaunted by the Loft’s 7 foot ceiling. He moved forward onto the gleaming whiteness where we stood, stepping down from the alcove. Now Ariel extended a handshake, firm and resolute, while keeping his eyes focused on mine for several seconds, without speaking. He seemed to be expecting someone else to speak.

“Oh,” said Charlie, picking up the non-verbal cue, “Ariel this is Dave, Dave Ariel.” Ariel spoke just a little less softly, in a baritone voice.
“Ah, another talent.”
“He’s a painter, and a damned good one I might add.”
“Oh well,” Ariel intoned, matching pitch, exposing a clearly southern accent, “you’ll have to stay and meet…” My school friend interrupted again, “Yes, that’s one of the reasons I brought him.”
“Ah yes….a good reason…” smiled Ariel.

An ingrained engine of hospitality suddenly engaged, as this time it was Ariel who changed the mood. “So would you like some iced tea?” He sang the word tea, gesturing back down the steps to the half-kitchen, half bath.

I hesitated for a moment; Charles shrugged. Ariel decided for us, “Well of course you would.” Now Ariel’s flamboyancy completely replaced his previous reserve. Stepping as a dancer, he turned with sudden and certain grace for the stairs, with legs in white Levis cascaded down the white steps.

Just then a sound came from one of the tents. A form emerged of almost the same, ochre color as the tent walls, rising into the warm air and catching the hue of fire under the Loft’s skylight. The blond unraveled, elongating into flames of very long hair. From within the locks discretely emerged a young woman’s face, softer than her youth of 17 years, and far softer than her life experience thus far. She rose to her full 5’ 4”, thin height in a series of staggering moves, and rubbed her fawn-like eyes to adjust to both the afternoon’s light and our presence. “Hi Charlie,” she yawned, stretching thin arms outward toward the mysterious boundaries of the room. She continued after a space, “So…. I see you’ve brought a friend.” She was still shaking off sleepiness to respond to the new face.
"Yes, this is my friend Dave.” Like Ariel before, she gazed at me for a long quiet time, catching me in the blue pearls of her sight. “Dave, this is Shishonee..”
“Sounds, like, like Native American.” Her smiled opened up now, “You’re right. Shishonee’s Indian…it means peace.” She said “peace” in a definite way, with a certain reverence, as if the cadence of her speech could communicate the peace of which she spoke.

As she was telling us about herself, abstract slices of Ariel’s profile appeared through the slats in the stairway’s railing, until his full head popped above the banister, followed by skinny shoulders beneath a Nehru shirt. His slender hands were stretched under a white linen cloth, bearing the promised tray of teas -- and freshly made bread. A sourdough scent rose from the loaves and permeated the room, merging senses with the gold and sienna colors of its open brick walls.
Ariel brought the basket and its wafting scent across the white floorboards, and finally sat the tea down in the alcove, in front of the chair where he was earlier enthroned. He then stood back up, and with a very smooth articulation he curved his torso and long arm into an arch pointing to floor, gestured for us to sit down on the beaded mats on the raised floor. Ariel and Shishonee sat on these tatami mats, folding into a half-lotus position, calves completely folded under with one foot tucked beneath a thigh.

As soon as we all sat, the one the others had spoken of, the other man who built the Loft, appeared at the top of the steps. He was a short, slim man who now, and would always, seem taller than he actually was. He moved toward us quietly and resolutely and without requiring anyone to move, he sat down beside us, leaning his back into the smooth, plaster wall, his thin legs stretched straight out. The earlier tension dissolved into relaxation. But he did not lose the gaze that had previously traveled across the floor, now refocused on me, as if to not only see but also to understand. He did not wait for anyone’s introduction.

“Hello, I’m Shipen,” he said. I was stunned by the intensity of the man, and did not answer at first. “…David,” I replied at last, trying to keep eye contact with the blueness that sailed in his sights, with the spirit that had voyaged here. “Welcome,” he continued, conveying that the enchanting Loft was, more than in small part, his place, without actually claiming so.

The first evening at the Loft enraptured me so that I completely lost track of the time. As it turned out, it did not matter. In a few days I became a permanent resident of the Loft. I was already living apart from my parents for the most part anyway, a reality not lost on Shipen, Ariel or Shishonee. My naturally concerned mother, who was working in Iraq as an archeologist at the time, sent a cult deprogrammer/psychologist to straighten me out. But Kevin ended up trying to join the group, rather than getting me to leave."