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We talk a lot around these parts about the role art plays in our lives. We highlight how artists use their creative process as a tool or vehicle to communicate something that needs to come out of their souls and into the world. We also talk about art as an economic driver, how it can help build a city, drive an economy or turn a neighborhood around.

But maybe the more important and decidedly more pure purpose of the arts is to nurture a dialogue from person to person. As we share our experiences and connections with music, paintings, books and movies with each other, we open ourselves up to be known. And with that, our curiosity about others' connections with art allows us to know each other in a more intimate way. Art isn't just something to do. Art isn't foremost a city-building tool. It's a personal connector.

"It's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party."

— Nick Hornby

I've been thinking about this because I lost one of my best friends recently, suddenly. Our friendship was built over years of borrowed albums, personalized mixed cds (and tapes), and lots of listening and talking together about songs, albums, samples and lyrics. When the shock of the news started to fade and the reality started to kick in, music was my first and best tool for working through the pain. It was also the best way I had to feel like I still had an earthly connection to my friend.

He treated music a lot like I do. We shared the habit of gobbling up as much music as we could, almost frantically searching for the one song, album or lyric to break through the mundane and truly elevate the listener -- or maybe devastate him. This behavior, of searching intensely for that moment, can transcend mere interest and sort of border on obsession.

Our most joyful times together were centered on such discoveries. And those times were usually followed by a high five and a request to borrow whatever music led to that particular moment.

Years of personalized mixes and burnt CDs trace the history of a friendship and help Ben keep an earthly connection to a lost friend. - PHOTO BY BEN SHINE
  • Photo by Ben Shine
  • Years of personalized mixes and burnt CDs trace the history of a friendship and help Ben keep an earthly connection to a lost friend.

Having longtime relationships with people who share my interest and passion for music, books and art helps me understand those works more fully. It's handy to have thoughtful, fun people to chat with about tempo changes, lyrical missteps and sick beats. And the more you talk to someone, the easier it is to explore together and go deeper into art.

Those dialogues sharpen my consumption and prepare my brain to hear the next song, read the next book, see the next painting with a more refined toolset. On the flipside, learning about what art and music mean to other people has also helped me, sometimes without even noticing it, better understand the people who matter most to me.

One of my favorite ongoing conversations has reached its conclusion, and I'm not particularly ready for that reality. There aren't going to be any more mixes with his handwriting and personalized tags on them. There won't be another saccharine pop song that he makes the case for, as excited about a Top 40 track as a middle school tween. And I won't get to respond by telling him that his choice to embrace said song as quality means I can never trust his taste ever again, but if I can borrow a couple more CDs, that would be swell.

I don't get to learn anything new about him through music, or anything else. But what I do have is years of sound-based memories imprinted on my heart and my hard drive. Ultimately, I'm grateful for the way that he helped me know art and the way that art helped me know him.

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