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Local Couple Fosters Intellectual Community

Article Jamie Leland | Photography Patty Barnes, May Cheney and Mary T. Claffey

For many of us, it can be difficult to find our niche in the sprawl of the Phoenix Metro Area.

“You see the cars; you don’t see the people,” says Spirit of the Senses founder Thomas Houlon.

Thomas Houlon and Patty Barnes

Thomas Houlon and Patty Barnes

Though the size and breadth of the Valley does not always foster the most intimate sense of community, Houlon and his wife, Patty Barnes, have carved out their own cultural oasis. Since 1983, the couple has had phenomenal success bringing exceptional minds and talent to the intellectually curious through their group, Spirit of the Senses.

Houlon and Barnes typically schedule about twelve events a month, which cover a variety of topics relating to art, science and culture. Each time, a different featured speaker or performer will come to a special location in the Valley ranging from, for example, a local landscape architect’s remarkable backyard to Phoenix Country Day School, down the street from a natural bat habitat on the canal. Events manifest in a variety of ways: an intimate discussion on poetry; a quiet performance; a well-orchestrated lecture.

“We weren’t sure what to call them at first,” Houlon remembers. Coming up with an accurate descriptor proved to be a challenge, until a friend of his offhandedly described them as “salons,” invoking the European tradition. Despite this apt description, conveying exactly what the group is about remains a difficult task, as there is little to compare it to.

“It’s a hidden gem,” Jan Ghelfi says of the group. She and her husband Al are veteran hosts of these salons. Houlon describes it as “a treat” to hold salons at their Arcadia home. The view is particularly remarkable – the southern-facing patio features a sheer, red rock wall to the east and a glittering view of the city to the south and west.

Earlier this September, Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at ASU, presented his research on cancer in their living room. The topic seemed unusual for a physicist who knew nothing about the disease six years ago, but in 2007, Davies was invited by the National Cancer Institute to provide a fresh perspective in cancer research. He tells the group that his job is to be, “right at the cutting edge – really beyond the edge”. And, while a mind like Davies’ is uncommon, this type of intelligence and passion is typical of many Spirit of the Senses guests and members.

“Patty is a voracious reader,” shares Houlon. According to him, Barnes’s habit has had a strong influence on their salon calendar as she is constantly being exposed to new, exciting ideas through her reading and has become well acquainted with some of the brightest Valley residents over the past 30 years. She has been fortunate enough to share these new ideas with other members of her community by bringing speakers like Davies – who are exploring “beyond-cutting-edge” ideas – directly to them.

“We want to torture our members,” Houlon says with a smile. “Our goal is to make it very difficult for them to decide which salons to attend.”

Spirit of the Senses currently consists of approximately 300 members, and all are welcome to join. Membership, which is $300 a year, includes admission to up to five salons per month. The salons require an RSVP to attend and typically occur in the evenings, lasting around two hours. To learn more about Spirit of the Senses, their upcoming salons and how to join, visit SpiritOfTheSenses.org.

“People want to find the passion,” states Houlon. He and Barnes are doing what they can to share theirs with the community.

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Paradise Valley lifestyle magazine.

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