Walking by brownstones on the quiet, leafy streets of New York is an invitation to imagine the lives of mythical, entire-town-house-inhabiting creatures inside of them. Behind one of the doors, lies that thing you always knew existed in the most romantic notion of what this city can be: a collective of artists, gathered for nurturing criticism of one another’s work over dinner, and a seemingly endless supply of wine. That dream is real in a brownstone on Jefferson Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and it’s called Nomadique.
On a recent Sunday in October, one such dinner was well underway at Nomadique when I rang the bell. Filmmaker and Vassar professor Shane Slattery-Quintanilla opened the door in socks, offering wine in the same breath that he asked me to please remove my shoes.
As guests filtered in, the cooks for the evening—writer Francisco Tirado and photographer Justin Wee—were busy in the kitchen, toasting pepitas for a kale salad. The chicken and apple pot pie with thyme and New Zealand aged cheddar sat atop the kitchen island waiting to be devoured. Yes, in case this wasn’t all idyllic enough, there’s also a kitchen island.
The house was built in the 1800s, and recently renovated with an eye for maintaining its historical charm. High ceilings, tall windows, and the five fireplace mantles are just begging for tastefully rustic decor. The table set for dinner, with its unfinished wood benches and carefully-arranged thistle centerpiece, makes for something resembling a spread in an Anthropologie mailer. It even smells like it, thanks to the $28 candle burning in the living room.
“I think it’s time to start getting people sitting down,” Seale whispers to Arutyunova.
Nomadique all began in 2011 with four New York University students hoping to hold each other accountable. At school, there was a system of feedback and deadlines. Graduating would make it easy to leave things unfinished, to disappear into the grind of whatever day job paid the rent. And so, in the effort of replicating the built-in community of college, Jonathan Seale, Andrew Ellis, and Jimmy Chalk created a documentary production company called Nomadique LLC, to which they quickly added Sasha Arutyunova.
“I think they knew they needed the softer presence of a woman with documentary production,” Arutyunova smirked. “That’s a very crass way of putting it. We all love each other very much.”
Together, the four were kind of Power Rangers of documentary filmmaking, combining their respective strengths for a superpowered artistic force.
They also needed her in the role of photographer. Seale is a musician, Ellis is a filmmaker, and Chalk is a journalist. Together, the four were kind of Power Rangers of documentary filmmaking, combining their respective strengths for a superpowered artistic force. They worked on a few projects together, though soon realized Nomadique was more than a company. As significant others, friends, and that cool dude someone met at a film festival were yoked into the group, it was clear it was becoming a community.
The details of the origin story get blurry from there. Arutyunova, who is easily one of the most active members, struggled to give me a precise list of the ten or so people “officially” involved. A few have left (Chalk, for example, is currently at Harvard earning a law degree) and so many additions have been made in recent years, it’s hard to say. Nomadique defines themselves as an artist cooperative, though it’s not something you register for, as much as a network of freelancers held together by the central meeting place.
Arutynova and Seale—or maybe a couple of other people, it doesn’t really matter—first organized a dinner around a series of artist presentations at their original group house in Borough Park in December 2012.
The dinners had become a tradition by the time their Borough Park landlord decided to sell, but the residents were worried about how Nomadique would evolve if they couldn’t figure out a similar living situation. The spot on Jefferson that popped up on StreetEasy far exceeded expectations, and Seale’s wife, Katrina Sorrentino, went above and beyond the typical bureaucracy to score the space, preparing a portfolio of Nomadique’s work along with a promise to give back to the community. The finished product was so impressive to the owner, he selected her application over that of a man offering to pay an entire year’s rent upfront.
“It was about having a safe space for people to show the personal work that they maybe weren’t getting paid for,” she explained of the dinners via a Skype call from Arles, France, where she is completing a photography residency. “Before we found the house on Jefferson, the future of that was a little shaky.”
Sorrentino and Seale have only seen each other for a total of a few weeks over the past six months. It’s been tough, but so is passing up work. “It’s hard to turn down a good gig,” Seale said with a sad smile. “Especially since you never know when you’re going to have a dry spell.”
The core members of Nomadique are often all over the place, so
the dinners have become crucial. Even for freelancers who aren’t gallivanting around, the consistency of a regular event offers an otherwise elusive sense of structure.
All of the members of Nomadique struggle to see one another consistently. The amount of crossover of the seven total residents in the house has become a running joke among them. Right now, in addition to Sorrentino being in France, three of them are off filming in India. “We’re really living up to our name,” Arutyunova joked, who keeps her own apartment, but still manages to be around a lot of the time.
The core members of Nomadique are often all over the place, so the dinners have become crucial. Even for freelancers who aren’t gallivanting around, the consistency of a regular event offers an otherwise elusive sense of structure. From a less artistic perspective, it’s also just a really great way to see people on a regular basis, because in New York, who has the time?
“Sash has been really good about making sure they happen each and every month,” Sorrentino said. “It’s good to know the dinners are still there no matter where we all are.
That night we fill our plates in the kitchen, and take first bites back at the table, alternately groaning with pleasure, or saying (with a mouth full of food), “Oh my god. Fran, this is so good.”
The [dinner] atmosphere was already welcoming, but it warms up with each new anecdote. Before we’re halfway through, there are industry nightmares involving toy rockets, an Instagram Nazi, and a war story from Fox News.
Soon, Arutyunova slips into her role as photographer, flitting around the table with a camera. Her black and grey hair falls in front of the lens, and she ties it back into a massive bun, shoving her glasses up her nose, and cocking her head at Seale.
Seale nods back, dinging a fork against his mason jar of wine. He thanks all twenty twenty-somethings for coming, and announces the ice breaker: each person will share their name, discipline, and the story of their worst gig ever.
The [dinner] atmosphere was already welcoming, but it warms up with each new anecdote. Before we’re halfway through, there are industry nightmares involving toy rockets, an Instagram Nazi, and a war story from Fox News. A lot of these people already know each other, but a few are newcomers. By the time the penultimate guest talks about breaking into the funeral for that woman murdered at the Soho House, it’s as if we’ve all been coming to these things for years.
We pause for dessert—apple crumble with vanilla ice cream—and glasses are refilled as extra story details are poured out. Seale dings his fork again, like a chime marking the pace. It’s time for presentations.
Seale hands the floor to Ora Dekornfeld, a 25-year-old filmmaker, who attended her first Nomadique dinner when she was in college, making the trek up from the University of North Carolina upon a friend’s invitation.
“It was about having a safe space for people to show the personal work that they maybe weren’t getting paid for. Before we found the house on Jefferson, the future of that was a little shaky.”
“It was one of my first Brooklyn experiences,” she said. “Even though everyone was so kind, I was really intimidated by how much talent there was in a room, and I was amazed by how many collaborations I saw.”
Dekornfeld’s current project is a documentary about a Hasidic indie band called Zusha. She plays a 25-minute rough cut to a reception of warm laughter and thoughtful “hmms.” We clap when the credits roll, and one of the residents, Bianca Giaever, explains that we’ll be using Liz Lerman’s four-step Critical Response Process for feedback. (First, we’ll offer rapid-fire statements of meaning, then DeKornfeld will ask questions of the group, then we ask neutral questions, before concluding with a round of opinions.)
It goes smoothly with a few exceptions that Giaever swiftly cuts off. “Actually, Ora is talking,” she interjects at one point. Or, during phase three, “That was an opinion!” The feedback is mostly articulate compliments, but it eventually morphs into a discussion of the audience experience, and the impact of background information. A video colorist curled up in a blanket says she would like a bit more explanation of Jewish traditions and phrases. Wee waits patiently for her to finish, before noting that he felt the lack of definitions kept him more engaged in the story.
The session ends with Dekornfeld clearly energized to dive back into the editing process. She doesn’t consider herself “a member of Nomadique,” but many of these people are incredibly special to her, and she knows her work has benefitted from the two dinners where she was given the opportunity to present.
It’s not really about who’s “in” or not. The core group has never been cliquey like that. Really, inclusivity is the reason Nomadique exists. Their guiding philosophy is about building each other up and recycling that support back into the creative community. It’s an incredible product of the collaborative spirit which defines the artist’s idealized concept of Brooklyn. Or, as Arutynova put it, in a quote that could have referenced the city, the borough, or even that evening’s dinner: “There are so many incredibly talented, amazing people here, and I want to meet all of them.” ♦
Photos by Julia Hembree & Sasha Arutyunova