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Putting The Pieces Back Together

Health Care For The Homeless' Art Expressions Group Offers Art to Those Who Need It Most

Christopher Myers
EN PLEIN AIR: (from left) Leslie Doy, Pam Stein, and Joyce Thomas get creative at the Art Expressions group, a program of Healthcare For The Homeless.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/11/2008

The Art Group Experience

Opens June 12 at the Theatre Project's John Fonda Gallery

Henry Bell is in a joking, upbeat mood. Shortly after 3 p.m. on a late May Tuesday, Bell helps Pam Stein and Sonia Persichetti put away the day's art supplies. He had spent the past hour applying caulk to fill in the cracks surrounding the colorful tile parts adorning the mosaic letters. Stein and Persichetti are social workers who coordinate the Art Expressions Group that meets twice a week at the downtown offices of Baltimore's Health Care for the Homeless, the organization that provides primary and mental health care to Maryland's homeless population; Bell is one of their clients. And Bell, recalling some of the activities he pursued with the visiting artists who collaborated with the art group for its upcoming June 12 exhibition at Theatre Project, is having a good time.

"We did postcards," he says in his hearty voice. Their instructions were to illustrate the three things they'd need if they were stranded on a beach. "One, you would obviously need a house or some type of shelter. The other is food.

"The third choice is to have somebody else there with me," Bell offers. "Not as a companion, just so I could have somebody there to blame everything on."

He laughs, and Stein and Persichetti smile as though they've either heard this one before or as taking note of the moment as one of Bell's frequent displays of wit. It's the sort of casual, utterly ordinary joke you wouldn't think twice about during your day if a co-worker had said it or you heard it on the bus, but that's what makes it so extraordinary in this instance. For the clients of Health Care for the Homeless, such casual, light moments are not part of their day-to-day lives. And the art group attempts to use such levity as a gateway to opening its clients to the sort of creativity and lighthearted sociability that is far too easy to take for granted.

The group started in 1995, when staffers "saw that traditional therapy wasn't rewarding some people," Stein says over the phone at a later interview. "Some people that come in to Health Care for the Homeless have a poor education, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, so talking through things in language can be inaccessible to some people. So she decided that using art would be a way to bridge that gap--that whole cliché of a picture is worth a thousand words. People don't have access to language and expressing themselves through language to heal, so maybe art could do that."

The group, which ranges in size from seven to 14 clients, is open to anybody who wants to come, and Stein and Persichetti often invite clients waiting for services in the lobby into the class. It has a loose structure--the group has a very modest budget, but materials and the like often come through donations via in-house requests for old magazines for making collages and the like--for which the two social workers might come to the group with some materials and an idea, but where the work goes from there is up to the clients.

"You don't have to have any artistic ability," Persichetti says. "It's more about [the clients] getting something out of it. And it's really great for clients who, for example, have a hard time or just don't feel comfortable or don't feel like they can trust people enough to talk to them. Art has become a great way for them to get out what they're feeling. We don't focus on how great the art is, we focus on doing it."

Artists have frequently come in to work with the clients, and last fall Stein and Persichetti decided that the group's annual show would feature work created in conjunction with a series of visiting artists. Since that time, six community artists have either come to the group meeting or contributed ideas or work to the client artists as idea starting points for collaborative works--surprising some of the participants.

"What are they doing with an art group at Health Care for the Homeless?" freelance writer and photographer Sonja Kinzer remembers thinking to herself when she heard about the group. "I was so skeptical. Don't they have more important things to do than cutting out stuff for collages?"

Kinzer first came to the group about three years ago when she was working for The Daily Record. She approached the group first about doing a story, and then, as she admits, "I became hooked." She's continued to work with the group since, most recently on a photography project.

"When I first started meeting the people down there, it just really busted through all the stereotypes that you think about somebody who's homeless," she says. "These people really could be you or me. And I think that is what really struck me--was that we're really all just a few steps away being in the same position."

Living on the streets had hardened them, but Kinzer remembers watching that rough shell crack once they entered the art group. "It works," she says. "I mean, I'm really surprised. The crustiest person that I would see down there would walk into the art group, and before I know it they're cutting out little hearts and making collages about love and just how they want family some day. They responded--I mean, they have real, real problems, but they were able to get out some of their frustration and emotions in this art group. So what I thought was sort of frivolous, you see how important it is for them to be able to be nurtured emotionally. And the art really does that for them."

It's a process that many homeless advocacy and health care organizations have witnessed firsthand. For the past 15 years, the Art From the Streets program in Austin, Texas, has promoted and sold homeless people's works--the money raised goes to the artists--and its program was featured in the 2006 documentary of the same name. Health Care for the Homeless recognizes its group's importance, too. Presently the group shares space in a small multiuse room. Plans for the organization's new city facility, groundbreaking slated for August, includes a full-fledged art center.

The goal is to be able to provide a full roster of art activities to the 6,000 clients who use Health Care for Homeless annually. "I've been diagnosed with mental illness," Bell says. "So I've got to accept that--because, you know, it makes it rough sometimes. But this," he offers, gesturing with his hands at the art supplies and mosaics he's working on, "this is where I don't have to think about it all the time. You can't go wrong with this."

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