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Mobtown Beat

Home Is Where the Art Is

Exhibit Opens a Creative Window on Homelessness

By Molly Rath | Posted 2/7/2001

Paul wants to be a schoolteacher but his counselors don't think that's such a good idea, given his affinity for outer space and tendency toward paranoia. Kind of like when he was a kid and wanted to play sports--his family was really negative and he never became the athlete he dreamed of being.

But in a small classroom in the rear of the downtown headquarters of Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), amid scraps of felt and fabric, piles of pipe cleaners, jars of colored pencils, and tubs of glue, Paul finds a kind of refuge from all those bad vibes. So do Duane and John. For Paul, who is schizophrenic and normally very reclusive, it's a place to interact with others and express his spirituality, knowing no one will pass judgment. For Duane, who's mildly retarded, it's a place where he can communicate with others, see that change is possible, and "pick myself up." John says coming here gets him "out of" himself--"instead of being isolated and drinking myself to death."

Brought together by their experience of homelessness, Paul, Duane, and John (whose last names have been withheld to protect their privacy), like hundreds of women and men each week, come through HCH's Park Avenue doors seeking doctors, medicine, housing assistance, and addictions counseling. But at some point in the last few years, they and dozens of others have found something more, becoming bound not merely by life's grim circumstances but by the opportunity to collectively make art.

With a borrowed box of pastel crayons and a pad of paper found in a staffer's basement, HCH started weekly art and writing groups in 1995 on the vague hunch that it would give clients an activity and an alternative way to interact. In the years since, Paul has taken up drawing and writing, Duane has become a patient hand at crafts, and John has learned to love to write. Other participants sculpt and paint, or recite poetry about life's uncertainties and the meaning of love. Together they've amassed a vast collection of works that line the corridors of HCH's four-story building, and throughout February the most recent works are being displayed at Theatre Project's Fonda Gallery in a second-annual public exhibit called State of Art.

"You hear of 'visionary art.' This is like the quintessential visionary art, the self-taught people who have been on the fringes of society," HCH social worker and art-group facilitator Pam Stein says.

As reflected in the penciled portraits, cardboard angel cutouts, plaster-of-Paris Day of the Dead masks, and the giant blue crab made of cement and trash, the HCH art spans all styles and abilities--big, bright, and bold; simple and stark; sophisticated as well as primitive. Because the program operates on a shoestring of other people's leftovers and small art-supply donations, many of the pieces are made from crude materials group members find in Dumpsters and on the street. Yet some would look right at home in any Charles Street gallery.

But more significant than the physical quality of the work, HCH case managers say, is the way their clients reveal aspects of their lives and selves through their art. Herein the visionary-art label seems particularly apt. According to literature from the American Visionary Art Museum, "visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul."

Stein often asks members of the group to create art around a theme, and then explain their work to the group. One day the theme was how they were feeling, and one man drew a house bursting with flames. In describing the drawing to his peers, he said he felt like a house on fire. Others nodded and discussed the times they felt like they were burning up inside. Another time the art-group members crafted guardian-angel dolls and covered the bodies and wings with words that conveyed what they wanted in life: "safety," "unity," "freedom."

"You can see the hurt. You can see it in the artwork. You can see the confusion. Everything they feel comes out in it," says group member Rhoda White, a lifelong artist who suffers from bipolar disorder. "I look at other people's art and I can appreciate their way of thinking, not just my own. It helps me as a person. It really is like therapy."

HCH staff members echo White's observations. Making art and discussing it in a group, Stein says, has spurred therapeutic breakthroughs in cases for which traditional counseling has failed. Addictions counselor and art-group co-facilitator Rolesia Rogers says attending the group gave her insight into one client's life that months of one-on-one therapy never revealed. But mostly, Stein says, people are learning basic socialization skills such as listening and sharing. And they're finding peace.

"The people that come in here are used to very long soup-kitchen lines, sleeping in shelters, medical clinics where 150 people are sitting there waiting. They don't have the opportunity to sit in a quiet setting, and the group offers that," Stein says. "It's less structured [than typical group therapy], there's not an agenda. And people support each other and affirm each other on a peer level. That sort of interaction--these aren't opportunities in the homeless day-to-day situation."

Now in its sixth year, the art program has grown to three weekly sessions, and Jeff Singer, HCH president, hopes to eventually launch a coffee-shop-like commercial enterprise that would provide HCH clients both with employment and year-round exhibition opportunities. But that's a ways off. For now, Duane, John, and Paul are content to gather each week around a table and twist and paste pipe cleaners and fabric into a Black History Month tapestry, and Rhoda's happy collecting used cooking foil, bottle tops, and bits of costume jewelry for her next sculpture.

"Before . . . it was like I was playing against the world," Paul says. "But now I'm doing my art with the world. I don't feel like the black sheep."

Works from the Health Care for the Homeless art program will be displayed at Theatre Project's Fonda Gallery (45 W. Preston St.) from Feb. 15-25. The Fonda Gallery is open 7-10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, and by appointment. Call (410) 752-8558 for more information.

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