Written by: Claragrace Pavelka
As I rode the elevator down to the basement of the St. David’s Episcopal Church, my mind buzzed with excitement. It was my first day at the Open Studio as an Arts from the Streets intern. When I walked out of the elevator, the other volunteers greeted me with warm smiles and Robin, the lead volunteer, put me in charge of the paints table. As the artist walked in, my hands tingled with nervousness. I didn’t know what to expect. After setting their things down on a table, each artist greeted me at the paint table, asking my name and how my day was. My hands softened as I talked to them. I met Bright, an artist for four years, who painted ocean scenes with calming blue and purple paints. Similar to his paintings, Bright has a soothing presence that washes over anyone he talks to. Contrary to Bright’s tranquility, Mark Abelli painted bold, abstract and sometimes retro illustrations matching his lively and wise personality. For example, every conversation included anecdotes from 1970s pop culture and quotes from ancient philosophers.
Originally, I applied to be an AFTS intern because I wanted to learn more about the structure and inner-workings of a non-profit organization, and I needed to fulfill the internship requirement for my Jewish Studies Internship Class. After my first day of volunteering, I soon realized this new opportunity would surpass my previous expectations and volunteer/internship experiences. I drove back to campus with a wide smile and heaviness on my chest. I was refreshed by the upbeat atmosphere of AFTS and stunned at my new understanding and intimate look of the current hardships faced by people experiencing homelessness. For instance, Angelique Catero, a short woman with dark-brown, spiky hair and tired eyes, described the hardships of being a women on the streets. While she painted a simple, green plant, she also mentioned the way jail serves as “a poor person’s retreat,” removing people from negative influences and providing them with opportunities to connect to a higher power. Lastly, she explained the abundance of drugs and their role as numbing agents and sources of income for people experiencing poverty.
Furthermore, Kathy, a middle aged women with white glittered eye shadow and curly red hair, mentioned how owning a house doesn’t fix everything, “Life is too hard even when you have a house. It’s emotionally damaging in every way. People try to make it emotionally damaging and hurt you.” While I talked to Kathy, she was finishing her neon flower, fabricated from recycled CDs and a necklace stand. Similar to Kathy’s talent of transforming an ordinary item into art, she continues to revamp her outlook on life, “You don’t have a choice. You just have to bounce back.” At the end of our interview, an artist donated his left over paints to Kathy. She received them with a gentle and grateful smile; however, she quickly offered to give them to the gentlemen besides her, showing her innate selflessness and kindness.
From my conversations, I have seen the role Arts from the Streets plays in these people’s lives as a refuge and workshop for artists to relax and create. When each artist walks into the Trinity Center they are able to release their problems for a few hours, focus their energy on meaningful work and assume the identity of an artist. The peaceful and enjoyable community makes each artist feels a sense of belonging, allowing them to create quality art to sell at the annual show.
Although some artist paint with the art show in mind, most artists, including Bright, who has painted at AFTS for four years, said that AFTS is “a place to come and destress, free your mind and let go of your troubles. I don’t depend on this for my livelihood. I do this because I love it.”
Overall, AFTS has opened my eyes to the hardships faced by people experiencing homelessness, and it has given me a new appreciation for non-profits like AFTS. In the midst of this uncertain time, I think about Bright’s calming voice, his tranquil beach paintings and Kathy’s resiliency, trusting that each artist stays safe and well, and looking forward to the day we all return.