The Transformative Power of Art

I have very mixed emotions this week, because my summer service learning course, “Ending Homelessness in our community: how can we work toward social change?” about which I have been blogging, has reached its conclusion. The students gave their presentations based on their research this week; and they had the option to choose whether to present in front of the class only or before members of our community as well. For those who chose the latter, we were joined by the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the head librarian of the Selby library (who is extremely proactive with regard to the many homeless people who utilize her services), the Mayor of Sarasota Kelly Kirschner, as well as other members of our local and campus community. The students’ presentations were uniformly incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. Each student had to select an aspect of homelessness to address and to make positive suggestions, where applicable, for social change. It was so uplifting and inspiring to listen to the ideas of the students who spent the summer focusing on this issue with dogged persistance. They truly believe that we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Despite the joy I felt listening to the presentations, which represented the culmination of the summer’s endeavor, at the very end, it sunk in — I will really miss this class! It has been among the most satisfying things I have done in my professional career, and I look forward to fine-tuning it for next summer. We will continue to look at various aspects of homelessness next year, and one aspect that absolutely will not change is the opportunity the students had to learn about the “I Am HOME” art project. Quite predictably, the students were captivated with the project, which is a ray of hope in what is otherwise a very bleak picture of homelessness.

In September 2008, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in an early creative committee meeting during which Janet Taylor, who was then an Americorps Vista employee of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness pitched her innovative idea to the group, which included Fayanne Hayes, Executive Director of Art Center Sarasota, Richard Martin, Executive Director of the Suncoast Partnership, Nikki Heil, Marketing Director of Whole Foods, and Sharon Jurascek, Manager of Tommy Bahamas. Among her creative ideas, Janet wanted to see our community embrace a project where the Suncoast Partnership would provide art supplies to homeless people with the hope that they would find dignity and healing through the artistic process. This idea really resonated with the group, and we talked about the importance of integrating the arts into the treatment plan for homeless people, who, because of their circumstances, have begun to lose the color in their lives. We also talked about how art can help them access their voice and to help them express who they are. When your identity is shattered with a loss of a job and shelter, how can you begin to put the pieces back together to rediscover who you once were and whom you wish to be?

Ultimately, the Suncoast Partnership kicked off this project. They decided to house the project at the day shelter, Resurrection House, where they could actively recruit people to come back and paint to get their feelings out, with guidance from Tamara Knapp, of Expressive Arts, who is an expert in art and healing. Additionally, Sharon Jurascek, stepped up and offered Tommy Bahamas as an ongoing venue for the “I Am HOME” artists to exhibit their work, with some of the proceeds from the sales in the store going to the project. Additionally, the Art Center was able to offer some scholarships so the interested artists could study their craft. Daniel Petrov, the Art Center Education Director, who has taught several of the “I Am HOME” artists in his art classes there and who is a gifted artist himself, has become a major advocate on behalf of the artists. He feels the artists’ work accesses a very deep place within themselves and comes from their richness of experience, the kind that only those who have lacked the creature comforts of life have ever faced. Janet Taylor now tirelessly runs this project and is seeking separate not-for-profit status for the organization. She continues to dream big for the future of the organization, which has grown so much and so quickly since its inception.

Janet and Daniel spoke to my class at the Art Center, and the students were visibly moved by the experience. They loved the fact that both of these people were so devoted to the artists and to helping them come out of the shadows into the light. In fact, through their work these artists are now in the limelight in this community, because so many people here love their work and come out in droves for the art exhibitions. The artists are successfully selling their work to a willing public, and the sales often help the artists have a roof over their heads for as long as they can make these funds last.

I feel very fortunate to have made connections in the community to be able to offer these unusual experiences to students. During our weekly visits to Resurrection House, all the students were drawn to the art room, as I thought they would be. Seeing all the color and light and the sheer joy of creation taking place in a shelter that is really designed as a stop-gap measure to stabilize the homeless, is truly gratifying. Many of the students remarked at how refreshing it was to leave the classroom and get to observe and participate in something meaningful in the community.

I believe you can only begin to understand homelessness by diving into the issue and confronting it head on. This courageous group of students did just that this summer. However, it can be disheartening to see so much pain and suffering without any sense that someone is able to come out on the other end of it. Although most of the artists in the “I Am HOME” project do not have a permanent residence, they have clearly been helped immeasurably by this program. Unlike so many of the people we met who use the services at the day shelter, the artists’ eyes danced and sparkled; they smiled warmly at us whenever they saw us; and they seemed genuinely as interested in understanding us as we were in getting to know them. It seemed as though they wanted to participate in our learning experience and to help us help them.

To support the “I Am HOME” artists, we plan to hang, on campus, a mandala painting, purchased with student activities funds at the suggestion of a member of the Social Justice Initiative (an on campus club of which I am the advisor). This beautiful work was painted by the “I Am HOME” artists and members of our local community on the occasion of the visit of a group of Tibetan monks who performed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center earlier this year. Mandalas are designed to promote healing in the community for which they are made. This collective work of art symbolizes the hope shared by the “I Am HOME” artists and all members of our local community who can draw strength from witnessing the power of the human spirit to persevere in the face of adversity.

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