Bleeding arts

When an alcoholic, a schizophrenic, and a homeless man get together and draw, the Stewpot calls it group therapy. Christina Rees calls it art.

Among those who gather outside the red-brick mission on Harwood Street are day workers, drug addicts, shelter people, the mentally ill. Sitting on the curb, queuing up restlessly, they wait for some indication that their hot lunch is ready. Once inside, they become part of the 200 people who daily pack the neon-lit, linoleum-floored room, which looks like a dingy school cafeteria that has served one too many spaghetti dinners. Most eat at large, round tables, while others bicker at each other or gaze silently at the television. About a dozen rangy forms lie on the floor, heads down and limbs scrunched into the corners to block out the noise and the light.

Cops and social workers and volunteers buzz around the front reception area, so familiar with the scene before them, they no longer notice the smell. The Stewpot, an apt name if you like irony, smells like a pressure cooker of bodies. Bodies and body functions. Sweat, urine, oil, vomit. The bulk of these sitting, dozing, staring people haven't bathed in days, perhaps weeks. But if they come to this soup kitchen on any given weekday, they will be treated with more dignity than they often treat themselves.

At one round table, though, seven or eight people are oblivious to the stench and rattle. Their heads bent in rapt concentration, they ignore the hollow sounds of the television, ignore the others who pass by to see what they're doing. But they speak to each other, often in curious quips and warm jabs.

"You can't use markers on clay, Wolf. The color'll burn off when it's fired."

"Look, man. This rat is me, and this snake eating the rat is you."
"Hey, James. Who you gonna give that blanket to once you finish it?"
Deft fingers work with raw materials--paints, pencils, fabric, clay: These people and their artwork make up a small oasis, creating a respite not only from the wild chaos of the room, but more importantly, from the desperation of their daily lives. Five days a week, the First Presbyterian Stewpot, a downtown outreach center for Dallas' homeless population, strives to ease the harsh existence of more than 300 individuals, offering them food, counseling, and comfort. But on Wednesday mornings, Pamela Nelson, the director of the Stewpot's art program, strives to offer them something more. She offers to ease the pain of a handful of people by unleashing their creative spirit.

Marina crochets whimsical, perfectly crafted animals from yarn; Wolf cuts and paints spiritual iconography into pieces of foam-core; Dino draws urban and southern landscapes in a dozen different styles; James knits blankets for his friends who need them. These are some of the regulars who gravitate toward each other and the art supplies, the ones who've discovered that making art is as crucial to their well-being, if not their survival, as the free lunch the volunteers serve at noon.

A mile away every Saturday morning, St. Paul United Methodist Church serves up breakfast and a sermon under the year-and-a-half-old banner of Body & Soul Homeless Project. A woman named Carol Brewer has, since its inception, hauled out boxes of art supplies and set up camp for her creative regulars as well. Again, up to a dozen familiar faces gather around one or two tables each week. Again, they concentrate on their art projects while the cavernous church basement bustles with activity. Adam, Roosevelt, and Paul are among the artists who, in varying degrees, have discovered the healing power of making art.

Art programs for the homeless are not so common; that Dallas boasts two is remarkable. In fact, Brewer and Nelson can cite only two others they know exist for certain--one in London, the other in New York. Given that homeless art falls under the rather broad category of "outsider art," which, among culture hounds is one of the hot movements of today's art world, you'd think art programs for fringe-dwellers would be springing up all over the map. But actually running such a program is a reality check, no matter how popular outsider art is. For those helping the artists--managing them, supporting their creative outpourings--it's an ongoing trial both physically and viscerally. Still, they continue to find the time and the supplies, knowing that quitting now would be like shooting out the lights over these artists' heads.

The term "outsider art" covers its bases well: folk art (craft traditions handed down through generations), self-taught art (work by artists with no formal training), institutional art (created by people in mental facilities and prisons)--the list goes on, but the connective theme is clear. It's outsider art if it's made by someone who exists outside the mainstream, separated from our definition of normal--as in "us" and "them"--by various circumstances: geography, mental state, deviant or perverse behavior, addiction. The appeal of outsider art is its exoticism. Not many artists--for that matter, not many people--have grown up in a backwoods hollow of Appalachia, or spent years on death row, or been hospitalized repeatedly for acute schizophrenia. Despite the conditions, some of them create artwork--often fascinating, compulsive stuff--and more of it is finding its way into galleries, museums, and private collections. Names like Rev. Johnnie Swearingen, Charles Dellschau, and Isaac Smith are nowadays bantered about in cash-oriented dealerspeak.

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