MORE

Bleeding arts

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.

 

But homeless artists swing this notion down a more disturbing road--one that culture hounds often fear to tread. Because with the homeless, it seems the space separating "us" from "them" is too narrow for comfort. We've swept away their under-bridge shantytowns, shooed them from the steps of City Hall. Unlike other kinds of outsiders--the ones who live in circus trailers or in solitary confinement or in grandma's attic--homeless people interrupt our daily lives, reminding us of the fragility of stable living, making us question our own accountability.

But these people do create, just like the rest of us--a jarring reminder that they're thinking, feeling individuals. Some of them are truly gifted, and they make artwork for the same reasons all artists do: It gives them voice, challenge, comfort, and validation. It's beauty and therapy and food for the soul. And because Dallas has not one, but two programs that encourage and enable these artists, plenty of action is happening right under our noses.

Roosevelt Wilkerson is a lanky, relaxed, reflective man who was born in Dallas 54 years ago just off Flora Street. But the houses in his old neighborhood are long gone, razed in the name of Arts District development. He and his siblings attended Booker T. Washington High School, now the Arts Magnet; the Banks kids, including famed Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie, were among his schoolyard chums. He describes his childhood as happy. "We had our ups and downs, but we were a loving family," he says.

Yet in the last few decades, Roosevelt has experienced the worst this city has to offer. Both of his parents died early, and all of his brothers suffered violent deaths--shooting, stabbing, fire. His few sisters live in the area, but don't have much to do with him. With his support system gone, the charismatic Roosevelt learned to live on the streets, spending his days holding down occasional low-paying jobs, and his nights in the Austin Street Shelter. When he wasn't working, he'd wander the route up and down Harwood, Hickory, and Marilla streets--a path well worn by Dallas' homeless population.

In October 1995, Roosevelt was mostly between jobs, but at times would "squat" for ticket scalpers in front of the Blockbuster Music on Mockingbird, just off Southern Methodist University's campus. He'd get paid a few bucks to stand in line on the sidewalk and wait for hours--something the time-is-money scalpers themselves refused to do. Sometimes he idled away the morning by knife-carving patterns into the sticks he found lying around, just passing time with a hobby he'd practiced since childhood. "Nothin' special," he says. "Small sticks, about this thick." He holds out his thumb. "And I didn't think of it as hieroglyphics at the time."

One faceless morning, a graphic designer named Carol Brewer was on her way into the Container Store, located on the Blockbuster strip, and she passed Roosevelt as he squatted and carved. Curious, Brewer paused to watch him work--his intricate patterns reminded her of the primitive art she had always admired.

Roosevelt's squatter-buddy noticed Brewer's interest and joked with her, "You wanna buy it?"

"Yeah, actually I do," she answered.
Roosevelt looked up. "I'm not finished yet. You can buy it when it's done." No one had offered to pay him for his carvings before. Brewer gave Roosevelt her work number and told him to call her when he had finished it. He phoned her the following Monday morning. "So I drove to the McDonald's on Harwood and met him there," Brewer says. "And I told him that if he did any more like it, to let me know. Which he did. And that's how it started."

An unlikely alliance was under way; Roosevelt and Brewer turned that fast food joint into a regular meeting ground--Roosevelt showing up with his shelter friends and artists, Brewer showing up with art supplies. Under her encouraging eye, Roosevelt's carvings evolved, growing larger and more sophisticated in their design.

Brewer had heard about an organized art project for homeless people at the Stewpot and grew interested in transplanting her McDonald's group to a similar meeting place. In the spring of 1997, Brewer read about the launch of the Body & Soul soup kitchen, a collaboration between St. Paul United Methodist and Highland Park Presbyterian Church. She received permission to move her crew and supplies to the basement of the 125-year-old church, smack in the middle of Roosevelt's childhood neighborhood.

 

While Body & Soul now hosts many of the Stewpot's regulars, the atmosphere differs in two crucial ways. One, the patrons are herded in and out within a few hours, focused around the once-a-week breakfast and sermon. This injects the place with a social rigor--not much time for napping or TV. Two, the sermon itself is a non-partisan half-hour of witnessing by a church volunteer. Patrons listen, they pray, they sing "I'll Fly Away" and "This is the Lord's House--Everybody is Welcome." However dire their situations, most of these individuals have a staggering faith quotient and believe their plight is temporary--that they will find deliverance.

Even the artists around Brewer's table sing and pray with the rest, and nod respectfully during the sermon while they paint, draw, and sculpt. Brewer and her assistant, Nick Fetterick, have archived nearly every piece of artwork that has crossed their tables. When they pull out a huge portfolio from the basement's storage room, they reverently study each piece within, naming the artists and telling their stories.

"This is Terry's," Brewer says as she points to a detailed drawing of a buck. "He was the one sitting at the table but not working today. The one whose hand I bandaged." Terry, a dead ringer for the grizzled Marlboro Man, had cut his hand while emerging from his makeshift bed of crates that morning. She pulls out more pictures of lions, boars, horses--also Terry's. "He used to draw every week. He disappeared for a while. We'd like to have him back." Also in the stack: Roosevelt's finger paintings, Thomas' colorful abstracts, Virgil's detailed pencil renderings of biblical scenes. While some of the work is finished, much of it can hardly be described as more than fleeting sketches and skeletons of ideas. Scribbles, blotches, scant text--not exactly high art, but then, how can you judge the quality, given the context? These wanderers-cum-artists put so much energy into basic survival, they're lucky if they have enough left over to want to take an idea to its finished state. Cold and hungry, hot and exhausted--that they even sit down with paintbrushes and knitting needles and blocks of clay is remarkable. And with Brewer, the tables, and the supplies available only a few hours a week, the fact that some of the pieces are beautifully finished is just this side of miraculous.

Yet over the last several years, Carol Brewer wasn't the only one in town discovering homeless artists.

In 1994, Dallas artist Pamela Nelson received a phone call from the Dallas Museum of Art. Louise Kahn, a local philanthropist, had approached the staff of the museum looking for a means of helping the city's homeless in some way that connected to the city's art scene. An agreement with the 20-year-old Stewpot organization followed, and Nelson's name was tossed out to direct the volunteer program. Nelson accepted the role and went to work, adding the Wednesday-morning ritual to her long list of responsibilities: visual artist, yoga teacher, industrial designer. A formidable player in the Dallas arts network, she's a painter represented by the venerable Edith Baker Gallery, close friends with artistic types like Frances Bagley, Linda Ridgway, and David Bates. Yet she has maintained the Stewpot art program over the last four years and can't imagine quitting. "I've been wanting to simplify my life for a long time, trying to cut down on the number of jobs I have. But the Stewpot isn't negotiable--I won't be giving that one up. It's so gratifying; I believe in the power of art to transform, in the healing properties of art. It's certainly changed my life."

Kahn has since died, but the momentum she generated refuses to fade away. "Mrs. Kahn wanted to know if making art enhanced [the homeless people's] lives," Nelson says. "She wanted to keep a record of how it affected them, if at all. And it has changed many of them. Giving them some sense of purpose has changed their attitudes, the way they care for themselves."

Once a week, Nelson sits through the morning with her group of outsider artists and makes art alongside them. Yet her relationship to these people doesn't stop at noon on Wednesday. Nelson, in fact, lives downtown, in a well-appointed loft a block from the Stewpot. She rubs shoulders with the Stewpot clan every day, and counts many of them as friends. "You know, we're not so different. All of us know what it is to fail. We can co-exist."

Nelson's claims seem especially true with James. He could pass for Dustin Hoffman in a gut-clinching performance. Sporting five-o'clock-shadow, a dingy blue oxford shirt, and thick-framed glasses that sit slightly askew on his nose, the 49-year-old Arkansas native regularly attends both the Stewpot and Body & Soul art programs to knit his blankets, which he promptly gives away. This particular Wednesday, he's working on a carefully striped baby blanket--the yarn is pink, yellow, and sky blue. "There's some baby bein' born out there right now that's gonna need this," he says. "I don't know where, but that's how the Lord works. He'll show me who to give it to when the time comes." When James talks about his past, his spirituality, his knitting, his voice packs the conviction of a riled-up preacher. Alcoholism seems to be the primary culprit of his circumstance, though he claims those days are behind him. He mostly sleeps at the Austin Street Shelter, and showers there regularly. "With the showers open three hours a day, every day," he says, "there's absolutely no excuse to not get cleaned up." He misses working in the kitchen of a Wyatt's cafeteria--something he did for 21 years up in Sherman--and he hopes to land another food-service job soon.

 

Unlike many Stewpot patrons, James holds down a job. Along with employment counseling, the Stewpot encourages its regulars to use the facility's address and phone number on job applications. For now, James works part-time at a Grand Avenue thrift store. "I work in the back, though, so I don't have to deal with customers. I like it better that way."

Nelson remembers a different James. "When he first started coming in, he was in bad shape," she says. "Long hair, dirty, living on the street. He had some secret hideaway somewhere; he cooked food over candles. The police found it and made him leave. But he's changed; he's made over. He showers, wears much cleaner clothes. He gets haircuts, he shaves. And he seems much happier." While the art programs' role in James' transformation is impossible to measure, it's safe to say that those Wednesday and Saturday mornings have been the constant in James' life since he lighted on Dallas a year ago. Nelson credits his artwork and his burgeoning friendships with the other artists as giving him the sense of stability and community he needed to get back in the game.

Dallas' two primary night shelters, Austin Street and Union Gospel Mission, are closed throughout the day. Which means that from 6 a.m. on, the locals who sleep there have to find a way to spend their time while the sun's up. The Stewpot is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.--many hang around both inside and out, drinking coffee in the morning while they wait for lunch, watching a movie on the TV and dozing in the air-conditioned cool afterward. Body & Soul's help is more limited, opening its doors only on Saturday mornings. Besides frequenting these two soup kitchens, some of the city's homeless wander the downtown route, stopping in front of City Hall; others spend their days in the downtown public library across the street, though they're not allowed to sleep there.

These library regulars experienced one giant sweep of validation last winter as the building's upstairs gallery was filled with familiar faces and sights. Carol Brewer had contacted Pamela Nelson (the two hadn't spoken before), and they agreed upon a plan: They would pool their resources to launch a show of works from their parallel programs--nearly 300 pieces went on display during the 1997 holiday season. Called Food for the Soul, the library exhibition included work by mainstays like Dino and Wolf, as well as pieces created by those who had passed through the art programs like ghosts--visiting briefly and creating fascinating work before moving on without warning. The grouping of so many images shaped the big picture; motifs floated to the top. Over half the pieces were concerned with religious iconography: Jesus and the Holy Spirit, crosses and the crucifixion, accompanying text that promised salvation and absolution. Wrenchingly, a handful of paintings and drawings depicted homes: quaint houses, with windows and pets and grassy yards, smoke swirling from chimneys and the sun shining overhead. Other popular themes: beds, plates of food, superheroes, and wild animals. Many homeless artists had obviously thought about their projects in an effort to reach themselves as much as an audience. Beside artist Dave Hickerson's truly haunting drawing of a withering black tree against a fire-red atmosphere were his words: "Like a tree I must be pruned of a lot of dead branches before I will be ready to bear good fruit."

The show epitomized outsider art--distilled and powerful--and Brewer and Nelson had more of it than they could possibly display. Yet they had no problem finding room for an impressive line of long, polished walking staffs that they leaned against one wall of the show. Burnished and gleaming in rich wood--maple and cedar and hickory--the graceful limbs were carved with leafy patterns, Christian verses, and tribal figures. Circular grooves divided the length of some, others were marked by natural indentions and knots. They were carefully smoothed and varnished, subtly detailed with red, green, and black paint. On most, the initials "R.W." stood out among the vines and words. Roosevelt Wilkerson. Our man had found his calling, and plenty were taking notice. His work would soon be featured in two respected galleries--Webb Gallery in Waxahachie (a bastion of outsider art) and Dallas' Gallery 209.

 

Not every artist at the show was living in a crate hut like Terry or shattering the glass ceiling of expectation like Roosevelt. For every person dependent upon the night shelters and food stamps, there are others who turn to the Stewpot and Body & Soul almost as if by choice. "Now, I live with my son, in Oak Cliff," says Marina, a truly engaging, bright-eyed woman who crochets animals and sculptures without ever using a pattern. At Body & Soul, she makes perfect little owls: rounded gray face and body, yellow feet and beak, striped wings. "I don't want to live with him," she explains in halting English. "He needs to have his own life. It's loud there, and noisy. And no air conditioner. I cannot work there." Her fingers whiz along in a blur. "I would like to find a job, maybe work cleaning someone's house." Marina tells her life story, set both here and in Mexico; she talks about her eight years in a Dallas shelter. She seems of sound mind, optimistic, and sharp-witted, not the type you'd imagine on the streets. These people who exist in the gray--the limbo between having a home and not--often continue to visit the churches and shelters even after their lives have stabilized. It's a lifestyle, a ritual, that they find familiar and comforting.

Roosevelt is no exception. For the last year, he's lived in an apartment on Live Oak with his new wife, Dorothy, whom he met at the Austin Street Shelter. He pays his rent and utilities with the money he makes selling his carved sticks. Until he got his own place, artist and gallery owner Vance Wingate of Gray Matters was letting Roosevelt use the shop behind the gallery to work on his sticks. Now, in his apartment, Roosevelt carves from early evening through the night, breaking when he and Dorothy walk to buy dinner with food stamps or visit Brewer at Body & Soul. His kitchen is filled with sticks in varying stages of the paint-and-varnish process; his walls are hung with the artwork of friends. Two Saturdays ago, he and Dorothy braved the rain to walk the mile to St. Paul Street, to sit alongside old friends at the Body & Soul art table, painting bright patterns on thick paper with their fingers, joking around and enjoying the sermon.

After clean-up, Brewer offered to drive the couple home as they discussed the sale of a particularly spectacular prayer stick Roosevelt had fashioned from a thick, roiling tree root. It's his favorite piece he's made thus far, a swirling tornado of curves and script and liquid shine, and no less than three art scenesters were already bidding on it--Brewer included.

Nick Fetterick, Brewer's assistant, upped the ante. "I'll give you $350 for it, Roosevelt."

"Well, that should stop the bidding right there," Brewer laughed.
Roosevelt shrugged, then rolled his eyes. "I'm not listenin'. This is between you all. Just let me know when you're through fightin'."

If Roosevelt holds out much longer, the prayer stick might find its way into this winter's library show, alongside dozens of other finished staffs. Nelson and Brewer are already planning a post-Thanksgiving outsider artist exhibition; they hope to make it an annual event.

In the meantime, Nelson is helping with the renovation of the second floor of the Stewpot building, an area slated to house an expanded arts program as well as a children's aftercare program. Right now, a few of the gutted, stuffy upstairs rooms are brimming with the Stewpot art archives from the past year--Dino's seascapes, Wolf's bleeding crosses, Dave's writings. Pieces waiting to see the light of day, just as their creators wait for relief from a below-poverty existence.

Nelson proudly pulls out a crocheted tea set--cup, saucer, sandwich, and cookies--recently completed by Marina, the soft-sided objects evoking Claes Oldenburg's humor-laden sculptures. "This stuff is so creative, so imaginative," Nelson says. "People need to see the kinds of art these folks are capable of making.


Sponsor Content